Blame the Economists?

By Peter Boettke

The New York Times published this weekend an opinion piece by Binyamin Appelbaum entitled "Blame Economists for the Mess We're In."  I am 100% in favor of economists being knocked off their pedestal.  Read Hayek's Nobel banquet speech.

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Now that the Nobel Memorial Prize for economic science has been created, one can only be profoundly grateful for having been selected as one of its joint recipients, and the economists certainly have every reason for being grateful to the Swedish Riksbank for regarding their subject as worthy of this high honour.

Yet I must confess that if I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it.

One reason was that I feared that such a prize, as I believe is true of the activities of some of the great scientific foundations, would tend to accentuate the swings of scientific fashion.

This apprehension the selection committee has brilliantly refuted by awarding the prize to one whose views are as unfashionable as mine are.

I do not yet feel equally reassured concerning my second cause of apprehension.

It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess.

This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence.

But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.

There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omnicompetent on all problems of society – as the press tends to treat him till in the end he may himself be persuaded to believe.

One is even made to feel it a public duty to pronounce on problems to which one may not have devoted special attention.

I am not sure that it is desirable to strengthen the influence of a few individual economists by such a ceremonial and eye-catching recognition of achievements, perhaps of the distant past.

I am therefore almost inclined to suggest that you require from your laureates an oath of humility, a sort of hippocratic oath, never to exceed in public pronouncements the limits of their competence.

Or you ought at least, on conferring the prize, remind the recipient of the sage counsel of one of the great men in our subject, Alfred Marshall, who wrote: “Students of social science, must fear popular approval: Evil is with them when all men speak well of them”.

But the problem is deeper than economists, it is anyone put in this position of power and prestige, and to do so is fundamentally anti-democratic as was argued by Frank Knight in various writings, and then by Vincent Ostrom in The Intellectual Crisis of American Public Administration, and more recently in David Levy and Sandra Peart's Escape from Democracy.  

We cannot fix this problem by replacing one set of "experts" with another set. We have to stop thinking of the relationship between economics and public administration along these lines altogether.

I try to lay out the argument in my SEA address on "Economics and Public Administration", which also served as an attempt to summarize two decades of research that several of us have undertaken in this spirit. The critical argument in that text for this issue is that I argue that economics is a derived demand, if we conceive of the task of public administration one way, that will shape not only shape the supply and demand of economists, but dictate what it means to produce an economist -- and thus, what is means to be an economist.

The problem with narratives like Appelbaum's isn't that he is suspicious of the pretensions of economists, it is that he is blaming the wrong culprit for the mess we're in. Here it is important that every one of these critics read Gregory Mankiw's very important piece, published before the financial crisis, on the macroeconomist as scientists (read Chicago New Classical and Monetarists) and the macroeconomists as engineers (read MIT/Harvard Keynesian and New Keynesians).  

The Chicago folks -- and the Austrian, Virginia, UCLA, etc. folks -- did not go to DC, did not write laws, didn't attempt to orchestrate economic miracles abroad, or stimulate growth at home.  They taught, they lectured, they researched, and wrote papers in journals and published books, and a subset of them wrote opinion editorials and did interviews in various forms of popular media.  In short, they were teachers and students of society. They did not get paid to be experts for the government in general. They were not advisors. But others were -- from Keynes to Larry Summers -- the line is long. Just look at the number of central bankers that were PhD students under Stan Fischer at MIT.  Can you trace that same lineage to Milton Friedman? How about to F. A. Hayek? Mises? Right, I didn't think so.

"Neo-liberalism" is actually little more than an effort to bring neoclassical models of efficiency into the operation of governmental agencies -- that in another era was called "market socialism" -- just look at Abba Lerner's The Economics of Control.  He actually thought he had found the right way to combine socialist aspirations with the teachings of economics so he could ensure microeconomic efficiency and macroeconomic stability and provide economists with the tools to successfully steer the economic ship.  That basic idea from mid-20th century to today has never disappeared in those halls of power -- what has appeared is a waffling between liberal (in the American sense) Keynesianism, and conservative Keynesianism, but Keynesianism exists throughout. 

The Samuelsonian Neo-classical synthesis achieved the status he hoped for it ... and provides the meaning behind his statement in the teachers manual “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws … if I can write its economics textbooks.”  

Samuelson knew that if he could wrest control of the tacit presuppositions of public policy functionaries, then their thoughts and actions would be guided by what he taught about market failure, macroeconomic instability, and government as a corrective to our economic woes.  It's an amazing achievement what he did. For at least a generation, perhaps two, he controlled both the introduction to economics market, and the advanced training of PhD students in economics market.

Thinkers rose up in opposition to this hegemony from the older generation such as Knight, Mises and Hayek, but also among his contemporaries such as Alchian, Coase and Friedman, and of course a younger generation such as Becker and Lucas, but also Demsetz, Kirzner, etc.  But, look at those names ... they did not go to Washington DC to work for domestic policy agencies or the international agencies in economic policy. They were content in their jobs as economic scholars/teachers. They were humble students of society, and some among them rose to the status of social critics and intellectuals.  But again none were master manipulators of the organs of power to try to shape the economy into the image of their ideal.

The second problem with Applebaum, besides aiming at the wrong target, is that narratives such as his tend to just suggest if only "better people" were in power and were heaped with such esteem and prestige, then we would have a great system.  As Keynes wrote to Hayek about The Road to Serfdom: “In my opinion it is a grand book [...] Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.”

I should therefore conclude your theme rather differently. I should say that what we want is not no planning, or even less planning, indeed I should say that we almost certainly want more. But the planning should take place in a community in which as many people as possible, both leaders and followers, wholly share your moral position. Moderate planning will be safe if those carrying it out are rightly orientated in their own minds and hearts to the moral issue. This is in fact already true of some of them. But the curse is that there is also an important section who could almost be said to want planning not in order to enjoy its fruits but because morally they hold ideas exactly the opposite of yours, and wish to serve not God but the devil. [...] What we need is the restoration of right moral thinking - a return to proper moral values in our social philosophy. If only you could turn your crusade in that direction you would not feel quite so much like Don Quixote.

As long as the right public spirited economists were in charge, Keynes thought, all would be fine. As Samuelson put it in the 1948 edition of Economics "Where the complex economic conditions of life necessitate social coordination and planning, there can sensible men of good will be expected to invoke the authority and creativity of government."

Thinking along these lines is a missed opportunity for the needed intellectual reboot. It is not a matter of replacing economist A with economist B; it is a matter of rethinking what economists should do. I have argued based on my reading from Adam Smith to Vernon Smith, that we economists should be content in our role as students of society, teachers of a scientific discipline, and as social critics.  In short, we must come to grips with our role as lowly philosophers, and eschew our claim to being high priests.

Sign up here to be notified of new articles from Peter Boettke and AIER.

Peter Boettke

Peter Boettke, a Senior Fellow at AIER, is a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.