Most mainstream economists are not on the Left. Most wouldn’t know heterodox economics if it bit them on the proverbial nose. And most heterodox economists do identify with some kind of left-wing politics.
Yet, Chris Dillow (with whom I have found myself in agreement on many occasions) just can’t seem to disentangle the relationship among mainstream economics, heterodox economics, and the Left.
Let’s see if I can’t offer a bit of assistance. First, most mainstream economists with whom I’m familiar (at least the sort one finds in the U.S. academy) tend to locate themselves somewhere in the center of the political spectrum—some more to the liberal side (like Arrow, Solow, Tobin, and Samuelson, the economists named by Dillow), others to the more conservative side (like Mankiw, Cochrane, Taylor, and so on). But they’re certainly not on the Left, if by that we mean critical of the capitalist system and supportive of one or another kind of socialism (a pretty traditional definition of the Left for much of the past century, it seems to me).
Mainstream economists also don’t know much, if anything, about heterodox economics. Perhaps a previous generation did (if only for having studied the history of economic thought) but not the current generation. A friend of mine reported the following story from the most recent meetings of the American Economic Association/Allied Social Science Association meetings:
On Monday morning I was hanging out in the exhibition hall at ASSA, at a table shared by Dollars and Sense and the Heterodox Economics Network. About once an hour, some professional economist looked perplexedly at the banner saying “Heterodox Economics” and asked what that meant. They genuinely, honestly did not know.
The current generation of mainstream economists don’t know because they weren’t exposed to heterodox economics as undergraduate or graduate students, it doesn’t appear in the journals they read, and they simply aren’t forced to learn about it. Ever.
Heterodox economists are in a very different situation. They may reject mainstream economics but, as I’ve written before, they have to know it—and know it even better than mainstream economists themselves. Why? Because they have to teach it (often alongside their own, quite different approaches) and they have to engage it in public debate (precisely because mainstream economics dominates the debate within the academy, the media and policymaking circles).
Finally, most heterodox economists do, in my experience, identify with some kind of left-wing politics. Not the Austrians, of course—although it’s not clear they’re not part of mainstream economics these days. But all the other heterodox economists—of the sort one will find on the Heterodox Economics Directory—are located somewhere on the Left (in the way I define it above). The names may have changed over time—when I was young, we were called “radicals,” now it seems “heterodox” is the more accepted term—but the support for left-wing politics doesn’t seem to have changed.
So, what distinguishes liberal mainstream economists from left-wing heterodox economists? To my mind, it comes down to focusing on market imperfections (which can, at least in principle, be fixed within capitalism) versus focusing on the problems with capitalism as a system (which require, for a solution, the creation of noncapitalist practices and institutions).
Here’s the definition of heterodox economics I gave back in 2010:
Heterodox economics comprises all those theories that academic economists and others use to criticize and develop alternatives to mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) approaches. Heterodox and mainstream theories differ in terms of their starting points, methodologies, and conclusions. Thus, for example, Marxian economists start with class and use Marxian value theory to criticize capitalism, whereas neoclassical economists start with a set of given preferences, technology, and resource endowments and use a framework of supply and demand to celebrate capitalism. The problems of capitalism and mainstream economic theories, now as throughout their history, create the space for and interest in heterodox approaches.
To practice that kind of left-wing heterodox economics means one does have to know something about Marx, Kalecki, Sraffa, and Minsky—because their work (and that of many others) constitutes the foundations (or at least some of the foundations) of nonmainstream, heterodox analysis.
Heterodox economists reject economic orthodoxy not, as Dillow believes, because they’re ignorant of what the orthodoxy is or because of some kind of halo effect, but because, when they look at the world through the lens of Marx, Kalecki, Sraffa, and Minsky, they see an economic and social system that continues to discipline and punish the vast majority of people in order to benefit a tiny minority at the top. They see, in other words, an economy that is inherently unstable, fundamentally unequal, and profoundly unjust.
Hence, heterodox economists see that another economics—another economic theory as well as another economic system—is both necessary and possible. Mainstream economists, for their part, don’t.