"Should We Trust Economists?" Yes and no.
June 4, 2013
Mark D. White
The worst thing to do when I'm trying to write is have Twitter open. Not only is it distracting (obviously), but it can be positively engrossing. So why do I do it? Because it helps me keep me up-to-date on the state of the world and what smart people are saying about important things.
In the last hour, I've seen two articles that pose questions, which I'll take a shot at answering—please feel free to offer your own answers in the comments below.
Question: "Should We Trust Economists?" asks Noah Smith in The Atlantic.
Answer: Yes, but with serious qualifications.
Smith recounts some familiar and valid criticisms of economics and economists, largely focusing on the limitations of economic models and the lack of experimental data with which to test them. He falters, though, when he dismisses alternative approaches, such as Austrian economics, and in a particularly infantile and insulting way. (I'll leave it to my friends at Coordination Problem to address this if they choose.) Except for that piece, Smith gets a lot right. I'll just mention two reservations that Smith fails to address:
a) Economists have a strong ideological and political bent, which consciously or unconsciously influences their work. This may be true of all scientists and researchers, of course, but the arbitrary and heuristic nature of many assumptions in economic models grants economists a great deal of discretion to insert their values and beliefs in their "scientific" models. So when an economists says "my model recommends stimulus" or "my model recommends austerity," keep in mind that this is not an entirely objective statement—nor can it be.
b) Somewhat related to the first point, economists are much better at saying what will happen than what should happen (and that's true even if you're very doubtful about how well they know the former!). When economists say what should happen—that is, what the government should do or what society should aim for—they're assuming a certain goal which is not an economic concept but an ethical or political one, about which economics training lends little specialized insight. So to the extent we should trust economists, we should trust them to recommend ways to get different places, leaving it to our elected representatives, acting through us, to decide where we want to go. (Or, ask a philosopher!)
So should we trust economists? Yes, if we restrict and temper that trust to focus narrowly on what economists do best—trace out the implications of various actions for key economic variables—and keep in mind the limitations of their prescriptions, based on both the limitations of economic science and the inherent ideology of economic models.
Question: "The question libertarians just can't answer," which is: "If your approach is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?" This comes from Michael Lind at Salon.
Answer: Many reasons, but the most important one is probably the temptation of power and the wealth it artifically creates, which libertarianism minimize. Even if we want to take a more optimistic approach, then I would cite the presumption of some people to think that a) they know what is better for other people and b) they have the right—nay, the responsibility!—to impose this better way of life on them. This is temptaton of a different sort, born of beneficence but grounded in hubris and disrespect. (I trust Bleeding Heart Libertarians will have more to add to this before long!)
At the risk of incurring name-calling, I would answer that we have in fact tried libertarianism, but we called it feudalism.
Posted by: Jonas Feit | June 4, 2013 at 09:06 PM