What Are Economists Paid to Do?, Cont’d

by Will on October 18, 2010

Good article by John Quiggin about “zombie ideas” in economics that keep coming up again and again. I agree with most of what he says, and with his choice to implicitly characterize Alan Greenspan as a zombie. What he fails to explicitly note is that all of these zombie ideas also just happen to coincide with the interests of the very wealthy and to protect them from interference or criticism. This seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Economists have an incentive to flatter the powerful. And people tend to follow their incentives. This is, indeed, a central idea in economics!

Henry George — San Francisco’s gift to the Dismal Science — had a lower opinion than I do of Thomas Malthus. He noted that Malthus succeeded and won acclaim precisely because of his usefulness to the aristocracy:

What gave Malthus his popularity among the ruling classes… [what] induced sovereigns to send him decorations, and the meanest rich man in England to propose to give him a living, was the fact that he furnished a plausible reason for the assumption that some have a better right to existence than others–an assumption which is necessary for the justification of private property in land, and which Malthus clearly states in the declaration that the tendency of population is constantly to bring into the world human beings for whom nature refuses to provide…

Quoted from page 338 of Progress & Poverty. What was true of Malthus’s time, is true still today.

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