I was talking with Seth about his and my visits to the economics department at George Mason University. One thing that struck me about the people I met there was that their research was strongly aligned with their political convictions (generally pro-market, anti-government).
I discussed some of this here in the context of my lunch conversation with Robin Hanson and others about alternatives to democracy and here in the context of Bryan Caplan’s book on voting, but it comes up in other areas too; for example, Alex Tabarrok edited a book on private prisons. My point here is not to imply that Alex etc. are tailoring their research to their political beliefs but rather that, starting with these strong beliefs about government and the economy, they are drawn to research that either explores the implications or evaluates these beliefs.
Comparable lines of research, from the other direction politically, include the work of my colleagues in the Center for Family Demography and Public Policy on the 7th floor of my building here at Columbia. My impression is that these folks start with a belief in social intervention for the poor and do research in this area, measuring attitudes and outcomes and evaluating interventions. Again, I don’t think they “cheat” in their research–rather, they work on problems that they consider important.
This all reminded me of something Gary King once said about our own research, which is that nobody could ever figure out our own political leanings by reading our papers. I’m not saying this to put ourselves above (or below) the researchers mentioned above–it’s just an interesting distinction to me, of different styles of social science research. I mean, there’s no reason I couldn’t study privatized prisons or social-work interventions (and come to my own conclusion about either), it just hasn’t really happened that way. (I’ve done some work on a couple of moderately politically-charged topics–the death penalty and city policing, but in neither case did I come into the project with strong views–these were just projects that people asked me to help out on.)
There’s no competition here–there’s room for politically committed and more dispassionate research–it’s just interesting here to consider the distinction. (See here for more on the topic.) I think it takes a certain amount of focus and determination to pursue research on the topics that you consider to be the most politically important. I don’t seem to really have this focus and so I end up working more on methodology or on topics that are interesting or seem helpful to somebody even if they aren’t necessarily the world’s most pressing problems.