The economic style of thinking has undeniably constrained progressive ambitions. Yet this framing overlooks a secondary role that the economic style plays in political life: it provides cover for explicitly conservative and reactionary arguments by cloaking them in seemingly apolitical, technical expertise.
For fifty years, presidents of both parties have offered a vision of regulatory policy that takes the economic style of reasoning as its North Star. Republican and Democratic presidents have differed, however, in their willingness to sacrifice economic purity when it disrupts their larger policy agendas. While Republican administrations have tended to ignore this criterion when it doesn’t align with their political priorities, Democratic presidents have been more foolishly consistent.
The rise of the “economic style of reasoning” in the 1960s cannot be properly understood without attending to the political fallout of earlier decades. Institutional economists and social Keynesians did not just fall out of academic fashion or become irrelevant to the problems at hand. Instead, many were forced out of government or toward the political center by charges of disloyalty to the U.S. government.
The simple supply and demand curves that today’s policymakers learned in Ec 10 in the 1990s are guiding the highest levels of policymaking in various agencies and Congressional offices today. Given this troubling reality, should we seek to reform the economic style, so that it more accurately reflects the true benefits of government action, or should we attempt to side-step it entirely in favor of a “deontological style”?
In charting economists’ pernicious influence on public policy, Beth Popp Berman contrasts an “economic style,” which focuses on efficiency, choice, and competition, with an alternative approach that favors equality, stability, and democratic participation. But that framing is not faithful to the actual debates that took place, out of which the economic style achieved its dominance, because it gives no account of the alternative economic views and theories that were displaced.
Why have Democrats remained committed to an incrementalist, modestly ambitious vision of governance, even as the country has faced unprecedented challenges? One critical yet underappreciated piece of the explanation is the rise of a distinctive “economic style of reasoning” that has become prevalent in Washington.