Substituting economics for politics is a failure

The verdict is in on “economism.”

Cory Doctorow


Economist Arthur Laffer standing at a podium. A thought-bubble is coming out of his head. In it is a horse. Image: Gage Skidmore (modified) CC BY-SA 2.0

Most of us believe that we do stuff because we want to be good people, and that other people act the same. But the dominant political philosophy for the last half-century, “economism,” views us as slaves to “incentives” and nothing more.

Economism is the philosophy of the neoclassical economists, whose ideology has consumed both the Democrats and Republicans. They dismiss all “non-market” solutions (that is, projects of democratically accountable governments) as failed before they’re begun, due to the “incentives” of the individuals in the government.

Economism’s major project has been to dismantle the achievements of the New Deal (Social Security, unions, public housing, limits on corporate power) and to discredit the very idea that we can or should attempt those sorts of bold initiatives.

In economicist doctrine, it’s actually impossible to make national parks or social security or public healthcare, and people are naive to even think we should try. To the extent that these things actually exist and thrive and please people in the real world, they are mirages — they don’t work in theory, so they must not work in practice, either.

It’s not that progressives ignored economists. Some 5,000 economists worked with FDR to craft the New Deal. But while FDR employed a lot of economists, his successors set out to create full employment in the profession — by the 1980s, there were 16,000 federal economists.

In “May God Save Us From Economists,” in the New Republic, Timothy Noah takes us on a whirlwind tour of the disastrous rise of economism and the changing currents that are finally deprecating its ideology and methodology — and not a minute too soon.

In 1944, Paul Samuelson called World War II “the economist’s war.” JK Galbraith did research for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey that concluded that military doctrine overestimated the usefulness of aerial bombing. Milton Friedman tried and failed to use economics to develop high-temperature alloys. The…