Sen, McCloskey, and the Future of Heterodox Economics
Robert F. Garnett, Jr. (Texas Christian University, USA)
© Copyright: Robert F Garnett, Jr. 2005
Heterodox economists are in the midst of a critical transition. The long-standing goal of developing a “single correct alternative to neoclassical economics” (King 2002) is increasingly giving way to pan-paradigmatic agendas and forums such as the Post-Autistic Economics Network, the Association for Heterodox Economics, and the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics (Dow 2000, Lee 2002, Fullbrook 2003). This dispositional shift is stirring new controversies about the future of school-of-thought organizations (Rutherford 2000), the meaning and importance of pluralism (Sent 2003, Davis forthcoming, Davidson 2004), and the mission and identity of heterodox economics itself (Ancochea 2004, Dow forthcoming). What exactly do we stand for as heterodox economists? What are our chief intellectual priorities? Are we paradigm warriors, first and foremost? Or are we pluralists, seeking to promote intellectual tolerance and critical engagement among diverse points of view? These basic questions sit unsettled today, and understandably so, as many heterodox economists remain fiercely committed to the pluralist ideals of liberal inquiry as well as to the paradigmist dream of having their own theoretical perspective become the new master framework, the new “general theory,” to which all other theories would be subsumed as special cases.
In a previous essay in this Review, I outlined these contrasting approaches to heterodoxy and offered an assessment of their strengths and liabilities for the future of heterodox economics (Garnett 2005). The central argument was twofold: (1) leading non-mainstream economists (including some who profess to be pluralists) are still deeply invested in oppositional paradigm building, viewing heterodox economics as primarily a search for demarcation criteria (conceptual, ontological, methodological, or epistemological) that would render heterodox economics distinct from and superior to orthodox (mainstream) economics; and (2) heterodox economists would be better served by a principled, egalitarian pluralism – a pluralism committed to intellectual tolerance and diversity as well as to capabilities-enhancing reforms “in the character of scientific debate, in the range of contributions in [professional economic] journals, and in the training and hiring of economists” (Hodgson, Mäki, and McCloskey 1992) so that “alternative economic work is not simply tolerated, but . . . the material and social conditions for its flourishing are met, to the same extent as is currently the case for mainstream economics” (Cambridge 27, cited in Fullbrook 2003, 36).
This paper proposes a philosophical framework for an egalitarian pluralist economics, combining Deirdre McCloskey’s vision of science as a pluralistic conversation (McCloskey 1998 and 2001) with Amartya Sen’s capability-centered view of human development (Sen 1999). From a Sen/McCloskey standpoint, the principal goal and tool of economic inquiry is intellectual freedom, defined in a dual Smithian sense: negative freedom from the tyranny of a prescribed Method for economic knowledge production, and positive freedom to live a choiceworthy intellectual life.1 This freedom-centered, capabilities-minded view of academic discourse as a “civilized conversation among equals” (McCloskey 2001, 107) opens the door to a liberal rethinking of science in which the paradigmist and pluralist impulses of contemporary heterodoxy can be productively reformulated and rejoined. Such an approach is one that all economists, especially heterodox economists, can and should embrace.
Foundations: McCloskey and Sen
McCloskey’s contributions to heterodox economics are often overlooked due to her strong self-identification as an “old Chicago” economist. Yet McCloskey’s trenchant criticisms of modernist methodologies and epistemologies – the official grounds on which mainstream economists ritually dismiss non-mainstream work as “not serious” or “not economics” – make her a natural ally of the heterodox economics movement (Garnett 2004). Her writings deserve attention in the present discussion because they offer the strongest arguments to date for the scientific virtues of a pluralist economics.
In barest essentials, McCloskey’s pluralism begins with a Scottish Enlightenment conception of science as a marketplace of ideas, an “economy of intellect” (McCloskey 1998, 28). Like Hayek and other classical liberals, she sees science as a market-like conversation in which the “interaction of individuals, [each] possessing different knowledge and different views . . . constitutes the life of thought” (Hayek 1944, 165).2 McCloskey’s unique contribution is her rigorous unpacking of the assumptions, logic, and implications of this free-market philosophy via a rhetorical theory of intellectual exchange. In McCloskey’s view, the best way to facilitate scholarly exchange is not by enforcing a uniform ontology or methodology but by cultivating a set of liberal arts virtues that she calls “rhetoric” but might also be called “pluralism.” Just as Adam Smith argues that the wealth of a nation depends on the extent of its markets, McCloskey argues that an academic community’s knowledge depends on the willingness and ability of its members to listen and speak to one another, i.e., “our ability to engage in continuous conversation, testing one another, discovering our hidden presuppositions, changing our minds because we have listened to the voices of our fellows” (A. O. Rorty 1983, cited in McCloskey 1998, 163).
McCloskey stresses the intellectual responsibilities entailed by a serious pluralism. As individual knowledge producers, we are free to use whatever tools are available in our efforts to make intelligent contributions to scholarly conversations. At the same time, one’s own enjoyment of this liberty entails a pluralist duty to foster it in the academic lives of one’s colleagues, not just by tolerating their ideas but by reading and engaging them in a spirit of intellectual humility, refusing to discriminate against propositions on the basis of intellectual pedigree. Again McCloskey: “What distinguishes good from bad in learned discourse . . . is not the adoption of a particular methodology, but the earnest and intelligent attempt to contribute to a conversation . . . You can tell whether [an argument] is persuasive only by thinking about it and talking about it with other thoughtful people. Not all regression analyses are more persuasive than all moral arguments; not all controlled experiments are more persuasive than all introspections” (McCloskey 1998, 162 and 177). McCloskey believes that academic pluralism, when practiced in earnest, allows our disciplines and subdisciplines to progress in terms of “understanding, self-understanding, and mutual understanding or agreement” (Madison 1994, 206) despite the absence of a common ontology or analytic framework.3
McCloskey’s pluralism thus promotes critical engagement and accountability rather than “anything goes.” This is a steady refrain in McCloskey’s writings. She does not assume that all knowledge claims are (or should be treated as) equally valid. The only universal precept is the “demand that we persuade each other” (McCloskey 1994, 310). Over time, she argues, this ethical/scientific requirement gives rise to intellectual standards: “communally accepted criteria as to what counts as a rational argument” (Madison 1994, 205). These standards emerge not from the armchairs of economic philosophers but from “open, reasonable, fair, patient, sprachethiklich conversation” (McCloskey 1994, 304) and “informed judgment, guided by broad and evolving principles of assessment” (Hausman and McPherson 1988, 6).
McCloskey’s pluralism is mostly silent, however, on the controversial question of how (or whether) to reform the institutional hierarchies within academic economics to create a more competitive marketplace of ideas.
The openness of [rhetorical pluralism] gives voice to minority opinions. To this extent [rhetorical pluralism] is hostile to the mainstream . . . But [rhetorical pluralism] is not intrinsically hostile to the mainstream. [Rhetorical pluralism] can be used to force the dominant groups to face up to institutionalism or Marxism or feminism or Austrianism, as they should. But nothing inside [rhetorical pluralism] itself implies one or the other view (McCloskey 1994, 394).
McCloskey urges heterodox groups to challenge the arrogance of the mainstream head on, not by erecting rigid paradigm barriers of their own but by embracing the ethos of intellectual free trade, “a catholic rhetoric that encourages neoclassicals, Marxists, institutionalists, Austrians, and the other students of mankind in the ordinary business of life to gain more persuasive knowledge” (ibid. 178). On occasion, McCloskey has been critical of the labor market discrimination and other exclusionary practices that unjustly limit the professional opportunities of non-mainstream economists (Klamer and McCloskey 1989, McCloskey 2003). In the main, however, she believes that the current structure of the discipline satisfies the institutional requirements for free speech, and that a greater rhetorical self-awareness among economists will suffice to actualize her normative vision of economics as a “civilized conversation among equals” (McCloskey 2001, 107).
Precisely here, on the question of how to promote substantive equality in the intellectual marketplace, Sen’s capabilities approach becomes a vital complement to McCloskey’s pluralism.4 Sen’s work speaks mostly to human and economic rather than intellectual development. But his fundamental concepts and assumptions – particularly “the central (intrinsic) value of freedom itself” (Sen 1999, 28) and the notion that wealth is valuable not in itself but as a “general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value” (ibid. 14) – are easily extended to the intellectual realm. The key premises of an academic/scientific capabilities approach would be threefold: intellectual freedom is “the primary end as well as the principal means” of intellectual progress (ibid. xii); knowledge is not valuable in itself but as a “general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value”; and intellectual development consists of “the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” (ibid. xii).From Sen’s “development as freedom” approach, then, we derive a notion of “learning as freedom” in which “the removal of substantial unfreedoms” is both intrinsically and instrumentally linked to intellectual development, as an important part of what intellectual development is and, equally, an important part of what creates and sustains intellectual development (ibid. xii).
A Sen-based pluralism would therefore take us beyond the “marketplace of ideas” to the constellation of institutional circumstances that affect a person’s ability to exercise his or her academic freedoms. It suggests a broad normative criterion by which the efficacy of any academic discipline should be judged: namely, the effective freedom of its members to achieve such vital ends as literacy (the ability to read, think, and speak effectively within their discipline), the ability to choose and move freely among alternative theoretical traditions, or the ability to participate with dignity in the public life of their profession.5 Do prevailing institutional arrangements enable all members of the discipline to achieve these ends – hence to lead good intellectual lives – if they so choose? If not, then the disciplinary community (broadly defined to include the schools, colleges, and universities within which economics departments reside) has an obligation, in the name of science and academic freedom, to alter its educational, scholarly, and professional norms to enhance the capability of individuals to achieve these essential intellectual functions (Burczak forthcoming).6
Of course, the ultimate purpose of academic economics is not just to enhance the welfare of economists but to promote human betterment in a larger sense (Hutchison 1992, Klein 1999). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to consider the degree to which the goals of academic economists align with those of their various stakeholders, hence the degree to which “what’s good for economists is good for society,” my working assumption is that the social value of economic scholarship and teaching would be increased substantially if capabilities enhancements such as those proposed by the Post-Autistic Economics movement were to be enacted. This coincides with Sen’s argument that increases in substantive freedom typically generate indirect (spillover) benefits for the communities in which individuals participate. “Expanding the freedoms we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live” (Sen 1999, 14-15).
To summarize: The goal of economic science from a Sen/McCloskey perspectives is to increase the intellectual capabilities of economists and the various stakeholders who rely on economic scholarship and teaching as important resources (students, policymakers, citizens, civic leaders, business leaders, and so on). Further, the achievement of this objective requires no common ontological, methodological, or analytical foundation. The key, rather, is pluralism, both in the actions and attitudes of individual economists and in the norms and practices of our academic communities. The latter requires an active commitment to economic pluralism by professional associations, academic departments, and university administrators, as well as the non-academic institutions from which economists receive financial support (governments, foundations, and think tanks) “to ensure that the material and social conditions for the flourishing of pluralism are met.”
Consequences: Rethinking Pluralism, Paradigms, and Economic Science
A Sen/McCloskey perspective makes it possible to recast the nature and importance of paradigms and pluralism in economics. Most orthodox and heterodox economists still subscribe to modernist, Cold War epistemologies in which “science” is primarily a tool of demarcation and exclusion: a way of separating valid from invalid ways of knowing (McCloskey 1994, 55-70; Fullbrook 2001). A Sen/McCloskey approach, in contrast, highlights the liberal face of science. It shifts the goal of science from intellectual victory (Us over Them) to the expansion of intellectual freedom for Us and Them, i.e., our fellow economists, students, and other stakeholders. From this standpoint, scientific progress is about advancing the conversations of our various learning communities through critical engagement among diverse ways of thinking. This leads to a different view of how paradigms and pluralism each contribute to learning and discovery in the continuing conversations – the science – of economics.
With regard to pluralism, a Sen/McCloskey approach helps to clarify the conceptual meaning and requirements of a pluralist economics. As Backhouse observes, academic pluralism has both individual and social aspects (Backhouse 2001). It requires methodological awareness and tolerance by individual scholars as well as a set of institutional conditions embodied in “the organization of the academic community, how individuals operate within it, [and] its relationships to other communities and to the society at large” (Backhouse 2001, 166).
A Sen/McCloskey approach would also help to articulate the scientific importance of pluralism by highlighting its central role in intellectual development. As Sen would say, pluralism (qua intellectual freedom) is an intrinsic part of what intellectual development is. One mark of progress in a scientific community, he would argue, is the degree to which its members understand their rights and duties as a member of a larger discourse community. The widespread acceptance of these pluralistic norms would allow individuals to enjoy more intellectual freedom and, in Hayek’s words, to “work with people whose moral values differ from our own . . . [and] to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force” (Hayek 1960, 398).7 Pluralism also fuels scientific creativity over time, both by preserving methodological diversity (Samuels 1997, Dow 2001)8 and by helping to curb the excesses of paradigmism – the recurring tendency of paradigm communities to become so enamored of their particular theory or methodology that they begin to see it as the new General Theory, e.g., the current enthusiasm for evolutionary frameworks that view the economy as a “complex adaptive system” (Potts 2000, Colander, Holt, and Rosser 2004). As Fullbrook reminds us:
Accepting pluralism on epistemological grounds requires from everyone taking part a sacrifice. One must surrender the dream . . . which I suspect has infected each of us from time to time, that of believing that our particular approach to or tradition of economics is or could become THE economic truth. Once people sacrifice this conceit and put their heads and good-wills together, many things become possible (Fullbrook 2005).
With regard to paradigms, a Sen/McCloskey view of science casts new light on the value of paradigm communities, especially those outside of the mainstream. It sees paradigm communities as generators of intellectual capabilities that otherwise would not be available to certain individuals or groups. Further, it sees the empowerment of these voices as a vital prerequisite for a scientifically productive pluralism. A group that is able to establish an identity as a distinct school of thought is afforded a place to stand, a right to exist, a means to appear without shame in the public space of academic conversation. This is quite distinct from the paradigmist pursuit of scientific hegemony. Even McCloskey, despite her ambivalent view of “schools,” is willing to grant that paradigm communities can be effective incubators of pluralist sensibilities and intellectual growth:
How do you think schools [of thought] form in economics? A group talks intensively to each other, respectfully . . . They allow each to influence the other. They stop sneering and start listening. I’ve seen it happen. . . . Such a community comes to have few disagreements, if the talking goes on long enough (Klamer and McCloskey 1989).
In addition, a Sen/McCloskey perspective would challenge the common assumption that paradigms are or should be single-minded schools. Paradigm communities need not possess a unified framework or worldview in order to enhance the intellectual capabilities of their members. More likely, the converse is true. To best enhance their intellectual capabilities, it may be best for paradigm groups not to be so single-minded. Sent argues, for example, that mainstream economics in the postwar period derived considerable vitality from its inability to forge a unified theoretical core (Sent forthcoming, 6). I believe this has been the experience of many heterodox school-of-thought organizations as well. According to Yngve Ramstad, this is precisely the story of the AFEE/AFIT institutionalist community:
‘[I]nstitutional economics’ is actually nothing more than a summary term for analysis that originates on the same side of several ‘great divides’ . . . Thus [it] remains today what it has always been, a friendly alliance between those who proceed to build concepts, theories, and models from the same side of several or all of [these] ‘divides’ (Ramstad 1989, 771).
[W]e should put an end to our defensive preoccupation with articulating a precise statement of the institutionalist paradigm [and] . . . face squarely the fact that we are a catholic movement comprised of multifarious groups with some fundamental disagreements (Ramstad 1995, 1004).
Inasmuch as it serves to decenter paradigmist goals and identities, a Sen/McCloskey approach could help to breathe new life into heterodox paradigm communities. Many school-of-thought groups are currently undergoing difficult generational transitions, seeking to renew and reinvigorate themselves without losing their core identities (Rutherford 2000, 186). Rutherford claims that these groups must make greater commitments to pluralism if they wish to remain “vital, interesting intellectual forums” (Rutherford 2000, 187). Institutionalists, for example, must be “open to work that is broadly consistent with institutionalist themes, even if it derives from sources other than the recognized founders of American institutionalist economics” (ibid. 187). Hoksbergen agrees, arguing that institutionalism will become “a stronger, richer, and more meaningful tradition” only if its members become less inclined to see their group as “a rival and potentially a superseding competitor to neoclassical economics as it has often done in the past” (Hoksbergen 1994, 707).
Across the heterodox landscape today, one sees many signs of pluralist rethinking within and across many school-of-thought communities. An exemplary statement of this pluralist tendency appears in the editor’s introduction to the new Journal of Institutional Economics:
In recent years there has been a welcome and growing dialogue of ideas from the old and new traditions of institutionalism. . . . These developments open up new grounds for a fruitful and exciting conversation between old and new institutionalism [as well as] several other important schools of thought – including evolutionary economics and constitutional political economy – that have similarly focused on the nature and role of institutions. . . . The Journal of Institutional Economics has been established in the belief that dialogue and diversity are important engines in the evolution of scientific inquiry (Hodgson 2005, i-ii).
Hodgson’s institutionalists are not alone. Similar signs of internal diversity and external openness are visible in the paradigm communities of Marxian economists (Amariglio, Callari, Resnick, Ruccio, and Wolff 1996), Austrian economists (Boettke and Prychitko 1994), social economists (Davis 1994), and many other branches of economic heterodoxy.
Finally, a Sen/McCloskey pluralism offers a fruitful new angle on the old dilemma of how to embrace pluralism without sacrificing scholarly standards. A common fear about pluralism, often expressed as a critique of postmodernism, is that it threatens to erode scholarly standards by promoting the relativist notion that “standards are relative to specific discourse communities, and . . . work should be appraised [only] from within the relevant community” (Backhouse 1998, 144). But pluralism need not entail such intellectual autarky. Pluralism assumes only that “after weeding out all of the many concepts and philosophical systems that can be rejected on one or another ground, a plurality of acceptable philosophies is likely to remain” (Robert Nozick, cited in Nelson 1991, 268; see also Seabright 1993, 393). The difficult question is how to enact such a critical pluralism in fields and subfields riven with paradigmatic disagreements.
This problem emerges concretely in the process of peer review. Reflecting on their interdisciplinary co-editorship of Economics and Philosophy in the late 1980s, Hausman and McPherson (1988) confess to finding intradisciplinary paradigm differences much more difficult to navigate than differences across disciplines. “The sharpest divergence in terms of standards has lain . . . between different schools of economists. . . . [W]e have generally shied away from refereeing across schools, precisely because the differences are so sharp and so predictable and the results so generally unhelpful” (Hausman and McPherson 1988, 3). These problems would not be so severe if there were some semblance of transparadigm agreement about methodological and epistemological norms in economics. Yet each of these meta-economic fields is a contentious conversation unto itself, with no consensus rules or guidelines. Hence there is no easy resolution to these evaluative dilemmas. Backhouse recounts similar experiences from his editorship at the Economic Journal (Backhouse 1994). In addressing the issue of standards, he says, we must recognize the reality of “paradigm bias.” At the same time, one cannot resolve this problem by adopting balkanized editorial procedures (e.g., Marxian articles can only be read by Marxists). It is better to mix and match, though one then runs the risk of being criticized (and understandably so) for stacking the deck against authors whose submissions were rejected by reviewers from rival schools of thought.
The underlying problem here is that today’s academic economists often lack the pluralist capability to evaluate work beyond their own narrow fields of expertise. Their economic education has not given them sufficient knowledge or intellectual humility to read effectively across methodological boundaries. This is the very conclusion reached by Backhouse. He suggests the need for capabilities-enhancing reforms in economic education in order to produce more scholars who are capable of fair-minded peer review. The ideal reviewer, he writes, would be a scholar “whose position is different from that of the . . . author, but who [is] prepared to treat [the work] sympathetically as well as applying high critical standards” (Backhouse 1994, 116).
A Sen/McCloskey pluralism would help to highlight and address these deficiencies in the intellectual capabilities of Ph.D. economists. More generally, it would aim to address the problem of relativism through the promotion of critical thinking and competition among diverse points of view. Inasmuch as relativism entails a lack of effective intellectual competition – in the mind of a single scholar or within a community of scholars – it can be addressed by creating a more capabilities-rich academic environment in which individuals have access to ample supplies of intellectual options, and are able to exercise reasoned choice among these options. The latter requires (rather, is) critical thinking: a commitment to the empathetic yet skeptical treatment of all perspectives, including one’s own (Paul and Elder 2001, 1-4). A Sen/McCloskey approach would support the expansion of these essential capabilities among undergraduate and graduate economics students – tomorrow’s economists – via curricular reforms such as those proposed by Hodgson (2002) to enhance social science literacy by “[restoring] the possibility of taking a more general view, while retaining specialist expertise.” “Just as the requirement of mathematics is now virtually universal, so too should be some philosophy, and relevant parts of the history of ideas” (Hodgson 2002, 132).
Toward a Better (and More Heterodox) Economics
Heterodox economists would be better positioned to exercise leadership in the movement toward a genuinely pluralistic, multi-perspectival (hetero-dox) economics if they were to adopt a capabilities-oriented pluralism such as the one outlined above. Rather than bearing the heavy burden of an oppositional, anti-mainstream stance, heterodox advocates of a Sen/McCloskey approach could operate from the positive, intellectually open position of liberal political economists – committed, perhaps, to their own paradigm-based projects, but also to a pluralist vision of economics as a “civilized conversation among equals” and to ongoing reforms in economic education and scholarship to better approximate this ideal.9 In addition, the embrace of an egalitarian/libertarian philosophy of inquiry would place heterodox economists on the very ground floor of modern economics, arm-in-arm with Smith, Marx, Keynes, and other economic champions of human freedom who argue that the amelioration of entrenched inequalities is a basic pre-requisite for a genuinely free society (in the present case, a society of scholars).10 Such an approach would give heterodox economists a stronger foothold within our disciplinary discourse.
Of the challenges and opportunities before us, none is greater than the need to provide better learning environments for future generations of economics thinkers. I agree with Craufurd Goodwin that teaching is the most important social role of professional economists today (Goodwin 2000). Yet many economic educators and curricula, undergraduate and graduate, are sorely unprepared to fulfill it. “The growth of formalization and mathematization and the high degree of uniformity in undergraduate and graduate curricula, and in the leading textbooks” has created a pedagogical crisis in which “the narrowness of standard economic training is under attack even from within the mainstream profession” (Coats 2000, 145; Rutherford 2000, 186). There are growing demands for more real-world complexity and critical thinking in economic education (Earl 2002, Feiner 2002), especially at the graduate level where received curricula are arguably most dysfunctional in terms of the future of our discipline (Fullbrook 2003). Herein lie many opportunities for heterodox economists to exercise leadership in their classrooms and in the promotion of new economic pedagogies, degree programs, and other initiatives.
A Sen/McCloskey pluralism offers a powerful impetus and rationale for these reforms, especially in the U.S., where an unlikely alliance has begin to emerge between critics of standard economic education and an influential student rights group, Students for Academic Freedom. The SAF agenda rose to national prominence with the publication of their Academic Bill of Rights in 2002, stressing the duty of U.S. colleges and universities “to secure the intellectual independence of faculty members and students, and to protect the principle of intellectual diversity.”11 The classical liberal principles of the Academic Bill of Rights are nothing new. Its provisions parallel the well-established American Association of University Professors’ definitions of academic freedom (American Association of University Professors 1940 and 1987). But the vigorous reassertion of these principles across the humanities and social sciences today makes this an opportune time for heterodox economists to ask, “What does the ‘intellectual independence of faculty and students’ and the ‘protection of intellectual diversity’ require in graduate and undergraduate economic education?” Heterodox economists should be among the leaders in this effort, working to ensure that every economics degree program is both expected and able to provide “an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech” (Students for Academic Freedom 2002).
Backhouse (2001) and Davis (forthcoming) argue that broad “liberal arts” values such as academic freedom are weak grounds on which to challenge mainstream ideas and practices. Yet I wonder (as McCloskey, Dow, and Fullbrook may also wonder) if perhaps the “weakness” of these classical principles might also be their strength – as ideals that are widely accepted, that allow heterodox economists to exploit their comparative advantages in liberal arts education, and, not least, that focus on the needs of students and other stakeholders, not just those of heterodox economists (Ancochea 2004, 19).
To return to the main argument: A thoroughgoing philosophy and politics of pluralism may have been a terrible mistake for heterodox economists 20-30 years ago. It is not today. Thanks to our own human capital investments and the wholesale abandonment of economic history and the history of economic thought within many Ph.D. programs since the 1980s, heterodox economists currently possess a comparative advantage in intellectual literacy over many of their mainstream colleagues. This presents heterodox economists with an historic opportunity to re-engage a discipline that is struggling to retain its relevance in a post-Cold War world of “necessarily mixed” economies (Hodgson 1995 and 1998) where formerly dominant “-isms” (socialism, communism, capitalism, neo-liberalism) are dissolving and evolving into unexpected fragments and combinations, and the 20th-century dream of “reaching for heaven on earth” through the rational design and control of national economic systems has arguably come to an end (Havel 1992, Cullenberg 1992, Nelson 1991, Gibson-Graham 1996). The active embrace of a Sen/McCloskey pluralism would also encourage heterodox economists to liberate themselves from the all-encompassing priorities of Cold War oppositionalism (anti-neoclassicism, anti-capitalism, anti-socialism, and so on) that are illiberal and increasingly self-defeating. Dichotomous distinctions such as right/left, market/state, and neoclassical/non-neoclassical continue to limit our analytical range and insight. In the apt words of the late Don Lavoie, “it is time for these more liberal elements of the left and right sides of the old political spectrum to transcend the confines of these obsolete ideologies and work together to articulate a new vision of the free society” (Lavoie 1994, 283).
By rethinking their oppositional identities, heterodox economists can remove important barriers to their own intellectual development and work more effectively to restore the freedom (for themselves and their stakeholders) to practice a “genuine pluralism” that last predominated during the interwar period when “[e]conomists felt at liberty to pursue their own individual combinations of ideas” (Morgan and Rutherford 1998, 4). This will require us to demonstrate, again and again, that non-mainstream ideas deserve more space and respect within economics courses, degree programs, journals, and professional meetings, not on the grounds that “we’re right and they’re wrong” but because the inclusion of a broader spectrum of economic perspectives is better for our students, our colleagues, and the future of our discipline.
1. A Sen/McCloskey vision of economic science closely parallels Adam’s Smith view of the moral and institutional requirements for a free society and free speech (Evensky 1993). This “heterodox” view of Smith is corroborated by the recent work of Harpham (2000), Blaug (2001), and Wight (2002).
2. See also Foss and Loasby (1998, 11).
3. “The purpose of dialogue in either the ordinary conversational sense or in the forms it assumes in various specialized disciplines . . . is to arrive at a common agreement on a certain issue” (Madison 1994, 206).
4. This discussion is indebted to the innovative extensions of Sen’s capabilities approach by DeMartino (2003) and Burczak (forthcoming).
5. As noted by Davis (2002), Nussbaum (2003), and Burczak (forthcoming), Sen’s framework does not resolve the vexing question of how and by whom the list (and rank-ordering) of relevant capabilities and functionings is to be determined in particular situations. Sen’s prefers to leave his framework “open-ended” in this way, to make it “potentially more serviceable to a wider range of applications” (Sen 2004, 487). In contrast, Nussbaum (2003) argues that it is both possible and ethically crucial to define, though intercultural dialogue, a minimal set of universal human capabilities. In the present context, this suggests the possibility of establishing minimal requirements for a “good academic life” through ongoing intra- and transdisciplinary conversations.
6. Hill (2003) proposes a similar extension of Sen, to examine “the role of institutionalized power in causing and perpetuating inequalities in individual opportunities to achieve.”
7. “There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a [classical] liberal, the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is not sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them” (Hayek 1960, 398).
8. See also Colander, Holt, and Rosser (2004) on the pivotal role of non-mainstream “edge” research in the process of scientific discovery and the growth of knowledge.
9. Backhouse (2001) and Lee (2005a and 2005b) suggest several avenues for capabilities-enhancing reforms, to redress the discriminatory treatment of heterodox economists and their ideas within the current social structures of academic economics in the U.S. and U.K.
10. This is one of Sen’s major themes: the Aristotelian dimensions of Smith’s political economy and how they are interwoven with the negative libertarianism to which Smith’s project is commonly reduced (Pressman and Summerfield 2000, Walsh 2000).
11. The Academic Bill of Rights was approved in principle by the 108th Congress, 1st Session, House Concurrent Resolution 318 (October 30, 2003).
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