Don’t Expect Economists to be Objective

Economists don’t seem to be very good at separating their opinions from their research.

An economics professor writes on a blackboard at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, February 13, 2013
An economics professor writes on a blackboard at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, February 13, 2013 (Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management)

Economists aren’t neutral arbiters of policy. It is a point rightwingers have been making for years, especially when — as a 2003 survey found — left-leaning economists in the United States outnumber right-leaning ones three to one.

The Economist now recognizes as much, which is progress. But it takes away the wrong lesson from this, calling on economists to just try harder.

It would be better to accept that economics is inherently political.

Dismal science

Parts of it aren’t. It is quite possible for economists of all stripes to reach consensus on the effect of a tax increase. But economics per se won’t tell us if that tax increase is right or not.

Economists tend to assume that the general effect of a policy on growth or employment is the standard by which it should to be judged. Sometimes that may be right. In other cases, that may be wrong. The point is not to confuse economics with ethics.

Economists don’t seem to be very good at that.

The Economist cites a recent study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University and Anthony Randazzo of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, which asked a group of academic economists both moral questions (is it fairer to divide resources equally or according to effort?) and questions about economics.

They found a high correlation between the economists’ views on ethics and on economics. The correlation was not limited to matters of debate — how much governments should intervene to reduce inequality, say — but also encompassed more empirical questions, such as how fiscal austerity affects economies on the ropes.

Some economists have countered by pointing out they have changed their minds in the past when new empirical evidence was found. But surely they’re not the only ones capable of doing that?

Nor are economists the only ones with biases. Some fields are worse.

But it usually matters less if a chemist has strong political views. Economists advise policymakers and politicians love to cite their work as proof that their own policy is the right one.

Rather than reach for an objectivity that is probably impossible, economists should get better at separating their research from their opinions.

Meanwhile, us mortals should stop relying on economists so much to tell us right from wrong.

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