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September 04, 2013


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This looks to me more like an instance of a left-wing economics faculty expelling its pro-market dissenters than of a dispute over personal politics.

Which is to say, I'm not sure the failure here consists in evaluating a scholar's work and arguments other than "on their own terms."


Allowing employers to hire and fire for any reason will lead to an efficient outcome.


@ Tde: Provided that includes deans.

Michelle Meyer

@ThinkLike: Your comment got stuck in the spam folder; sorry about that.

I don't *think* we disagree. In particular, I certainly agree that (assuming the article is to be believed) Coase's pro-market scholarship was an issue for the UVa dean, and so to that extent, yes, the dean was dealing with Coase’s scholarship on its own terms. But there does seem to have been an assumption that Coase’s pro-market arguments meant he held right-of-center political views, which I found independently worthy of comment. What I was trying to highlight was the way in which scholarly methodologies (for lack of a better word) are often assumed to be linked to political viewpoints.

Let me give you an example. (Warning: oversimplification ahead!) Much of (law and) econ tends to overlap with utilitarianism (efficiency, seeking to maximize joint surplus value, etc.). In applied ethics, which I got a PhD in before attending law school, to the extent that one might characterize scholarship as "left" or "right," a decent, if imperfect, heuristic would be to associate utilitarian and other consequentialist forms of moral reasoning as relatively "left" and much deontological reasoning (though certainly not all, e.g., human rights-based scholarship) as relatively "right." (In my own AOS of bioethics, for instance, compare Peter Singer with Leon Kass.) When I went to law school, simply in order to understand the politics and subtexts of legal academia, I had to retrain my brain to associate law and econ, i.e., utilitarianism, with the political right.

Returning to Coase, I’ll grant that, as a heuristic, it’s not crazy to associate either a pro-market approach or, for that matter, economics generally with relatively right-of-center politics (or at least right-of-center in the academy). But the correlation is imperfect, and the more fundamental question is why we need such heuristics in the first place. Why do we have such a need to sort scholars into political categories at all? There are well-established arguments for and against both markets and utilitarianism. Why not focus on them?

I suspect to some extent the need to sort and categorize is deeply rooted in human cognitive psychology: we do depend on heuristics and categories to efficiently navigate the world. But is it too much to ask that academics, of all people, and when dealing with scholars and scholarship, at least try to focus on the four corners of the work? That was the point I was trying, inartfully, to make.

Alfred Brophy

Michelle -- very interested in your thoughts on the political orientation of utiliarianism. I face similar questions with my 19th century thinkers/politicians/judges. We usually associate utilitarianism with Bentham and Mill -- both antislavery. Yet, a lot of the proslavery types employed utilitarian calculations. So often when I talk about the proslavery politicians and judges and how they were employed considerations of utility I get people asking (in essence), how can that be? Utiliarians are anti-slavery. And some of my proslavery southerners explicitly criticize Bentham and/or Mill. A lot of the explanation is what values one plugs into the calculations of utility.

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