I often wonder what leads economists and other social scientists more broadly, to choose which set of theories or paradigm to follow, and to invest their thinking and research time in. For example, how does a Marxist become a Marxist, or a Keynesian a Keynesian? Given the dedication of practitioners to a particular group of ideas and theories, and the range of theories available to be explored and developed, can it all be down to theoretical consistency, or is something else at work?
From my own perspective, analytical richness and the ability of a particular theory to ‘explain’ certain aspects of the ‘reality’ or object under investigation in political economy and economics are important. But I am also aware that my inescapable ideology, set of beliefs and values and hence psychological make-up are very relevant. Not very long after starting my studies in economics, I came to the conclusion that state intervention in the economy was an important part of improving economic performance. I took on board various ideas drawn from the Keynesian and post-Keynesian traditions: that the capitalist economy inevitably and periodically suffers from unemployment, and that a range of government policies can improve this situation. More recently I have explored approaches influenced by the writings of Marx and have become more pessimistic about the ability of the capitalist economy to avoid unemployment, even with state intervention. In the years since the beginning of the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and beyond, I have become aware that theorising about the importance of state intervention in the development process and in promoting human welfare and social justice does give me a sense of intellectual self-importance. Whether this is positive or not, the fact remains that my psychological profile leads me to be interested in politics, particularly from the perspective of policy rather than personality, and I find attractive ideas on how state intervention can be used effectively to improve human welfare.
Apart from personal psychology, I have also found that following global and national economic developments and the policy responses on the part of governments have provided an experience which has shifted my views on economics towards more Marxist analyses of capitalism, although I am not convinced by the idea that socialism is the solution to its problems, and remain more of a reformist.
Many Marxists are also socialists, and put forward the idea that the contradictions of capitalism can only be solved by a revolutionary change in society to a socialist mode of production. Post-Keynesians see unemployment and inequality as inevitable under capitalism unless various state policies are used to mitigate them, such as demand management, incomes policies, redistribution through the tax and welfare systems and also reform of the international financial and monetary and trade architecture. Neo-liberal economists by contrast see state intervention as the cause of many of the problems under capitalism, and the absence of the former, through deregulation, privatisation, tax and spending cuts and the retreat of the state as solutions. In practice, neo-liberalism since the 1970s has involved extensive state intervention, but favouring capital and particular markets and by promoting a financial and business elite rather than labour and the poorer elements of society or even in recent years the middle class in many countries.
In my view, the intellectual pluralism we have (although in economics, the mainstream has been dominant and intolerant of alternatives) is not so much down to the validity or not of the theories in question, although this must be part of it, or else academic research would be pointless, but as partly down to the beliefs, values, ideology and psychological make-up of those espousing the various schools of thought. These causes can help to explain why we are attracted to a particular school of thought. Beliefs and values can have origins in both genetic inheritance and also learning or how we are brought up, are educated and absorb social influences. Thus both individual and social factors can be determining.
Given our personal make-up, we may be attracted to particular theoretical outcomes in social science, while other, different, outcomes make us uncomfortable and we reject them, maybe even at first unconsciously. We may subsequently find a way to reject particular theories such as those justifying state intervention or social revolution in favour of a more palatable outcome produced by a different theory, whatever that might be. As mentioned above, this is not to say that academic research and intellectual endeavour are not relevant, but that they are only part of the story in deciding which theoretical outcomes are supported, come to prominence and are used to influence members of a society, as well as the policies adopted by our political leaders. Recognising this kind of process can help us become more self-conscious in our thinking, which is vital to intellectual progress.