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Widely-held strange beliefs

I followed a debate over at Larvatus Prodeo on the ‘Literary Studies Argy-Bargy’ that deepened somewhat yesterday when John Howard criticised the teaching of English in Australian schools. I entirely support John Howard’s view that English studies should not reflect post-modernist philosophy, feminism and Marxism. But that is not what I want to post on here (though your views are welcome). What I am interested in is how many people do obsess on the issue of strange ideologies such as Marxism which seem to me thoroughly discredited ideas.

I agree with Paul Samuelson that, as an economist, Karl Marx was a ‘minor post-Ricardian’ and quite uninteresting. His theory of value lacks logic (though it was accepted by Smith and Ricardo) and his belief in the increasing misery of the working class proved false. Those interested in reading classical economics would be far better-off turning to David Ricardo or Adam Smith though I wouldn’t recommend these either if I wanted to understand how modern capitalism works. If I was a beginner I’d go for something like Paul Samuelson’s Economics. The discipline of economics has progressed so much over the past century – it would be foolish to use obsolete theory.

Marxism is of course of interest in sociology and to the governments of Cuba and North Korea but I wondered who else is interested. Well apparently a lot of people according to a rough search I did this morning using Google Scholar. The approach isn’t very scientific (the use of Goggle Scholar in more traditional citation counts is analysed here) but I still found the results interesting. I cite the exact search item used and the Google Scholar hits encountered.

Maynard Keynes 12,000
Paul Samuelson 17,000
Postmodernism 50,400
Karl Marx 68,000
Conservatism 124,000
Marxism 133,000
Adam Smith 187,000
Feminism 202,000
Liberalism 209,000.

Marx is still a much-discussed person and Marxism a much-discussed political philosophy. I am heartened that Adam Smith and Liberalism were of such widespread interest but ambivalent about the high score assigned to feminism and disappointed that Lord Keynes and Paul Samuelson ranked so low.

Maybe this is an excessively rough way of assessing the social impact of people and their ideologies. I’d welcome comments about better ways of doing this.

14 comments to Widely-held strange beliefs

  • Anonymous

    this is the same samuelson who thought that the USSR was going to overtake the US? come on.

    smith and marx for all their faults actually understood economic growth and documented it with lively examples and were at its coalface. samuelson is a brilliant theorist who left growth as a black box. growth is one of the most important topics in economics, certainly more so than imaginary general equilibrium. schumpeter thought marx worth reading …


  • P.A. Coplay

    Hi Harry,

    Did you try “Keynes” or “Keynesian”? (“Keynes” may include “Milton Keynes” – maybe do “Keynes” and not “Milton Keynes” which will probably do most of this).This may get more results than “Maynard Keynes” and maybe explain why “Paul Samuelson” received a much higher score than “Maynard Keynes”. I would have expected Keynes to have received more citations not because of their relative contributions to economics but because Keynes is probably cited much more outside of economics, (e.g. politics) being associated with a set of economic policies, whereas Samuelson’s contributions are probably recognized more exclusively within economics.

    To find some idea of where the interest is maybe do searches of:

    “Marxism” and Sociology
    “Marxism” and Politics
    “Marxism” and Economics

    There will inevitably be some overlap but you might get some idea of where Marxism (or Feminism or Conservatism) are of interest?

  • hc

    pac, Tried various things -preferred Maynard Keynes as many other Keynes as you know. If I try Keynes not Milton Keynes (easy to do in Advanced Scholar search) the number rises to 43,000 but there are still many other Keynes.

    I originally got 133,000 for Marxism (M). If I search for M+sociology I get 13,000, M+politics 20,100, M+economics 12,300, M+feminism 11,400. So the ratbags interested in Marxism are fairly evenly distributed among sociologists, political types, economists and hairy backs. The strongest association is politics not sociology.

    I think you would want to play around this a bit before making any strong assertions.

  • hc

    p.a.c., I also tried searching for various combinations of names of economists I new with or without surnames with or without the word economist and so on. You get results very conditional on the commonality of the surname.

    I’ll keep a watchout for research in this area.

  • Jan

    growning up in a ‘socialist’ country I really struggle to understand this wide spread interest in Marxism. I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues (even had a read through some of the ‘Marxism and Leninism’ textbooks that my dad had to study) and it is a load of crap; not only based on unrealistic assumptions but quite incoherent too. It seems to me that the widespread interest has to do with the growing size of the government and its paternalistic role – which results in individuals failing to take responsibility for their lifes and always blaming someone else for their failures.

  • hc

    Jason, Schumpter said that Marx was a ‘very learned man’ (because he has read classical economics) but Schumpeter disagreed with almost everything he said. I find it unbelievable that people outside economics are going to Marx to try to understand how the economy works.

    Growth is hard but poetic vision doesn’t substitute for logic and Marx’s two class model with increasing polarisation and eventual breakdown of capitalism into socialism is fiction. Every major component of the approach has been falsified. Even simple things like the idea that capitalists do all the saving. Wrong!

    I just think trying to understand economics and the rationale for a modern mixed economy makes Samuelson’s text (now with Nordhaus) a great choice. He is smarter than the mad left and the libertarians and makes the valid point that markets are good but that they often stuff up. Its simple but accurate.

    Samuelson wasn’t fixated on GE theory at all. He was one of the early expositors (and long-time supporters) of the Keynesian model

    As a theorist Samuelson (with Hicks) created modern economics. There are no more important figures. He did in fact do a lot of work on growth and growth theory but founded large parts of trade theory, initiated the theory of public finance and made contributions to every field.

    And I still think Samuelson’s work is contributing. I’ve been reading behavioral economics recently and came across Samuelson’s fiirst paper which proposed using models from financial mathematics to analyse intertemporal choice. People widely criticise exponential discounting but going back to the first paper Samuelson wrote you see all the criticisms are anticipated and acknowledged there.

    I am a loyal member of the Paul Samuelson fan club. I’d be interested in the source of the quote that the USSR would overtake the US – I have not seen this.

  • Anonymous

    this is from a biased source but I have seen this reference more than once. you can probably check it in the relevant editions of Economics

    The fifth through eleventh editions showed a graph indicating the gap between the United States and the USSR narrowing and possibly even disappearing (for example, 5:830). The twelfth edition replaced the graph with a table declaring that between 1928 and 1983, the Soviet Union had grown at a remarkable 4.9 percent annual growth rate, higher than did the United States, the United Kingdom, or even Germany and Japan (12:776). By the thirteenth edition (1989), Samuelson and Nordhaus declared, “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive” (13:837). Samuelson and Nordhaus were riot alone in their optimistic: views about Soviet central planning; other popular textbooks were also generous in their descriptions of economic life under communism prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.7

    By the next edition, the fourteenth, published during the demise of the Soviet Union, Samuelson and Nordhaus dropped the word “thrive” and placed question marks next to the Soviet statistics, adding “the Soviet data are questioned by many experts” (14:389). The fifteenth edition (1995) has no chart at all, declaring Soviet Communism “the failed model” (15:714-8). To their credit, Samuelson and Nordhaus (15:737) were willing to admit that they and other textbook writers failed to anticipate the collapse of communism: “In the 1980s and 1990s, country after country threw off the shackles of communism and stifling central planning–not because the textbooks convinced them to do so but because they used their own eyes and saw how the market-oriented countries of the West prospered while the command economies of the East collapsed.”

  • Jan

    I do not quite agree with your conclusion that ‘markets are good but that they often stuff up’. What are you comparing the ‘stuffed up’ outcomes with? The ‘first best’ solution that is commonly purely theoretical (social planner type) but unachievable in practice (due to Hayek type informational problems etc)? It is like complaining about the law of gravity and saying that the nature stuffs up because flying would be more efficient. I do not think this gives students the right message. This is because these market failure conclusions are used to formulate all these prescriptions of what the government should to to correct them and this then leads to first year Eco students using the word ‘government’ more often than ‘market’ in their thinking about the economy (i.e. missing the fundament principles).
    I have nothing about acknowledging the shortcomings of some market outcomes but the discussion should be balanced and it should be explained that in most instances the attempts of governments to correct these lead to far greater failures.

  • hc

    Jan, I beleve governments have a role in providing public goods (including information), correcting externalities (taxing pollution). controlling monopoly poewer etc. I am not a libertarian who believes in ‘private everything’ (David Friedman writes of privately-provided defence etc) but nor do I favour broadly intervening whenever there is a hickup.

    For example I do not claim that intervention should occur every time there is a market failure.

  • Michael Harris


    The point to observe is that Marxism and Marx are now most commonly encountered in English literature and cultural studies fields (rather than economics, political science and sociology) precisely because verification and testability do not matter in there. A priori reasoning based on ideological presumptions reigns supreme.

    I recommend Fred Crews Postmodern Pooh to see how a “text” (in this case Winnie The Pooh) can be read through the lens of one’s choosing, as long as the job of the lens is to tell us who is oppressed, who is doing the oppressing, and what kind of “liberatory” strategy might be on offer, arising from one’s chosen reading lens. Marxism gives us one lens to explain oppression and exploitation; feminism gives another; post-colonialism yet another; and so on.

    Alan Sokal’s hoax was another take on this, supposedly showing how conventional mathematics/physics were tools for enforcing a power structure status quo.

  • hc

    Hi Michael, That’s a very cynical first para – I hope by not deleting it I don’t get hate mail or abused tomorrow in the LTU car parking lot. And, regrettably, I agree with you. When I try to distill my problem with this whole thing its mainly that non-economics social scientists don’t in fact practice much science. Horrible but true.

    I seen the ‘hoax’ and will chase down ‘Postmodern Pooh’. How’s Syd?

  • Michael Harris

    Re Sydney, we’re just mugging around trying to fill a chair, while the university restructures around us, from the top down. This could be fun. :-/

    I skimmed some of the LP dialogue, and was duly appalled, but not surprised. Note the equating there by a few of discussion of “issues involved with capitalism” (and hence critiquing Othello, or MoV or whatever, accordingly) and Marxian analysis. In fact, it’s less of an equation and more of an identity — to speak of capitalism in CultStud circles, one must invoke Marx, and then refer to appropriate scholars that have followed a kind of Marx-in-the-humanities tradition. The Crews book has a hilarious chapter based on an acolyte of Fred Jameson.

    It’s hard to understate this — any training in the modern humanities that deals with “political economy” issues will almost always start with Marx and its system of class struggle and relations between oppressor and oppressed, and go from there.

    In the LP thread it might’ve been amusing to have simply asked which of the twentieth century scholars of capitalism might have interesting insights to draw on in a end-high-school/beginning-uni analysis of a Shakespeare play. As in, y’know, maybe there’s an alternative to Marxian perspectives? My guess would be many of the contributors wouldn’t know too many scholars of capitalism outside their narrow field of experience and if they did, they’d have them ideologically ranked already.

    – Milton Friedman: free market fanatic and supporter of Chile’s oppressive regime, hence can be discounted imediately.
    – Maynard Keynes: nice guy (as in, queer, liked The Yartz, wasn’t a Chicago School fascist), but was an apologist for the liberal capitalist system.
    – Ron Coase: who?
    – Jim Buchanan: see Coase.

    Marx is approved of because he’s clearly “against the system” and so provides a nice set of goggles with which to see the world as a place where particular people are systematically wronged.

    I apologise in advance for any hate mail and/or car park abuse…

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