How to Teach Austrian Economics in the Current Political Atmosphere
Since retiring from Frostburg State University in Maryland, I have reflected not only on my more than three decades of teaching college economics in numerous places, but also on how to best teach economics. This is important, as millions of students in college and high school take economics yet all too often are presented a false or misleading picture of what economics really is.
The so-called comeback of Keynesian economics during the 2008 meltdown and its aftermath, along with the rise of progressive economists like Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty, has caused untold damage. People are being told that raw state power is the key to a successful economy, and politicians are anxiously putting those theories into practice.
Moreover, academic economics is being further corrupted by hard-left politics, whose invasion of the academy exploded after the death of George Floyd two years ago. It no longer matters what one does in the classroom as long one’s politics are in line with the political officers in university administration with the official title of Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Any deviation from the standard narrative is not tolerated. Higher education has become a totalitarian minefield.
So, how does one teach economics in this brave new world in which political narratives are treasured above the truth? Is it even possible anymore?
The short answer is yes, but I do not know how long it will be before that no longer is the case. First, we must remember that future economics professors will be doing their doctoral studies at institutions that openly claim free markets are racist and worse, and students that believe otherwise will either be denied admission to graduate school or dismissed from their programs should their free-market viewpoints be exposed.
While market-oriented programs still exist, they will be under fire from left-wing faculty members and administrators, and those of us who have been involved with higher education for many years know that leftist academics do not fight fair nor are honest brokers. For example, the economics department at George Mason University has produced two Nobel winners, yet the department is constantly under fire from leftist faculty that would love nothing more than to see the entire program shut down. Academic achievement, even at the highest levels, no longer matters in higher education.
Moreover, in my two decades at Frostburg State, I witnessed the moral shift in how the noneconomic academic community regard economics. Although theologian Carl Trueman of Grove City College was explaining why the academy today rejects evangelical Christianity, his analysis also points to what is happening with economics and how it is taught:
Our postmodern world sees all claims to truth as bids for power, all stable categories as manipulative—and the task of the academy is to catechize students into this orthodoxy. By definition, such a world rejects any notion that scholarly canons, assumptions, and methods can be separated from moral convictions and outcomes.
A search of social media, progressive politicians’ latest utterings, and a sampling of Krugman’s columns can find all of the above focused on economic thinking, and especially an economics built from what Ludwig von Mises called wertfreiheit, or value-free analysis. One of the hard lessons I had to learn in my thirty-plus years of being on college faculties was that every English, history, and philosophy professor knew infinitely more about economics than I ever could (they see economists as shills for corporations), and they also see every transaction, every price, and every aspect of production as strictly moral choices.
It does not work to reason with people like this about the details of a price system, since everyone knows that prices are arbitrary numbers created by profit-seeking capitalists seeking to unjustly rob the community. (The only time I have seen progressives insist that markets operate solely on independent entities of supply and demand is their insistence that Joe Biden’s actions have had absolutely no effect upon gasoline prices.)
Unfortunately, the penchant for turning economics into woke moral theater is infecting economics departments, too, as the semiconservative nature of many departments is being exchanged for leftist domination. Moreover, one can depend on this trend continuing, as leftists hire only leftists, and as that process continues, graduate programs in economics will reflect the hard-left viewpoints.
This trend will accelerate over time, and young people who like me have come to deeply appreciate the economic way of thinking might find limited opportunities to join the economics professorate. For now, there are programs and departments (found usually in the less-than-elite institutions) that will accommodate free-market-oriented teaching, but at least some of those will either be transformed into leftist playgrounds or disappear altogether.
Such analysis brings me back to the original issue of how we should present economics. Because many academic doors are closing to free-market thinking, the importance of outfits like the Mises Institute is going to increase. (No, this is not a fundraising letter, but you can give to the institute if you’d like.)
The reasons are many. First, and most important, the Mises Institute has a number of excellent scholars on hand who are on higher education faculties or are retired from college teaching. Second, it has a large and accessible library of scholarship. Third, it offers a master’s degree in Austrian economics that is academically rigorous and provides an excellent foundation for approaching economic thought.
This is not just a pitch for my employer. Things are changing rapidly in higher education, which has been one of the most important ways to present economic thinking—but it is not the only way. Many of us have learned about the Austrian school through means other than formal education. For example, while I have a PhD in economics, my only formal exposure to Austrian economics was in a History of Economic Thought class. Everything else I have learned through the Mises Institute or the Foundation for Economic Education. (William H. Peterson introduced me to Ludwig von Mises and others through articles from The Freeman.)
There are a few higher education programs teaching the Austrian school, including at Grove City College, but not many, and the opportunities to teach in this way will become increasingly limited. However, one often learns best by pursuing knowledge independently, and there are many private resources available for those who wish to learn economics—and those that wish to participate in presenting it.