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What About Economists’ Expertise?

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Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:


These days we are lectured incessantly about the importance of deferring to experts. And those persons amongst us – including members of Congress [2], state governors [3], and even the President [4] of the United States – who don’t fully follow experts’ prescriptions are solemnly denounced as fools who irresponsibly endanger the public.

Without opining on the merits of epidemiologists’ expert assessments regarding COVID-19, I’m compelled to ask why there is no deference to the expert assessments of us economists. Why, for example, is economists’ long-standing consensus in support of free trade [5] – indeed, strong support for unilateral [6] free trade [7] – ignored? We hear no demands from the likes of politicians such as Sen. Chuck Schumer or pundits such as Dana Milbank that economists’ expert recommendations on trade policy be followed in full, no questions asked.

Likewise, it’s very difficult to find an economist who supports rent control [8]. Yet this expert consensus against rent control is routinely ignored by the likes of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders. Why? Where’s their respect for experts?

I emphatically reject the Progressive belief that society is an engineering project that can be scientifically guided by a government of the best and brightest toward some optimal condition. But I also believe that true experts can play a valuable role by informing the public and government officials of the likely consequences of different policies. And so given today’s clamor for deference to the expertise of epidemiologists, where’s the deference of pundits and politicians to the expertise of us economists on those policy matters on which we can fairly be said to have reached a consensus?

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030