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The fury of bigots

August 10, 2010
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In his book The Scottish Enlightenment, Alexander Broadie discusses how new thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume struggled against entrenched beliefs and interests. At the time the Kirk was so powerful that it could bar applicants from university posts. William Leechman, elected professor of divinity at Glasgow in 1743, was charged with heresy immediately after his appointment. He wrote how difficult it was:

…to teach pure and genuine Christianity, and at the same [time] not to expose myself to the fury of bigots.

Hume himself failed in his application to become professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh in 1745 and in logic and rhetoric at Glasgow in 1752. Both times he was accused of having incorrect religious views. Hume didn’t publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion because he was worried about the public outcry. Even his friend Smith failed to see through the task after Hume’s death, for fear of stirring up a hostile reaction.

Broadie writes on p.37 that:

…it was clear that there were segments of the Kirk who at least had the power to make life very unpleasant for people they thought heterodox.

It has always struck me how little you hear of heterodox economists in the mainstream press or in popular writings. Maybe the odd article by Lord Skidelsky, or a note on the FT Blog by James Galbraith, but the vast majority of current popular economics is orthodox. Most economics departments are dominated by economists from the mainstream. The likes of The Undercover Economist are resolutely orthodox. Perhaps it is partly the inability of heteros to articulate their own views clearly or to publish good enough research, but I suspect that there is a modern academic and journalistic equivalent of the Kirk — which guards what it sees as the Truth in its battle against heretics.

Paul Collier’s view, in the acknowledgements to Wars, Guns and Votes, is typical:

…you should be wary of all those seductive ideas peddled by heterodox thinkers. Because they are not taken seriously by the academic community, there are no kudos in demolishing them.

This view is so blinkered it’s difficult to know where to start. If followers of Smith hadn’t fallen prey to his seductive new heterodox ideas we wouldn’t have learnt about the division of labour or the invisible hand. Elsewhere Collier paints a picture of a honed academic machine, rigorously exposing errors in the hunt for the gleaming truth. Yet surely ignoring unusual ideas simply because they are outside the norm is completely unobjective? To dismiss ideas before you have even examined them is the very definition of bigotry.

And surely at a time when there is an economic crisis — and a crisis in economics — we need to cast our gaze wider, examining new ways of thinking even if they are weird or challenging?

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