Noah Smith Wants Harvard to Abandon Its Devotion to “Libertarian” Economic Theory. Really.

By: Troy Vincent

Let’s talk about Econ 101, scientism and modern economics.

At Bloomberg, Noah Smith argues that Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Economics textbook is out of date because academic economists are more concerned with empirics and wealth inequality.

Furthermore, Smith pushes the view that economic theory itself is outdated. Not only because academic economists no longer study it or care about it, but supposedly because empirics have proven the laws of economics to be out of touch with reality.

He purports that Mankiw proposes theoretical insights that are skewed against redistribution because of his “libertarian political slant.” This just seems to be another way of saying that it avoided most Keynesian mathematics and empiricism and focused on the foundational theory.

Many libertarians derive their views on economics from the Austrians. It’s worth noting that Mankiw admittedly never read any Austrian economists in undergrad or grad school and only first read Hayek and added a note on Hayek to the 4th edition of his text in the mid-to-late 2000’s. If you’re conflating politics with economics, Mankiw is far from an Austrian or Austro-libertarian.

Smith neither addresses Mises’ a priori defense of economic theory, or praxeology, nor Hayek’s criticism of the scientism of the social sciences.

Smith also doesn’t address the obvious: economic incentives explain the rise in empiricism in academia. And the politicization of the economy and growth in government explains why the economics professions have shifted politically left and focused their efforts on income distribution.

Smith states that new empirical methods prove that the assumption that economic actors are perfectly rational is false and uses this insight to disparage economists and libertarians relying on insights derived from the foundations of economics.

Disparaging Mankiw’s lessons as skewed by libertarian thought ignores the fundamentals of Austro-libertarian economics. Mises did not rely on a view of perfect rationality to arrive at economic conclusions or to confirm the laws of economics. As Mises stated in Theory and History:

The sciences of human action starts from the fact that man purposefully aims at ends he has chosen. It is precisely this that all brands of positivism, behaviorism, and panphysicalism want either to deny altogether or to pass over in silence.

I will conclude with Mises’ address to this very debate:

Economic statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification and falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historical events.

While Mankiw is no Austrian, we should not let Smith dictate the discussion or get away with wrongly conflating various economic and political views given that he’s completely ignoring long-standing economic explanations that address his criticism of foundational economic insights.

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