Lemaitre: Be wary of normative economic judgements

Coretta Lemaitre, Columnist

As I was sitting in my Introduction to International Relations class last week, my professor began lecturing about different viable economic systems, most notably the German, American/British and Japanese models. Having grown up in America and having taken an introduction course in macroeconomics at Northwestern, naturally the American model was most familiar to me. As we discussed the German and Japanese models, I felt a sense of incredulity at the apparently accepted cooperation between companies, a concept that runs against a strong American fear of trusts. Indeed, the policies in German and Japanese systems seemed almost absurd.

At that point, I realized that somehow in my life, I’ve become indoctrinated with an approach to economics that assigns negative value judgments to non-Western models. Somehow, freedom, liberty, even happiness, have become associated in my mind with only the American free-market system. Unfair normative judgments about the culture, politics and economic systems of other countries seem to arise without a truly open and unbiased assessment of the economic policies in question.

So why do I feel uncomfortable with non-Western models? And where did those value judgments and associations with ideals like freedom and happiness come from? Given that my family rarely discusses politics, most of my exposure to political ideas and theories has come from the news and formal education. Most of my discussion of economics mentioned the American free market system in concurrence with democratic ideals and, in opposition to that, suppressive and ineffective communist threats. Never was the actual economic logic behind the communist worldview explained, and never was a non-free market system seriously discussed as a legitimate alternative. In addition, many American media outlets frequently portray the “Americans as savior” plot in international interventions while concurrently mentioning the free market system, democracy and prosperity.

Even at NU, this bias towards the American system is relatively unchallenged. I appreciate the respect and non-judgmental manner of my international relations professor when he describes varying systems, but I hardly think one section of lecture is sufficient. A truly comprehensive education should offer students the ability to study a number of alternate economics policies free of value prescriptions. As many students at NU will participate in international politics and economics in the future, the lessons and attitudes imbued in them, especially in core introductory economics classes, will have far-reaching effects.

In an increasingly globalized world where economic systems overlap and sometimes clash, a focus on only the American free-market system in our media and educational system may limit our ability to compromise with other countries. To only address these alternative economic models briefly restricts our creativity as future policy-makers and active participants in democracy.

As a final concern, I return to the value judgments assigned to economic systems. Normative prescriptions, rather than positive ones, on both the national and international level, must be carefully scrutinized and weighed rather than naturally associated with a particular policy. Without this precaution, cultural and moral variances may inhibit rational and effective policy creation as well as intercultural cooperation.

Coretta Lemaitre is a McCormick sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].