Economists and Liberal Education

 In my previous post, I provided some thoughts about the ability of the institutional university to supply the holistic educational experience necessary for what it provides to be called a liberal education. That post was an attempt to think institutionally about the points made by Alex regarding liberal education. I am going to continue that form of inquiry by looking at an institutional equivalent of economics: the economist. While it is possible for economics to be liberal, what does it mean for economists to be liberal?

Let us return briefly to Cardinal John Henry Newman’s conception of liberal education. For education to be liberal, it must be holistic. The student must gain insight into the interconnectedness and necessity of all the disciplines and not just the major object of their studies. While a liberal education does not guarantee a virtuous person, it does provide the opportunity for a mature person: one that has (some) grasp on the world and society. Therefore, the chief duty of university faculty is to provide students with the skillsets necessary to think critically. Through (hopefully) critical thought students will make choices and act in and upon the world. Of course, all of this is inherent with the term “art.” Anne M. Carpenter summarizes for us thusly: “In Latin, these meanings are present in a single word: ars means both ‘power/craft’ and ‘skill/art.’ An artist is one who has the power to act skillfully. One who achieves ‘art’ is one who has mastered a skill, so much so that the doing is more art than the finished work is.” It is through the university that faculty train students to become artists and it is through thought that is both free and freeing that students may become liberal artists.

It has been noted that political economy is both an art and a science. However, as political economy dissected and moved from its origins as part of moral philosophy to what it is today, the discipline of economics had to redefine what it meant for itself to be an art. This reconsideration moved the focus of the discipline from the romantic to the practical. Dr. Peter Boettke summarizes: “John Neville Keynes (1852-1949), the father of John Maynard Keynes, famously divided economics into positive economics (study of what is), normative economics (study of what should be) and the ‘art of economics’ (applied economics where the lessons of positive economics are utilized to address normative economics).  It is in the ‘art’ that J. N. Keynes (and Marshall and Pigou) thought that the science of economics will bear fruit.” The students of social complexities became or at least attempted to become the masters. Claims to the illiberality of economists relative to political economy suddenly have credibility.

For economics and economists to be considered liberal, it is necessary for both the subject and its practitioners to find their place again within the university. It is only within the context of other disciplines and with their cooperation that any singular study may find its role. One may consider the contributions of James Buchanan and the Virginia School of Political Economy in this light. (For an account of the emergence and purpose of VPE, please see Levy and Peart's Towards an Economics of Natural Equals:A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School.) Buchanan’s goal and that of the Thomas Jefferson Center was “to carry on the honorable tradition of ‘political economy’—the study of what makes for a ‘good society.’ Political economists stress the technical economic principles that one must understand in order to assess alternative arrangements for promoting peaceful cooperation and productive specialization among free men. Yet political economists go further and frankly try to bring out into the open the philosophical issues that necessarily underlie all discussions of the appropriate functions of government and all proposed economic policy measures. They examine philosophical values for consistency among themselves and with the ideal of human freedom.” An economist who thinks and works like a political economist takes into account that there is more to the discipline than optimization and that there is more to life than economics.


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