Justin Wolfers is one of my favorite economics bloggers in large part because of the empirical, evidence-based approach he takes to economics problems and policy issues. As co-blogger Todd points out, Wolfers recently generated some data (JSTOR citation counts) that he argues supports the assertion that Hayek is out-classed by those mentioned in the title to this post. Wolfers, who I think very highly of as an economist, seems to think so, and pointing out that Larry Summers (and presumably a ton of others) out-influence Hayek by this measure. I thought the post was tongue-in-cheek, to be honest, before I saw the recent update where Wolfers sticks to his guns and cannot reject the hypothesis, therefore, that “insisting that high schools teach Hayek is a clear statement of ideology, not of economic science.”
Including Todd’s excellent post, and Bill Easterly’s response, much has already been said on this count. Todd really hammers at the key point, and the value of Hayek in the curriculum, when he writes:
Hayek is the most courageous and important critic of social planning, and if we are going to expose high school students to the poison of Marx, we must give them the antidote of Hayek. Hayek realized the fallacy of central planning and its inevitable failure decades before anyone else. His book “The Road to Serfdom” should be required reading for any literate American. His ideas about the decentralization of knowledge, the important role heterogeneous preferences would play in destabiling attempts at social planning, and the link between progressivism and totalitarianism are some of the most important contributions to human knowledge of the past 100 years.
Absolutely. But I want to talk a bit more about the data. Measuring citation counts between economists is probably not a good way to measure the sort of influence that we are talking about in terms of appropriateness for a high school economics curriculum. I suspect White’s (1980) “A Heteroskedasticity-Consistent Covariance-Matrix Estimator and a Direct Test for Heteroskedasticity” cites better than anything else since 1970, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to a high school senior. Influence is a tough concept to measure. And Wolfers, to his credit, calls for alternative measures if they exist. Well, Todd points to one potential measure, noting that Hayek ranks ninth among economists cited in law journals. But if one restricts attention to Hayek’s influence with other Nobel Laureates, in which he ranks second only behind Ken Arrow. That sounds pretty influential to me and with a measure that probably matters more for the relevant type of influence than a general JSTOR citation count.
No doubt that data are better than opinion and all of that. Using data to find answers is a good thing — but we do want to be mindful that the data we are using are measuring the right thing. Looking for keys under lampposts comes to mind. I just don’t think that general citation counts are a very good measure of the sort of influence we are talking about when we are deciding the whether “Hayek belongs” in high schools, much less that the data can be used to support claims that insisting that Hayek be taught cannot be supported by the merits and must be the product of ideology (of course, I think everybody understands that in the particular case of the School Board here, there is plenty of ideology involved, but that is separate from the data claim being made).
UPDATE: I should make clear that I find the School Board’s decisions generally troubling, and am skeptical about the role of school boards in picking curriculum in economics as well as other topics.