I think that the questions that political philosophers have taken to debating professionally in recent decades have a limited relevance to contemporary politics. But I think a number of fairly abstract misguided ideas in ethics, political philosophy, and economics have come to have extraordinary cultural and political power in the United States and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the English speaking world, all to incredibly pernicious effect. What’s more, though most of these ideas are propounded, originally, by people whose degrees are in economics most of them are really ideas of a philosophical character.The take-home message for you and me is that economists have managed to convince people of indefensible views on normative topics such as what it's rational for individuals to do, what's an appropriate object of moral criticism, and what would be a good distribution of resources. I don't know how many of them would, when pressed, defend these sorts of claims -- their discipline isn't supposed to be one that makes normative claims.
Which ideas?Well I’d say one important set of ideas is the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law...
...Another example is that, as Brad DeLong pointed out yesterday, economists’ protestations that they’re doing value-free social science actually embeds an implicit idea that “that shifts in distribution are of no account–which can be true only if the social welfare function gives everybody a weight inversely proportional to their marginal utility of wealth.” In other words, under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people. Nobody ever says “social welfare function” when engaging in practical political debate, but the idea that not caring about distribution constitutes some kind of neutral middle ground is an important underlying premise of much practical political debate, and its viability stems from the fact that everyone remembers being taught that this is true in their Economics 101 courses.
Saying you're not making any normative claims is, of course, a good way of getting people to accept the normative claims you make. A lot more in this sort of thing depends on the sorts of emotions that get communicated as people talk about stuff and the loaded words you use. Pareto optimality, for example, has 'optimality' built into it, and who doesn't like optimality? Of course, as Rawls tells us, a distribution where one person owns all tradable goods and services while nobody else has anything is Pareto optimal.
In any event, this is the kind of thing we ought to be concerned about, both as citizens and as philosophers. While ideas from other parts of academia can't get out to the public, economists are convincing people of ridiculous theses in moral and political philosophy that their research doesn't even support. (It probably helps that widespread social acceptance of these theses is favorable to the interests of very wealthy people.) I'm not really sure what we can do about the spread of bad political philosophy through economics 101, but there's got to be something.