Having refined what was once the profession of law to a science, the faculty at Harvard Law School are turning their sights to what, in their eyes, must be the only disciplines less scientific than the law: economics and psychology.
What Harvard wants to know is: what sort of mental illness drives a man to believe in free markets?
Consider the items on the agenda at "The Free Market Mindset: History, Psychology, And Consequences," Harvard's Third Conference on Law and Mind Sciences:
Jaime Napier, "The Palliative Function of Ideology"
In this research, we drew on system-justification theory and the notion that conservative ideology serves a palliative function to explain why conservatives are happier than liberals. Specifically, in three studies using nationally representative data from the United States and nine additional countries, we found that right-wing (vs. left-wing) orientation is indeed associated with greater subjective well-being and that the relation between political orientation and subjective well-being is mediated by the rationalization of inequality. In our third study, we found that increasing economic inequality (as measured by the Gini index) from 1974 to 2004 has exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer against the negative hedonic effects of economic inequality.
Ms. Napier, a Ph.D. candidate in "social psychology" at NYU, accepts the premise (sometimes batted around on the internet) that conservatives are happier than liberals. Her explanation is that conservatives, blinded by their ideology, fail to see the social injustice that surrounds them, and when they do see it, they fail to care. Telling is her reference to a free-market ideology as "palliative." A palliative drug, like ibuprofen or cough syrup, relieves symptoms without curing an underlying disease.
Taking the analogy further, one would presume that Ms. Napier would classify leftist ideology as a curative drug, like the antibiotic penicillin. But would Ms. Napier, who seems to be a specialist in wordplay if not medicine, accept the analogy that an overabundance of leftist politics, like penicillin, produces resistant strains of social disease which ultimately strike society harder and with greater morbidity than the original disease, eventually requiring the transition to more extreme forms of ideology? If trade unions and social security are penicillin, will ending social injustice require communism, mandatory abortions for families with more than two children, and pan-biologic plant rights legal theory in the future?
Or consider the presentation of Stephen Marglin, on "How Thinking Like An Economist Undermines Community"
Economics is a two-faced, one might almost say schizophrenic, discipline. It claims to be a science, describing the world, telling it like it is without preconception or value judgment. (Never mind that the hey-day of positivism that enshrines the separation between fact and value is long past; economists have always lived in a time warp.) The reality is that descriptive economics has been shaped by a framework of assumptions, a metaphysics more geared to its normative message than to its descriptive pretensions. This framework is essential to the normative side of an economics that trumpets the virtues of markets and is maintained even when it gets in the way of understanding how the economy really works.
The 19th century physicist, Lord Kelvin, famously proclaimed the virtue of knowledge imbued with the precision of number. Economics goes physics one better, from epistemology to ontology: anything we can’t measure—like community—simply doesn’t exist. If your model of the world is inhabited by self-interested individuals rationally calculating how to consume ever more, for whom society is the nation-state, community is not going to show up on your radar. It goes without saying that economic hardship, especially the kind caused by unemployment and short hours, will make community more necessary and more visible; people will have to rely on each other more and more as the market fails them. It remains to be seen what impact this dose of reality will have on economics.
At least Professor Marglin, an economist, admits his own limitations. Query whether "Community," for which he advocates in place of property, liberty, and consumption though he admits it cannot be measured, has any benefits to replace the wealth which freer markets generate over time. If an economist cannot measure Community, he certainly cannot measure its benefits.
This presentation, which seems to rely more on metaphysics and philosophy than on economics in advocating collectivist policy, is being delivered at a conference on "Mind Science." In case Professor Marglin's presentation is intended to fulfill the conference's "Law" quota, it's worth noting that he sits on the Executive Committee of the World Future Conference, which advocates a:
Campaign for the criminalization of acts that have severe consequences for the health, safety or means of survival of future generations of humans, or threaten the survival of entire species or ecosystems.
Such as drilling for oil, manufacturing trucks, driving non-hybrids, or owning a house in Southern California, I suppose. All these industries and productive activities which are going the way of the dodo in the current economy, a blessing for which mentally ill libertarians should be thankful, lest they be prosecuted for crimes against future generations in the World of the Future.
And finally, consider the work of Juliet Schor, who teaches sociology and women's studies at Boston College, "Colossal Failure: The Output Bias Of Market Economies"
Mainstream economic theory claims that a competitive market equilibrium delivers optimal levels of consumption and well-being. The reasoning relies on a number of invalid assumptions, including the crucial premise that individuals’ preference structures are independent. If consumption is social, as considerable social science research shows, then the market delivers excessive levels of consumption, too many hours of work, and too much ecological degradation. (This is in addition to the well-known argument that ecological goods are externalities.) In this talk I discuss the implications of what has become a profound market failure, and how we can rectify it.
In other words, if consumption is social, as considerable social science research shows, then I have a say in whether my neighbor, who works longer hours and sacrificed to attend a better school than I, has a right to spend his hard-earned money on a new car, as opposed to a new Community Recreation Center, which would benefit me and the rest of my community. Indeed, as a member of the community, I have the right to say that my neighbor spends his time on "too many hours of work," and to legislate appropriately as they do in France. Should my neighbor disagree that I have as much say over his spending and how he spends his time as he does, that's just a sign of his maladjustment and pathology, for which he should be treated at the Community Mental Health Center.
I encourage you to read the entire agenda and its abstracts, all of which drip with the assumption that people who believe economic liberty is morally right, or simply utilitarian, are deluded creatures who deserve study and treatment.
Cato at Liberty, where I learned of this program, compares its agenda to that of psychological practice in the latter, more humane days of the Soviet Union, where dissidents who spoke too loudly in favor of individual rights, to speech, religion, or economic liberty were placed in mental hospitals. That comparison is over the top, in a couple of ways.
Practically, no one presenting at the conference of law and "mind science" has the power to institutionalize anyone. They're only silly academics, prating their theories to like-minded academics who have internalized the notion that anyone who disagrees with their economic and political agenda must be missing a screw. That their junk science attempts to portray differences of opinion as mental defects is dangerous only to civility and political discourse, not to individuals.
But on a theoretical level, comparing these people to Soviet psychologists is a disservice to the Soviets. When the Soviets came up with the notion that dissidents were mentally ill, one of the points underlying the quack diagnosis was, in lay terms, that only a crazy person would be so reckless as to challenge the state. Considering what happened to Soviet dissidents, that may actually have been good science. The prior penalty for differing with the collective was the Gulag or worse, so it might be rational on some level to call the psychologists' victims mentally ill.
In that, the Soviet psychological establishment produced better science than will the Harvard Law School's Third Conference on Law and Mind Sciences.