A Call for a Leftist Front a la Mont Pèlerin

Mont Pèlerin

Mont Pèlerin , an idyllic Alipne town in Switzerland overlooking lake Geneva, where in 1947 the creation of a “utopian liberal” project was concocted by a number of Austrian, English and American intellectuals, the leader of whom was von Hayeck.


Friedrich von Hayeck ends his famous essay The Intellectuals and Socialism with the question of whether the intellectual revival of liberalism occurring in some places in the post-WWII world (notably in Germany and the Anglophone countries) was “in time”. It is my argument that it was undoubtedly “in time” (to say such a limit ever existed), and that the intellectual milieu of the subsequent decades is nearly entirely the product of the “radical liberalism” Hayeck, and others, advocated. Furthermore, it is going to be my argument here that nowhere is this development more apparent than within the economics profession and its immediate branches. Though the ensuing paragraphs will consider primarily arguments for persuading Left-leaning individuals to choose careers within professional academic circles within the discipline of economics, certainly all of the observations can be read congruently with respect to similar disciplines. The focus, however, will be on economics.


It would seem, at first appraisal, that the intellectual battles and challenges which occurred throughout the 1960s and 70s in the United States and Europe, and which accompanied larger struggles for civil rights and equality worldwide were clear examples of what can be described, first, as challenges to, and, secondly, the eventual re-assertion of, disciplinary boundaries relating to the social scope of various scholarly professions. This was as true for the economics discipline as for sociology, anthropology, history, etc. Within the discipline of economics, these struggles took shape within the context of radically oriented boundary work, frustrated with what Zweig described in a 1969 essay as “small adjustments on the periphery of some large aggregate whose fundamental and overall character is not an issue”, and determined to apply the tools of theoretical research to less abstract, and, arguably, more pressing demands. As one sees from the state of the discipline and the subsequent dominance of theories like the “efficient market” hypothesis, among others, that the status quo ante clearly triumphed. This has occured in a large number of disciplines as well, save, perhaps sociology and a handful of other empirical social sciences.

How much of a role the economics profession’s stalwart conservatism played here is certainly up for debate., but it would certainly appear, for our purposes, that it has been a (at least indirect) contributing factor to the dissuasion of young, radically minded scholars from the profession. The conservatism of the profession is clearly demonstrated in the comment of one attendee of the AEA’s 1971 conference, presided by John Kenneth Galbraith. Galbraith had organized the conference around a platform broadly sympathetic to the demands of the, then burgeoning, class of radical newcomers, like Zweig, and others. The individual commented “It was the worst thing I ever saw”. Conflicts like this reveal that the internal machinations of the discipline act, arguably, as greater impediments to radicals in the profession, in fact, than, even, the influence of ideology in funding discretion. That is, the strict orthodoxy which dominates within the profession can be seen as primary, and not secondary over and against conditionality which may be tied to financial support for scholarly work. In terms of determining the makeup and outlines of the discipline, this makes a big difference, as historical struggles, such as those occurring, most recently, within the Reagan years, where science funding was drastically cut in the wake of bloating budget deficits and stalling government revenues, have shown.Evidence for this conclusion will be outlined as follows.

Some Basic Structural Arguments

The argument that radicals have no place within the economics profession, or within academia at large, is certainly a spurious one, although they represent, historically, the minority of this discipline (formerly dominated by such revilers of the poor as Carlyle, Malthus and Ricardo). This simple fact can be attributed to two main causes: the authority of disciplinary boundaries, explored below, and the former exclusivity of formal education, mainly as a result of historical and social conditions. Nevertheless, there has been a vibrant, if circumscribed, segment of radical economists, concerned not only with abstract modelling, but steeped in the real and present social cosmos, and sympathetic with the plight of the poor (or being themselves of impoverished backgrounds like, for instance, Mollie Orshansky). Of course, it must be stated that, at least in the historical picture, their ability to exert influence has met, on occasion, with certain disciplinary reaction. In the past, when radical economists, even those at prestigious institutions, have strayed too far from the institutional boundaries, they have been marginalized and excluded from conferences, teaching positions, patronage, or worse (losing positions, contract non-renewal, government surveillance, blacklisting, etc.).

This is not to say that these individuals, and groups of individuals, have not had a lasting impact on the profession. This, furthermore, does not prohibit, or, even, discount the ability of the methodologies and given disciplinary boundaries of the field serving as potentially powerful tools to the strictures and demands of radicals in analyzing and interpreting prevailing social problems. Nonetheless, in general, it must be stated that it’s been harder to fund research the further outside of the predominant domain one strays (at one point in the 1979, during a hearing  in the US Congress, one Representative criticized the funding of “small esoteric projects” with federal tax dollars as “laughable extravaganzas of Government expenditure”). Institutional mechanics and funding architecture have a, not minor, role to play here. however, they should not be taken as sufficient impediments to respectable, radically-oriented work in the field of economics. In fact, one can lay claim in the law of large numbers, here. One can do this, by interpreting, vice versa, the appel of Hayeck (for more “radical liberals” in academia). More Left-sympathetic radicals in academia, working on the frontiers of the economic discipline can, over the course of several decades, certainly act to steer more attention, credentials, information, funding, respect and, ultimately, influence to those who would otherwise be marginalized in relative isolation by their more conservative or reactionary peers.

As a less verbose digression, one might state that there is enough evidence that networks of strong reciprocity are quite persistent, based on their ability to employ both means of collective punishment and reward. It doesn’t take an expert to derive support for the above assertion (that a, growing, network of radical economists would benefit the collective sum position of all parties involved viz. the economics discipline). For those interested in more rigorous analysis of the nature of group behavior and cooperative bonds, the writings of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis might be of interest (A Cooperative Species, Chapters 9, 10).One can also look at the problem through the lens of “evolutionary epistemology”. Donald Campbell, whose theories of social organization are quite useful, was a major proponent of this idea.

The Historical Picture of Radical Economists

I won’t here go into detail as to the history of radical developments within the economics discipline, as others have done this more exhaustively than the present format would allow. One can, however, consider broad outlines of past intra-disciplinary struggles todetermine possible strategic outcomes, given a certain state of affairs. This is a valid methodology for excavating some of the subtler forces at inter-play for the purposes of the present discussion. If one looks, for example, at the above-mentioned struggles in the 1960’s, one finds a startling repetition of the same pattern. Namely, students and non-tenured faculty who conduct protest by means of their academic work are, generally, very quickly subdued, silenced and, effectively, marginalized.

Marginalization and ostracism occured, famously, to, among others, Staughton Lynd, himself the son of Leftist academics; Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis, both Harvard-trained economists who were refused positions at Harvard (which has an unusually high retention rate for its grad students later becoming faculty); Richard Wolff, denied tenure at Yale for signing an anti-war petition; Marlene Dixon, professor of sociology at Chicago, refused re-hire because of a political impasse with the administration, inter alia. Without going into further details, we can conclude, from this string of events, and others like them, that a pure inversion of academic disciplines, a blurring of boundaries between teacher and student, and an overturning of fundamental pedagogical convention is not possible within the context of the research University establishment, or that it is at least not possible without necessary and sufficient conditions, being in this case an environment in which radical discussion and debate is, en fait, practicable. The desire to establish such enviroments leads the present discussion. These have been known to develop when a certain mix of institutional funding, motivation, and opportunity presents itself. Having more radicals in seats, in classes, enrolled in economics programs, in general, would increase the chances of such a critical mass from recurring, as it did, for instance at Amherst in the 1970s.

The example of Wolff, Bowles, Gintis, Edwards and others at U Mass Amherst, as well as any number of ideologically oriented think takes (take, for instance, the Heritage Foundation, a degenerated neoliberal scholarly organization) are cases of conditions receptive to concentrated work in keeping with a certain intellectual tradition. One can presume, however, that funding for left wing think tanks, modelled after Heritage or the American Enterprise Institute would become available at a later stage in the strategic trajectory, that the occupation of University faculty positions is primary. Additionally,these conditional requirements, do not, per se, preclude radicals “trail blazing” or ”trend-setting”, neither does it prohibit the likes of “sympathetic” individuals utilizing their positions as respected scholars fo making political endorsements or critiques of any number of underlying notions prevailing in social discourse. Indeed, this position may be suboptimal considering peer pressure, and other disincentives (time, for one) which exist to dispel this, and, arguably, such situations would hopefully be temporary.

Indeed, institutional structures exist, even here, to the aid of “lone wolf” radicals. In fact, you have a tremendously long tradition of intellectuals doing just that. Additionally, “academic freedom” is a right which various multi-disciplinary organizations like the AAUP (The American Association of University Professors) define as a fundamental right of scholarship. Certainly, activism outside of, and supplemental to, academic work would be cumbersome, and these are challenges neoliberal professors and their clientèle can easily circumvent by rote of their position of supporters of the status quo ante (if only by their sheer numbers: even Hayeck points out the majority of “liberal” scholars were quite “mediocre”; here, too the law of large numbers applies). These challenges, in and of themselves, however, shouldn’t be a deterrent to the seriously committed (and, there may even be ways around the duality: in-house residency, sabbaticals, “elective” seminars in critical methodology, reasoning etc. more congruent with one’s disciplinary strengths, among others). One simply has to ask if radicals are willing to take up the task.

Being that there is, it seems, a strict distinction between radicalism in one’s work (on the basis of existing institutional structures), and activism or agency external to one’s professional contributions, one shouldn’t confuse the conservatism of the economics profession, in general, as a reproach to political agency. It seems, quite on the contrary, just here is where more contributions from egalitarian-minded individuals, as well as individuals from marginalized communities (the poor, racial minorities, etc.) are needed. These views would lend to a greater balance of voices within the discipline, and establish a firmer legitimacy for some of the claims made on behalf of it. There’s a whole number of interesting avenues for researching effects of inequality, for instance, with respect to “optimal tax” policy research, the sort of stuff people like Thomas Picketty are doing. Indeed, what better affront to teleological arguments with respect to poverty and disenfranchisement (take, for instance, Presidential candidate Herman Cain’s assertion that “if you’re poor, it’s your fault”), “original sin”, or some other arbitrary and spurious assertion than substantive arguments to the contrary produced by individuals from those very groups?

Education Funding: A Dilemma of Choice

There are, of course, some hurdles to achieving this equilibrium. There is research that suggests particularly economics programs are very incubative, and tend to hire selectively from top Universities, so a goal of the Left, seemingly, would be to get as many egalitarian-minded individuals into top-tier or Ivy League schools.“Better said than done”!

Clearly, funding is an issue, but not an insurmountable one. As a recent study by an economics professor at Stanford shows, and as common sense would confirm, more students from traditionally disenfranchised communities are more likely to both apply, and be admitted to top-tier, Ivy League universities if they have adequate information as to their potential scholarship and financial aid prospects. The study has been floating around the Internet, so you can easily find lots of sources reporting on it. Here’s one by NPR, for instance. Of course, this, in itself, is no solution to the chronic education crisis, particularly the United States is facing (other countries, such as Germany, are using the economics downturn as an impetus to reduce, or eliminate entirely the, already low, relative costs of eduction). Clealry, the more young people know about their prospects, the more will apply, and the law of supply and demand tells us, uncontroversially, that if the number of seats at universities do not change, then competition will increase for those seats remaining.

This is, perhaps, not the most optimal situation to engender. However, when taken into context, it would seem that it’s really not as bad as it looks. If more low income young adults stemming from traditionally marginalized communities apply to these schools, then it can only raise the total relative number of these students admitted. This, since an identical share of those applying (namely, those who meet whatever conditions for admittance which are established) will be admitted. Being that the rich wouldn’t change their behavior with respect to new information, since their parents already on the boards of the Ivy League schools, or have donated parks, buildings or established trusts in their department of choice, no more would apply than already do, and ultimately, there is only gain to be made from more low income people applying to good schools.

A Few Strategic Remarks

Of course, all of the above could equally apply to other disciplines with relatively high concentrations of those von Hayeck referred to as “radical liberals” (take, for instance, law, or journalism). That being said, what can one say of the potential benefit for Leftists choosing to study a discipline like economics (or, any of the others) over any other career path?

I argue, there are certain a clear advantages with the prestige that comes from being part of an intellectual elite. Certainly, part of the motivation here is “signalling” (“social indicators”). Nevertheless, it is clearly a fact that, overwhelmingly, credentials  have a non-negligible effect on the breadth of one’s authority. Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow points this out with respect to the medical profession in a 1963 essay on the health care industry. Of course, this doesn’t mean that modern universities are reduced to acting as networking nodes, like any number of more democratic social media nodes already in existence. Indeed, a great part of the benefit of learning in tandem with other scholars is the “magnet” effect colleges and Universities have as places of exchange of ideas, concepts, and strategies.

Certainly, though, if one wishes to substantively contribute to (and not simply critique) policy making circles, then credentials are a necessity. This may be the product of an overly formalistic society, but, it is, nevertheless, the case (the very few Nobel laureates without PhD’s in their respective disciplines can attest to this). It is easy to see that the most effective way to critique this form of formalism is to do so within keeping of the dominant strategy (for instance, that of Hayeck, Schumpeter, Posner, et alia), if the means to do so lend themselves, in the long run. It is, additionally, hard to imagine a more optimal position to render critiques against established conventions than that of a tenured, respected University scholar, with all the benefits of research funding, a community of peers and influence over classroom lectures and discussion this affords. That being the case, getting as many Left-leaning scholars into such positions should be part of the Left’s general long-term strategic thinking (as it has been the Right’s for some time).

Disciplines where the marginal returns are very high would be those, like economics, primarily dominated by neoliberals and their accolades (quasi-neoliberals). Thus, the hope would be to eventually shift the continuum of research (by means of this quantum shift in the discipline’s “center”) into areas more suiting to the needs of social classes and castes traditionally excluded from the institutional jargon. This is all stated without strict reference to ethical or moral principles, which would really be conditions of second order. This posturing would have the advantage of being a strong or dominant strategy (that is, there are no immediate alternatives which pose a more effective approach to combating mistaken and flawed ideas, given the present apoplexy of the Left). The focus, of course, would be to effect long-term change on fundamental social structures.

Conclusion, Further Speculation

If, for some reason, the Left is unable, or unwilling, to take up the task, then it is likely policy discussions will face another “lost decade” (reminescent of the Reagan years, when budgetary restrictions caused a lot of streamlining of University faculties: radicals were typically the first to go, and the last to get hired). This, because of the seemingly predominant role which neoliberal and quasi-neoliberal policies and frameworks play at present in the contemporary nation state, East or West, North or South. Despite opportunities exterior to  “elite” circles, this continuing intellectual defeat is certainly an outcome to be avoided and mitigated, considering alternate, less formalistic, alternatives. Of course, for some, the above outline will not suffice to persuade them to pursue an academic career in economics (or a related social science with key policy connections), or to even support this position if they don’t themselves apply it. To those, one can recall Hayeck’s criticism of the liberals of his day, mostly businessmen (not women) and administrators, that they were “too practical”. Perhaps a practicable criticism of those on the Left today, conversely, that are unconvinced of the above argument is that they are “not practical enough”.

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About Jerome Nikolai Warren

I am a German-American who has ties to both countries. I speak fluent German and English, and passable Spanish and French. I can also mutter and curse in Turkish and Russian. I am at present a grad student of economics in Germany. In a prior life I studied dabbling, basically (religious studies, philosophy, political science) at the University of Alabama. My favorite piece of music is probably the Mass in B-minor by J.S. Bach, my favorite artwork is "The Blue Rider" by Kandinsky; my favorite building is New York's Pennsylvania Station, sadly demolished in 1963. I tweet (rarely) @dagmarholstadt, and also manage this site's Twitter account @OfContradiction.
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