Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 16, 2017

in Economics, Virginia Political Economy

… is from pages 48-49 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan’s 1996 paper “Economics as a Public Science,” as this paper is reprinted in Economic Inquiry and Its Logic (2000), which is volume 12 of the Collected Works of James M. Buchanan (footnote deleted):

Economists often complain about the observed fact that “everyone is his own economist,” in an expression of the view that scientific counsel fails to command the deference it seems to warrant.  In the absence of an effective exit option, however, everyone will continue to be, and should be, his own economist, at least to the extent of participating in the selection of constraints that are to be imposed collectively, constraints that affect the actions of everyone simultaneously.  The effective scientific community in economics is, therefore, necessarily inclusive in a sense that is not applicable in natural science.

“Doing economics,” as the specialized activity of economists, should reflect a different emphasis on the transmission of basic knowledge relative to the discovery of new knowledge at the scientific frontiers.  Because of the public features of economics noted, the activity of “doing economics” must be more akin to that observed in the behaviour of the ordinary scientist who rarely makes discoveries.  In modern practice, too much talented intellectual capital is used up in searches for the solutions to stylized puzzles with little or no relevance for the ongoing, necessarily receptive and sometimes boring, activity of “teaching” the long-accepted principles of the science.

DBx: Yes.  Buchanan here – as in countless other parts of his vast writings – explicitly rejects the rule of experts.  He explicitly affirms the moral and political right of everyone to participate equally in the making of collective decisions.  No technocracy, plutocracy, or autocracy for Buchanan.  Democracy.  Whether Buchanan was correct or incorrect in the details of his assessment of the workability of democracy is a separate question.  But either way, for someone such as Nancy MacLean to interpret Buchanan as being an enemy of democracy reveals that she (1) did not read Buchanan’s works carefully, or (2) hasn’t the mental acuity to understand Buchanan’s writings, or (3) intentionally misrepresents Buchanan.  (I strongly suspect that it’s a combination of (1) and (2), for the stunning ignorance on display throughout Democracy in Chains – and in MacLean’s subsequent ad homimen-filled “defenses” of her work – seems to be both sincere and deeply rooted.)

Note also Buchanan’s plea that we professional economists spend less time solving clever puzzles and more time teaching the eternal verities of our discipline.  He’s wise to issue this plea.  Again and again and again and again conveying to students and the general public the basics of economics – for example, the reality of unintended consequences, the universality of the law of demand, and the importance of the fact that nearly all decisions are made ‘at the margin’ – is not sexy and it carries with it almost no professional rewards.  Yet performing this duty successfully is the highest and finest service that a good economist can perform for humanity.


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