Yes, why indeed. Why study such a field that is unpopular at best, obscure at worst, and not to mention being stigmatized? Well, I have to admit, those adjectives means attraction to me rather than aversion, just as the popularity, the commonness and the hegemony of Liberal Economics rings a banal note. Yet my obsession with unorthodoxy is not boundless and groundless – that it may nudge me to give an interested look into a non-conformist idea does not mean it dictates an automatic adoption (which explains why I have not run around naked or pierced my nose, my belly button, or whatever they pierce these days.) In other words, Why look into Political Economics – because it is a new perspective. But Why study Political Economics? – that I will seek to explain with no more delay.
From an academic standpoint, Political Economics wields a much greater explanatory power than Liberal Economics. Even though I have reached that conclusion mainly through my case-by-case acquaintance with both, I did attempt to present a few general and fundamental reasons whose legitimacy you readers can judge with logical reasoning and without extensive background knowledge.
One, economic decisions in real life are not made by economists, but by political institutions. There is much more that comes into play rather than purely economic rationale. To investigate the real world with a politically insulated tool that is liberal economics is, therefore, very naïve. That is not to say economists are ignorant of their apolitical assumption – they are not; and indeed, for every science it is necessary to adopt a certain sets of foundational assumption upon which further work be built. However, there is a point at which your assumption becomes too gross for your ensuing work to be a meaningful description of the world.
Two, humans are saturated with values and interests that, comically, do not count in liberal economics. Equality, compassion, nationalism, political legitimacy, etc. all manifest in and exert influence upon economic decisions. This is why governments have gone beyond the prescribed role of maintaining stable macroeconomics factors and into making policies that redistribute wealth, nurture an industry, or even preserve a political order. This is why nations have not been content with their niches assigned accordingly to comparative advantages, but have striven to construct their own competitive strength. That is why China has adopted an uncanny developmental path without a domestic private sector. That is why Vietnam has placed Dung Quat Refinery at a less than economically efficient location. How much of that, I wonder, can liberal economics explain?
Three, liberal economics was developed along with Western industrialization, a very different historical context that shows not few incongruences with today economies. Western economic and political success and its consequent hegemony have indubitably endowed liberal economics, its child, with an infallible legitimacy that we so often assume to be universal, despite its obvious historical particularity. This orthodoxy in perspectives has an armor that is more dogmatically unyielding than we would like to admit – indeed, how much has changed within the economics department to accommodate the real, vibrant and unprecedented (both in speed and nature) development of East Asian miracles or today China? The armor of self-perpetuating orthodoxy has been too impenetrable for the moribund core it protects to be noticed, or rather, to be admitted.
Four, in late developers with a transitional economy like that of Vietnam, politics inarguably plays an even more instrumental role. The legacy of a heavy-handed state is not yet to wither away, the decision-making process has not yet matured enough to be rational, and economic policy, as many others, is a political negotiation at its core. Therefore, recommendations made by liberal economists are all good and true, only useless, since their adoption has little to do with their merits. Economists, after all, do not run the world.
Five, well, it may not be a good idea for economists to run the world either. Because liberal economics, amoral, valueless, and apolitical as it is, resembles a rulebook rather than a theory on how to conduct our society. If we increase money supply, interest rate will fall; if we increase government spending this much, output will rise this much; or, to conclude, if we do this, that will happen. But whether would we want that certain thing to happen liberal economics does not say. It assumes that we all want a higher output, more income, more return, without realizing that within a relentless pursuit of those things, there lay regional disparity, exploitative investment, or unsettling materialism.
For a reconciliatory note, I recognize that there are indeed people who study Economics because they love it. And don’t take me wrong: I have an utmost respect for passion. I would argue, however, that the unnaturally high rate of students majoring in economics suggest a certain degree of affected interest. If you have faith in Economics, please do not hesitate to go forward. But if you find something else more appealing, or believe there is a better way to reconstruct our view of the world, why let the popular thing enslave yourself?