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Freeman Essay #138: “Dangerous Political Naifs”

In the November 2011 Freeman I reflected on the state of modern economics.  My reflections are below the fold.

Being well past the age of 50 and having spent nearly all my adult life as an academic economist, I seize the privilege of doing what so many other economists of my age and rank do—namely, offer unsolicited speculations about what is right and what is wrong with modern economics.

First, something that is right.

With one major exception (discussed below), the typical economist, when doing economics (and regardless of political bent), doggedly avoids ad hominem explanations. That is, economists don’t explain observed reality as resulting from specific human personalities or personality traits. Instead, economists (try to) identify the constraints and opportunities that confront decision-makers and then explain patterns of human activities as being predictable outcomes of the ways that individuals—any individuals—respond to identified constraints and opportunities.

This avoidance of ad hominem explanations is the source of one of the most important lessons that economists teach: greed explains nothing. Because greed—or, more accurately, “self-interestedness”—is largely unchanging across time, no observed changes in the economy can be explained by it.

Greed can’t explain rising fuel prices, for example, given that fuel sellers (and also fuel buyers) are just as greedy when prices are lower as they are when prices are higher. Likewise with booms and busts. Because people’s greed remains constant something else must explain booms and busts. And so too for any other economic phenomena you care to name—everything from the fact that Americans are richer than Armenians to the fact that, say, big-box retailers’ market shares are growing while those of mom-’n’-pop retailers are shrinking.

Of course the particular constraints and opportunities identified by economist Doe as being most relevant for explaining some phenomenon often differ from those identified by economist Jones for explaining the same phenomenon. Doe, for example, might identify an increase in the rate of growth of the money supply as the most crucial factor for explaining an observed boom and bust, while Jones identifies an easing in government regulation of banks as the crucial factor. But neither Doe nor Jones explains the boom and bust as caused by the likes of greed or ignorance.

Economists’ refusal to use always-popular (and often half-baked) romantic notions about human behavior to explain economic phenomena goes a long way toward making economics a genuine science, and it accounts for much of whatever good economists have managed to bestow on society.

What’s Wrong

Turning now to something that is wrong with economics, much of the harm that economists inflict on society is a direct result of the one area in which economists too often embrace such ad hominem explanations: analyzing government involvement in the economy.

Despite a long-established tradition in economics of studying the “public” sector using the same analytical tools that we use to study the private sector—and despite two founders of this Public Choice tradition being awarded Nobel Prizes (George Stigler in 1982 and James Buchanan in 1986)—far too many economists persist in sloppy, unanalytical ad hominem thinking about government.

For too many economists government is assumed to be able to escape many of the constraints that unavoidably bind and trip up people in the private sector. Asymmetric information, moral hazard, and adverse selection, as well as confirmation bias and the legions of other alleged “irrationalities” identified by behavioral economists, are just some of the “imperfections” economists find in markets and then too frequently simply assume can be dealt with effectively by government.

Overlook here the fact that many of the problems alleged to be unavoidable in the private sector are in fact handled quite well by human beings acting without government who exhibit far more ingenuity than the typical economist believes is possible in private-sector settings. (It’s notable that Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, isn’t a professor of economics but instead of political science. She won the prize in 2009 for her work showing how creative people in private settings often overcome obstacles—such as free-rider problems—that most economists naively assume can be overcome only by government.)

Unanalytical Assumptions

Focus instead on economists’ bizarre stumble into an unanalytical assessment of government. That stumble goes like this: “Omigosh! There’s an imperfection in this private-sector market! My textbooks and the many refereed journal articles I’ve read and written make quite clear—with lots of difficult mathematics—that this market will therefore fail. My textbooks and journal articles also imply, and in many cases explicitly state, the conclusion that the government—and only the government—can solve the problem. Models prove this conclusion.”

Such stumbling is common. From today’s insistence that America needs more stimulus spending, through the support that many economists express for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to economists’ overwhelming belief that countries need central banks, too many economists unscientifically reach their conclusions about the alleged efficacy of government intervention without first asking how the information available to government officials, and how the incentives these officials face, will affect government decision-making.

In short, economists mysteriously conclude that desirable public-sector outcomes follow from the praiseworthy intentions that economists assume motivate most public officials.

Nowhere does this mystery run more deeply than in fiscal policy. Even if it were true that increased government spending can hasten an economy’s escape from a recession, the large number of economists who today endorse such spending is discouraging. Seldom do these economists inquire into the incentives facing government officials in charge of spending. The assumption is that these officials will spend the money in ways sure to promote the public interest. Also, seldom do these economists inquire into the information asymmetries and other constraints that might hamper even well-meaning officials’ efforts to carry out fiscal policy effectively.

Save for the relatively few economists steeped in Public Choice economics, the typical economist today remains a political naif—and a dangerous one at that. He is bloated with unjustified confidence in models which show that if government officials behave in the public interest and if these officials are immune to the same decision-making quirks and knowledge limitations that afflict decision-makers in private markets, then government can perform all manner of marvels. This economist then uses his authority to support interventions that are utterly unjustified by genuine scientific standards.

It’s shameful.