Why Do Economists Sympathize with the Right?

This is a legitimate question even though it doesn’t necessarily imply that economists (American such, at least) in general are Republicans. But it is a fact that economists in general tend to be to the “right” (according to the common understanding of the political right) of e.g. sociologists and political scientists. It is also a fact that you will find more libertarians in this discipline than in virtually any other such in academia. Why is this so?

The general leftist might not find this question troubling, since the “obvious” answer is that economists work with money and capital and therefore have a natural and benefiting relationship with capital owners in our capitalist economy. This may be an answer that explains some individuals’ actions and convictions, but it is hardly the reason economists in general – theoretically or in reality – tend to have free market ideals. But it may be an easy way of avoiding over-simplifying and over-politicizing the issue.

Some may argue the other side of the simplified leftist coin: that there is a “selection bias” and therefore that people who like money and capital(ism) are more likely to choose to work with and study money and capital. This too may explain why some of the individuals in economics feel they belong on the right. But it doesn’t explain why virtually a whole discipline identify with the “right” side of the political spectrum.

The real answer should be based in simple economic theory: the theory of incentives, or, rather, the assumption that people do what they have an incentive to do. This is a core understanding in economics of the true nature of human action. People do what they have an incentive to do, and understanding this may lead the individual economist researcher to the solution to many a problem. Understanding that people do what they have an incentive to do explains virtually any social standards or institutions.

What this means here is that economists think this way and therefore necessarily think this way also with respect to politics and the organization of government. Seeing that individuals in government are acting on their incentives means seeing all the possible problems with government. For instance, take any democratically elected parliament taking the proposed budget to a vote. If the members of parliament would pay whatever is spent themselves they would have a great incentive of minimize the budget, make sure that it is spent and distributed efficiently, that only projects with great chances of success and with real benefits would see the light of day. But this is not the case; politicians choose what to spend other people’s money on.

Imagine what this screwed up set of incentives would mean in another setting, e.g. a common grocery store. We know that the owner or manager of the store makes sure to hire those he can trust to sell (and not steal) the groceries and he will only buy those groceries he knows people will buy. Why? Because his ass is on the line – if he spends most of the budget on groceries nobody wants he will lose customers and therefore his own money…and perhaps the whole store. 

Now imagine the same situation but where the owner or manager can decide how much money he gets to spend through simply taking other people’s money. Whoever lives in the area has to pay whatever percentage of his income to the owner of the grocery store so that the grocerer can buy goods to offer his customers. Now what are the incentives for him to buy only good products, only products people will like, and hire people he can trust? It makes more sense to buy the cheapest groceries, no matter if people like them, and hire the people he likes or people he feels sorry for or people he wants to do a favor. 

It is not necessary to ask which grocery store will be of greater utility for the customer, even if some of the groceries in the “political” grocery store are for free. 

This is how any political parliament works: politicians claim they are limited by their budgets, but they get to decide the size of the budget (and take the money necessary) and even if they should stay within the budget. It is often the case that they spend way more than they take from people, thereby not only spending people’s earned incomes but also the money they will earn in the future. So any political organization is, in terms of incentives, totaly screwed up. Or, to translate it into economic lingo, the incentives between the principal (voter) and agents (politicians) are misaligned.

So it makes sense for economists to identify with whatever politician that seems to understand more (read: seems to be less ignorant) about these things. And these people, at least rhetorically, are often found in the political right. I say rhetorically, since it is pretty obvious to whoever understands politics that in the choice between Bush and Obama neither one understands the first thing about economics. But Bush was able to make it sound like he had a fraction of a clue. 

The interesting point is not really that economists identify with the political right, but rather why they do not follow their theoretical understanding all the way through and demolish the State – at least in their thinking. Some of them clearly do (I am one), but not very many. 

So what we have here is really a whole academic discipline that understands, or supposedly understands, economics and therefore can identify the lack of aligned incentives in political organization – but don’t do so all the way. Economists either do not fully believe economic theory or they do not believe government is what it is (and claims to be). Which is it?

Some clearly do not understand and do not wish to understand economic theory nor apply it on other things than their precious formulas and functions. Such economists will never find any truth and will not produce anything of value to anyone. But what about the rest? It is clear that many economists live in symbiosis with the State and therefore do not wish to think about it in less positive terms. After all, the government employs a lot of economists and economists find it very prestigeous to work for the people with political power. So they simply neglect to apply their economic understanding on the organization they wish to serve.

So how about the rest, i.e. economists who do understand economic theory and wo do not find it necessary to lie to themselves in what regards the State? The answer to this question is what is very sad. It should be the case that economists who end up identifying with the political “right” while supporting government simply do so because they are as brainwashed as most people. Despite being scholars in economics they have learned throughout their lifetimes that there is no way to survive without government.

Economists (many of them) may not like government, but they accept it and even support it. And they use their sound theories to make government more efficient and effective – simply because they have been taught that there is no other way. To a free-thinking individual with economic understanding this is of course the same as saying that a certain industry “must” function like the “statist” grocery store mentioned above – but that we need to make its wasteful operations as efficient and effective as possible not to get “too much waste.”

Anyone understanding the competitive market understands that waste is not acceptable, that waste is minimized automatically through the profit motive and the pressure from competition. The problem here is not only that government is a monopoly and that the profit motive is nonexistent. The problem is also that it is an organization that can “legitimately” force its customers (and non-customers) to pay for its costs while it can supply whatever it wishes at whatever cost it finds most appropriate. 

Government, in other words, is an organization that is much much worse than any monopoly mentioned in economic theory – it is a monopoly cubed, judging from the weird incentives it creates and the effect it has on the market. There is therefore no way of understanding economists’ support for government other than that they have given up in the sense not applying what they know to it. Brainwashing works, even on those who have dedicated your whole professional lives to learning the truth – and when the truth speaks out clearly against government.