What Ha Joon Chang doesn’t tell you about ‘free market economics’

Professor Ha Joon Chang has become something of a hero to those who champion heterodox economic theory and who rail against the supposed intellectual hegemony of ‘neo-liberalism’. In a number of books such as Kicking Away the Ladder Chang sets out to overturn the alleged orthodoxies of mainstream economics by questioning the case for free trade as an appropriate development strategy in poorer countries and more widely making the case for a high regulation/big government agenda. These themes are vividly on display in Chang’s latest best seller 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Unfortunately, also on display in this book is Chang’s penchant for misrepresenting opponents, the use of straw man analyses and claims to theoretical innovation for what amounts to ‘re-inventing the wheel’. In several posts in the coming weeks I aim to highlight these aspects of Chang’s work in the hope that his readers (should they venture onto this blog) might reconsider his ‘guru’ status.

If there is a core characteristic to emerge from Chang’s work it is a tendency to emulate the writing style of that other hero of heterodox economics – J.K Galbraith. In common with Galbraith Chang depicts himself as one of a few lonely voices standing up against the ‘conventional wisdom’. The particular wisdom he targets in ‘23 Things..’ is that of ‘free market economics’. As with Galbraith, however, one will scour Chang’s texts in vein to find serious and detailed reference to the work of authors alleged to subscribe to the positions he attacks. Thus, in a 285 page book which purports to offer a critique of ‘free market ideology’ Chang manages a grand total of just three references to work by said ideologues and makes no attempt to distinguish schools within ‘free market’ thought, such as the Chicago school, the public choice school or the Austrian/Hayekian tradition (surprisingly, or perhaps not, Larry Elliot the economics editor of The Guardian describes 23 Things as ‘superbly researched’). There is good reason for this tactic – detailed consideration of the actual views of ‘free market economists’ – as opposed to what Chang claims they say – would make it much more difficult to construct the caricatures that Chang wants to attack. In book selling terms, better to play to the left wing gallery and construct an ideological edifice – crying out for demolition by a Chang (or a Galbraith). In this post I will focus on just two examples of this tendency. Subsequent posts will discuss further illustrations.

Read the article on the Pileus website.

Mark Pennington is the author of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy

ERRATUM: [2nd paragraph, 4th sentence] not 'in vein', but 'in vain'

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