Economics is a liberal discipline. This is my argument, expressed as concisely as possible. I do not have in mind political or social liberalism. The historical connections between economics and the various European liberalisms have been well-established by intellectual historians. Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was a watershed moment for economics and liberalism. The rise of Manchesterism, with its advocacy of free markets both domestically and abroad, was another. Similar examples exist for France, Italy, and Germany, even if they proved less definitive than in England and Scotland. This is neither new nor controversial. Instead, my interest is the relationship between economics and a liberal outlook, or worldview—and, as an essentially related matter, a liberal education. Although it is seldom appreciated, economics is liberal in this sense, too.
At first glance, this is an unlikely assertion. Edmund Burke, the founding father of Anglosphere conservatism, was an exemplary liberal in the sense I mean, and his works still have a place of honor in many liberal arts curricula. Yet despite holding his contemporary Adam Smith in high regard, Burke had serious reservations about economics. The following passage from his Reflections on the Revolution in France expresses his worries: “[T]he age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize, is gone!”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Russell Kirk, who contributed so much to the Burkean revival in post-War American conservatism. Kirk was not concerned primarily with politics, but with arts and letters—the intellectual life. He too was an advocate of cultivating both mind and character through a liberal education. In a foreword to one of the few works by an economist he admired, Kirk wrote, “I have regarded with some suspicion many practitioners of the Dismal Science…In general, I have found economists a blinkered breed, worshiping the false god Efficiency.” Interestingly, Kirk authored an introductory economics textbook, one of the goals of which was to present a more liberal view of the discipline. Kirk was clearly more comfortable with the moral outlook of Smithian political economy than the kind of economics practiced within the post-War academy. Mainstream economics would certainly not be granted a place in Kirk’s scholarly pantheon.
These are just a few examples. Criticisms of economics due to its illiberality or inhumanity are commonplace. In fact, they are so common, it seems universally accepted that economics cannot be liberal in the sense I mean. Perhaps a well-rounded education contains a bit of economics, as a concession to the distasteful reality of our calculating, commercial society. But it certainly does not rival the importance of, say, literature and philosophy in a liberal education.
A response to these criticisms could go one of two ways. It could confront the “distasteful reality of our calculating, commercial society” head-on, and argue that that there is nothing distasteful about commerce or its study. Call this the doux commerce category of counterarguments—that exchange relations civilize and humanize us, and economics can better help us understand this process. Deirdre McCloskey is the most capable defender of this approach, and her works present a serious challenge to the idea that economics is inherently illiberal. McCloskey is far from an economic reductionist, or what is sometimes demeaned as “economic imperialism.” Her insistence that economics is not opposed to humane studies deserves serious consideration.
But there is another way. Instead of pruning branches, one can strike the root. If a liberal worldview is the product of a liberal education, then showing economics belongs with the humane disciplines, for the same reasons that these disciplines are essential for a liberal education, also shows economics is an indispensable component of such a worldview. This is an intriguing possibility. But it comes with significant difficulties. It requires demonstrating that economics not only belongs with humane studies; it is a humane study.
Looking ahead, I will do this by bringing economics to bear on some classic texts in liberal arts curricula. I intend to show that reading these texts through the lens of economics can help us appreciate them in new ways. I do not argue one needs to know economics in order to be enriched by these texts. But I do argue that knowing economics enables one to get more out of them than one otherwise would.
But this is getting too far ahead. First, I need to refine what I mean by “liberal education” and “economics,” since even among advocates and practitioners of these things, there are many conceptions. Going forward, I will flesh out these concepts and focus on the bridge between them. Afterwards, I will consider why the “liberal economics” thesis has not been more extensively explored, focusing (sadly) on how economists have often been their own worst enemies. Finally, I will explore what all this means for the argument that economics deserves to be classified as a liberal art.