Commentary

Ideology Revealed in Economist Petitions

Policy entrepreneurs often organize petitions and recruit economists to sign on. An analysis of the petitions shows how fundamental ideology really is. In particular, the analysis shows how powerful the idea of liberty is in drawing lines.

With Carrie Milton, we studied all economist petitions since 1994. Each petition is about a specific issue, but the range is vast, including, for example, tax cuts, health care, cap-and-trade, immigration, protectionism, card-check, and the minimum wage.

Each petition advises a course of action. We classified each petition by whether it would augment liberty (for example, a petition against protection) or reduce liberty (for example, raising the minimum wage). There were 15 pro-liberty petitions and 13 anti-liberty petitions.

We compiled all the signatures. On the 28 petitions there were 9,532 signatures representing 5,884 individuals. The number of signatures on all 15 pro-liberty petitions was almost twice that on the 13 anti-liberty petitions.

The remarkable thing is that virtually every single economist who is active in signing petitions leans heavily in one direction or the other.

The 63 economists who signed at least eight pro-liberty petitions lent a grand total of 564 signatures to pro-liberty petitions, but their signatures on anti-liberty petitions amounted to just five!

The 102 economists who signed at least four anti-liberty petitions lent a grand total of 461 signatures to anti-liberty petitions, but their signatures on pro-liberty petitions amounted to just sixteen!

There were 589 economists who signed at least three pro-liberty petitions, but only one also signed at least three anti-liberty petitions (and that individual signed only three of each kind). Meanwhile, there were 230 economists who signed at least three anti-liberty petitions.

We did not classify the petitions with any such results in mind. We simply assessed each petition for whether it supported or opposed incursions on free enterprise, extant or proposed. The results came after we had completed the classification.

Economists who signed at least eleven pro-liberty petitions included Vernon L. Smith, David R. Henderson and Mark J. Perry.

The economists who signed at least six anti-liberty petitions were Henry J. Aaron, Eileen Applebaum, Dean Baker, Peter Dorman, James K. Galbraith, Michael Perelman, Michael Reich, David Terkla, Christopher Tilly, and Thomas E. Weisskopf.

Twenty-five Nobel-prize economists were among the set of signatories. Five of them signed at least three pro-liberty petitions — Vernon Smith, Milton Friedman, Edward Prescott, Thomas Schelling, and Robert E. Lucas, Jr. — and among those five economists there was not a single anti-liberty signature.

Six other Nobel economists signed at least two anti-liberty petitions — Kenneth Arrow, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Solow, George Akerlof, Lawrence Klein, and Daniel McFadden — and among those six economists there were just three pro-liberty signatures.

Petitions are a way for a group of individuals to formulate a statement on an important issue and declare themselves publicly. The statement is open-ended and specific to an issue. The support is not anonymous. These features make petitioning a meaningful form of expression — indeed, more meaningful than voting.

A part of the science of economics is judgment about the most important things. Petitions are a good way to formulate and express such judgment. We may frown on particular petitions, but we should not frown on petitioning per se.

Our investigation shows that ideas about liberty and government intervention are fundamental in the thinking of economists — or at least those who like to sign petitions.

Cato adjunct scholar Daniel Klein is a professor and David Hedengren a doctoral student at the George Mason University department of economics.