They Change Their Minds

Vernon Smith writes,

My mother was a socialist and her Wichita friends were Marxian socialists; she had only an eighth grade education but that did not keep her from running for Kansas State treasurer on the Socialist ticket. In 1936 when I was nine years old I helped pass out program leaflets for Norman Thomas, candidate for President against Roosevelt. He used to complain that Roosevelt got elected by stealing his program. At 18 (1945) I would have been a member of the YPSL (Young People’s Socialist league).

This is from a very interesting project to ask Nobel Laureates to describe the evolution of their ideological views. Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Some remarks:

1. Several other Nobel laureates were socialists at one point, although none remained so at the time they responded to the survey. Those of you who are under 55 may have a hard time appreciating how central the issues of socialism, Communism, and anti-Communism were in the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, if you don’t understand the role that the socialist ideal played in American intellectual life from 1930 until at least 1960, you cannot fully understand that period.

2. As we start to see more Nobel laureates born after 1950, I expect to see a sharp drop-off in the number for whom socialism played any role at all in their intellectual development. In a way, this is too bad, because I think that it is easier to get stuck feeling comfortable as a conventional liberal than as a socialist. To be a socialist, you have to think through how socialism can work in theory and how it has worked out in practice, and sooner or later you become are likely to change, particularly if you study economics. It seems that once a former socialist becomes skeptical, he or she can wind up almost anywhere else on the ideological spectrum. In contrast, if you just think that “government can do good things,” that is a more robust point of view. You are less likely to undergo a period where you are reconsidering everything.

3. There is not a social conservative among the lot.

4. I never would have guessed that Peter Diamond was a conservative who read National Review in his younger days. In those days, I imagine a nice Jewish boy would have gotten in less trouble sneaking Playboy into the house.

5. In a summary analysis, Daniel Klein says that of the 21 Nobel Laureates he has been able to determine has having moved ideologically, 16 moved in what he calls the classical liberal direction, while 5 moved the other way.

6. I myself have migrated in the classical liberal direction from the far left (not socialist, though). You can read an essay I wrote about that if you buy Marc Guttman’s book.

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One Response to They Change Their Minds

  1. Kent Lyon says:

    All of this just goes to show how non-brilliant Economics nobel laureates are. Takes them a better part of a lifetime to figure out what they think they think, and then they remain uncertain. But then, economics’ primary feature is uncertainty. Unfortunately, the reason these nobel laureates are nobel laureates is probably because they figured out how central to economics uncertainty is. Also unfortunately, the predominant position of, particularly, Keynsian economists, is that they are so certain of themselves. Look at Christine Romer, whose reasearch demonstrated that the Keynsian multiplier is much less than 1.5, but she went ahead with her prediction that the Stimulus would keep unemployment below 8%, and that it would almost instantly return employment to below 6.5%. Such certainty. These were simple calculations. Such idiocy. At least, contrary to Krugman, she had the presence of mind to return to academia and not double down vociferously on her stupid statement. Smart woman.
    For those of us who are not economists, I would say that the illusion that economics is a science is a truly stunning mindset of economists. Economics is a pseudo-quantitative field of speculative humanities. Music is more of a science than economics. Medicine, which is an art, is more of a science than economics. Medicine borrows from the biological and chemical sciences, but remains an art, not a science (I am a physician). Economists, in my view, have the wrong impression of themselves, and the wrong idea about what they are doing. It would enoble economics for its practitioners to acknowledge the non-scientific nature of economics. It is as much science as it is philosophy, or less so. It may borrow from math, statistics, logic, etc., but is something different than all of these. The law of supply and demand is like Starling’s “law” of the heart–a useful framework for discussing interventions, what to do about a given situation, but it can never substitute for treating the whole patient. Otherwise you get the economics equivalent of the old medical maxim: The surgery was a success, but the patient died.

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