The hegemony of neoclassical economics

Posted: 17 June 2013 in Uncategorized
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It’s one thing to argue about whether or not neoclassical economics continues to exercise hegemony within the discipline of economics. It’s another thing entirely to blame heterodox economists, as Noah Smith does, for that hegemony.

Notwithstanding the arguments made by a variety of economists (including friends of mine, such as John Davis and Will Milberg) that the dominance of neoclassical economics has given way to a much more open, pluralist situation in economics, my own view is that neoclassical economic theory continues to occupy a hegemonic position within the discipline of economics. Part of that disagreement stems from the difference between predominance and hegemony: I’ve often argued that neoclassical economists may constitute a minority among practicing economists (if we count all the folks who hold doctorates in economics and teach and use economics in a variety of settings other than the top-ranked departments of economics). Still, neoclassical economic theory is in a hegemonic position in terms of determining a wide variety of things, from who gets the best academic jobs and who gets promoted within those jobs to how research money is allocated and what kinds of research gets published in the main economic journals.

And that includes one of Smith’s prime examples: Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, James A. Robinson’s essay on the colonial origins of development published in the American Economic Review. While the authors may not explicitly invoke individual optimization or supply/demand, their framework—in which development is defined as growth in national income and the appropriate institutions for development are defined as those securing private-property rights—certainly stems from neoclassical economics. A better example of the hegemony of neoclassical economics could not be found.

In any case, what is truly mind-boggling about Smith’s discussion of neoclassical economics is the idea that the use of the term by heterodox economists—their supposed pigeonholing people as neoclassical economists—is what undermines pluralism in economics and drives economists back into the neoclassical camp.

Sorry but no. Not a chance. There is much less pluralism in economics than in any other academic discipline—from philosophy to physics—precisely because of the hegemony of neoclassical economic theory. It’s not that every idea out there or every article that gets published is a direct or unified exposition of neoclassical economics (no theory, whatever its pretensions, can ever be so closed and exclusive). The neoclassical will-to-hegemony should not be confused with its ability to determine every aspect of the discipline. But the fact that heterodox economic theories and ideas remain so marginalized within the discipline—such that economics students and economists themselves, even dissident ones, know so little about alternatives to neoclassical economics—is precisely the effect (and, in turn, a condition) of the hegemony of neoclassical economics.

And that is true, even now. After years of experimental, behavioral, and seemingly atheoretical empirical work. And after years since the onset of the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression.

Those of us who work in and around economics continue to be disciplined and punished by the hegemony of neoclassical economics.

  1. Magpie says:


    While I agree with everything you said above, I believe heterodox academic economists often overlook the biggest source of influence mainstreamers have. I’d say that this is understandable, if you ask me: academic economists observe directly academic life, not real-life.

    Whatever Smith might say about “dissident” mainstreamers, the truth of the matter is that their views (whatever they be) seldom, if ever, trickle down to undergraduate teaching and they aren’t represented, for instance, at textbook level.

    Thus, practicing economists (as opposed to academic ones) remain largely oblivious to whatever these “dissidents” might think or say.

    But things get a lot worse: there are plenty economic textbook consumers outside economics schools. For these people, what the textbook says is THE economics, the one and only, the SCIENTIFIC one, and their professional decisions, later on in life, will be influenced by what the textbook said. Think of business, accounting, government, law, journalism (even town planning, for Christ’s sake!) schools.

    With this in mind one can understand Paul Samuelson’s rather famous words: “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws — or crafts its advanced treatises — if I can write its economics textbooks”.

    And I am not speaking here of the infamous “economic imperialism”, by which every social behaviour needs to be explained in mainstream economic terms.

    This is how mainstream economics influences the real world.

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