The “Pride and Prejudice” of Economists

The dominant position of economics in the field of social science has long been recognized, but Marion Fourcade, et al. recently published a new paper investigating this phenomenon in greater detail. By presenting evidence of the hierarchy that effects job prospects, getting published, and establishing influential connections, Fourcade argued that economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement. “Economists may advise governments, but they do not convince the people.”

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Whether or not that is a problem depends on its unintended consequences. William Easterly has expressed concerns for the “tyranny” of economists in international development. The “tyranny of experts” in development posited the belief that poverty is due to a lack of technical expertise, and that autocrats are best at delivering this. The support for a benevolent authoritarian approach to development is not overt but implied, and is often altruistic rather than self-serving. Easterly sympathized with economists who, in their zeal to help the world’s poor, unwittingly favor autocracy, because he used to be one of them himself. Economists choose to advise governments on how to alleviate poverty through a top-down approach, but for Easterly the real cause of poverty is exactly the unchecked power of the state against the poor.

According to Fourcade, 57.3% of American university economics professors disagree with the statement that in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by a single discipline. But as Easterly noted, at least for development, other than national policies of technical solutions to poverty, such as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements, history, non-national factors, and spontaneous solutions also matter. Therefore development may have to give up its authoritarian mindset to avoid tragedies such as the one that happened to the farmers in Mubende District, Uganda, detailed in the beginning of Easterly’s book. Soldiers marched more than 20,000 farmers away from their land at riflepoint in 2010. Some of those farmers died and the rest never returned, because they were told the land no longer belonged to them. Four years later, the whole event has been forgotten by almost everyone except the victims.

However, it is not always wise to label people and attack economists as a homogeneous group, because criticism or compliment could be just a matter of opinion. Fourcade consented to the notion that most modern economists are talented. They simply believe in the ideal of an expert-advised democracy, in which their competence would be utilized. Unfortunately democratic societies are often deeply suspicious of expertise as described by Alexis de Tocqueville:

“When the ranks of society are unequal…there are some individuals invested with all the power of superior intelligence, learning, and enlightenment, whilst the multitude is sunk in ignorance and prejudice. Men living at these aristocratic periods are therefore naturally induced to shape their opinions by the superior standard of a person or a class of persons, whilst they are averse to recognize the infallibility of the mass of the people. The contrary takes place in ages of equality. The nearer the citizens are drawn to the common level of an equal and similar condition, the less prone does each man become to place implicit faith in a certain man or a certain class of men.” That is what Fourcade meant by saying, “democratic societies are deeply suspicious of (non-democratic) expertise, and economic advice, unlike dentistry, can never be humble.” It is our own inclination to believe in practical and results-oriented views (instrumental rationality) from objective data (quantitative research) more than value-based (value rationality) statements from our peers (qualitative research).

That being said, the perceived superiority of economists and their supposed lack of humbleness may also be a kind of resignation. In other words, are we talking about the pride and prejudice of the economists or ourselves?

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