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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China’s Lack of Philanthropic Culture?

In November 2014, the Charities Aid Foundation published its annual World Giving Index, which measures and ranks global giving behaviors. In the report, China was ranked 128 out of 135 countries. Last year, China was also criticized by Reuters because few wealthy Chinese citizens donated publicly to fight the spread of the Ebola. And back in 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s invitation to charitable giving, known as the Giving Pledge, was turned down by many of China’s millionaires.

At first glance, it might seem fair to say that China, the world’s second-biggest economy, is lacking a philanthropic culture, and that its people are reluctant to donate to  charitable causes. But maybe we should examine what several wealthy Chinese citizens said about their giving behaviors.

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When asked for his opinion on the Giving Pledge, Charles Zhang, the Founder and current CEO of Sohu Inc., said he would not follow the same donation model that Bill Gates used. Instead, he preferred to pay more money in taxes to the government, because he believed that this was also philanthropy, and the best way of helping the poor. Charles Zhang is not the only one who feels this way. Last year, the World Food Program called on Chinese firms to donate more to fighting Ebola. Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative, said “It’s likely that state-owned firms would prefer the Chinese government to take a lead on this…They’re unlikely to come forward independently and would assume the government, which does have experience in contributing for emergencies, will be better at knowing what to do.”

It is believed that hoarding culture, the absence of religious motivations, and emphasis on family wealth–a tradition from an imperial, agrarian society— collectively make the Chinese give the cold shoulder to charity giving. Nevertheless, that’s not true.

Since childhood, every Chinese citizen has been taught to emulate their ancient role models who would gladly be “the first to bear hardships before everybody else and the last to enjoy comforts.” Showing concern for the country and its society is the essence of Confucianism. It encourages people to commit themselves to the welfare of the society when they are successful, and to stay disciplined when they are in distress. Confucius taught people to contribute to welfare through government. He believed people should “cultivate his personal life, regulate his family, and then govern his state; when all the states are well governed, that person brings peace and harmony throughout the world.” Cosmopolitanism exists in Chinese culture, but there is little initiative on how to help others as a third party outside the government. This phenomenon is rooted in the social structure of China.

The current social structure in China is focused on a strong state and weak society. China’s lack of philanthropic culture is largely due to heavy restrictions on civil society. People are accustomed to relying on the government, resulting from the government’s unlimited power in the past. The public always expects and trusts their government to solve social problems. Such inertia in thinking impedes social engagement. Unlike the “necessary-evil” political tradition in the west, the state is “the good” for the Chinese. Owing to people’s unawareness and inability, civil society grows slowly in this “acquaintance society.” However, is a thriving civil society really necessary to create a philanthropic culture? Myanmar
 was ranked first in the Index with restricted civil society.

Those who help others are always noble, however minuscule their contributions are. But it is equally important to seek out the for reasons behind people’s behaviors, rather than merely criticizing them. Hopefully, there will be changes in China. Jack Ma, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, is pouring much of his personal wealth into the creation of philanthropic trusts, which represents 2% of the company’s current equity (roughly $3 billion). This might be the dawn of a new era of giving among China’s freshly minted billionaires.