Conservative Economics and the “Conquest of the Campus”

A battle is currently raging in economics departments across the United Kingdom. Sparked by student protests at Manchester University over the lack of diversity in economics majors’ core curricula, this national debate is intensifying after a group of economics professors has backed the protesters.

They have done so in the form of an open letter which calls out the British university system for being cowed by external funders into teaching exclusively free market economics while ignoring other theories which account for the defects widely understood to be responsible for both the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008.

Here’s more from The Guardian’s coverage of the controversy:

In a startling attack on the agencies that provide teaching and research grants, they said an “intellectual monoculture” is reinforced by a system of state funding based on journal rankings “that are heavily biased in favour of orthodoxy and against intellectual diversity.”

The academics said in a letter to the Guardian that a “dogmatic intellectual commitment” to teaching theories based on rational consumers and workers with unlimited wants “contrasts sharply with the openness of teaching in other social sciences, which routinely present competing paradigms.”

They said: “Students can now complete a degree in economics without having been exposed to the theories of Keynes, Marx or Minsky, and without having learned about the Great Depression.”

It’s important to understand that bias in favor of laissez-faire capitalism extends beyond the U.K. and is in fact pervasive in university economics departments across the United States as well. As I have previously written, the philosophy of market self-regulation fell completely out of favor after the 1929 stock market crash, and was replaced by John Maynard Keynes’s theory of government interventionism and market correction.Yet, behind a half-century of throwing money at the problem, wealthy businessmen who headed companies like GE, Coors, and DuPont managed to revive free market advocacy.

The university was one of the most important battlefields on which they waged this intellectual assault, going so far as to pay out of their own coffers for free market intellectual Friedrich Hayek to be a faculty member at the University of Chicago from 1948-1958.1 But this dispute really took shape in the 1970s, during a period historian Bethany Moreton has referred to as “the conquest of the campus.”2

At the beginning of the ’70s, liberal arts education pervaded the university system, forming the bedrock of college education. But the decade was a tumultuous one for the American economy. The combination of the oil crisis and nagging stagflation meant the disruption of thirty years of American material prosperity, leaving young, educated Americans searching for jobs (much like today).

Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Congress (a pro-business lobby, not a government body) took advantage of the unrest caused by the decade-long economic crises by joining forces with disgruntled students such as SIFE, or Students in Free Enterprise, who wanted more “practical” educations. Together, they carried out pro-business campaigns that were ultimately successful in reorienting undergraduate curricula toward vocational training and free market economics, away from the humanities (which are in major trouble in twenty-first century America).

Daniel T. Rodgers provides a particularly clear example of conservatives’ victory in transforming universities’ approaches to economics. According to Rodgers, it was during this period that Paul Samuelson’s predominant economics textbook rearranged its chapter-order. While originally, the book opened by teaching macroeconomics (which assumes imperfect markets) and concluded by teaching microeconomics (which assumes perfect markets), Samuelson’s publishers began sticking macroeconomics in the back of the book, choosing instead to focus on teaching a subject premised on the perfection of the capitalist system.3

Such a result is unsurprising in light of the university’s turn toward conservative economics in the 1970s.

photo credit: wlodi, Creative Commons/flickr

1. Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009).

2. Bethany Moreton, “Make Payroll, Not War,” in eds. Schulman Zelizer, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 58.

3. Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), (Kindle Ed).