“Economics is among the least interdisciplinary and most hierarchical academic fields”
London School of Economics library. Photograph by SomeDriftwood.
Almantas Samalavicius: How does the climate that dominates departments of economics almost worldwide affect the situation of economics inside and outside the academy?
Joshua Farley: The academic discipline of economics has an enormous influence on society. John Maynard Keynes once remarked that ‘practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’ Keynes himself was responsible for rethinking economic theories that were incapable of explaining the great depression or unemployment. Paul Samuelson, who stated ‘I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, or crafts its advanced treaties, if I can write its economics textbooks’, developed the so-called neoclassical-Keynesian synthesis in his 1948 textbook. Far more neoclassical than Keynesian, Samuelson’s approach helped restore faith in unfettered markets, and has formed the core of undergraduate economics ever since. Ironically, though Milton Friedman is credited with the statement ‘we’re all Keynesians now’, he also played a major role in returning the economics discipline to its very un-Keynesian neoclassical roots. An inordinate number of ‘practical men’ now seem to be slaves to Friedman’s ideology. Like the 1920s, academia, government, business and society in general are permeated with the notion that unregulated markets unerringly guide our system to an optimal, equilibrium outcome, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps the main reason that the economic discipline ignores alternatives and fails to question stale theories is because it does not expose itself to outside views or disciplines: economics is among the least interdisciplinary and most hierarchical academic fields, as documented in a fine article by Fourcade et al. In a 2006 survey, over 57% of economists disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘In general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by a single discipline’ – well over twice as many as in most other social sciences. Economists are the least likely of any social scientists to cite journals outside their field, and within the field, citations are predominantly to a handful of journals closely aligned with the leading schools of economics. Promotion and tenure in universities are closely tied to publication in top journals, and in economics departments, this requires toeing the ideological line. Those who fail to do so lose their jobs, further ensuring homogeneity.