Me, myself and economics: Political Conscience

I have already mentioned that it is rather deceptive to discuss economic issues as if they were completely independent from normative judges. Several instruments and analyses regularly applied by economists strongly resort to assumptions and thereby beliefs and opinions. Several outcomes and issues discussed in economics strongly depend on the underlying set of institutions and thereby on the politicians responsible for them.

This is not a critique. My critique is rather reserved for those guys who try to exploit the relinquished political conscience of an economist in favour of an accusation – restate it and belie it as it would be something bad. Some probably do it intentionally and fully aware of their formal mistake. They accuse us of a normative bias because they know that others, less educated with regard to this issue, will follow their lead: tabooing political statements as if they would jar with the objectivity of science. The true intention, though, may be rather contrary directed. Instead of protecting science from political dependency the ulterior motive may be to protect certain political conditions from scientific discussion. The best to keep people from questioning a given set of institutions seems to be preventing critical thoughts about it in the first place.

If I, for example, once again dare to question the actual distribution of wealth and property rights, there is a high chance for an accusation that my request is politically motivated. The accusation may be right or wrong. Anyway, it bears no surplus for the scientific discussion. If economic outcomes depend on property rights, and property rights are determined by politically passed laws, any discussion of economic outcomes is logically linked to politics. Supressing the discussion thereby is not less politically motivated than forcing it. If there is a political dimension anyway, keeping quiet about it may serve an individual strategy but not consistency or even objectivity.

Do not get me wrong! I do not request that every discussion of an economic outcome should turn into a political discussion. All I want to state is that especially progressive economists will not be able to spare it all the time. The moment they request a change in economic settings or behaviour, there is a high chance that they implicitly demand political action. This does not imply political dependency for the one who states the request. It is the economic sphere that depends on the political sphere, not necessarily the economist who realizes and communicates this fact.

To this effect, do not evaluate our work over our explicit or implicit political requests only. Rather control for the assumptions we state in our models and analysis. Verify which interdependencies are incorporated and which are neglected. Check whether you can share our beliefs and follow our derivations. But do not render a technical or professional judgement based on our political conscience. If you want to judge economists with regard to political conscience, start with those who do not have one or try to hide it, because they seemingly did not get what economics is about.


2 thoughts on “Me, myself and economics: Political Conscience

  1. A couple of thoughts:
    I think it is important to distinguish between economists and economics. There are no politically neutral, value-free economists. But there is a politically neutral and value-free economic science – the methods, models and tools that economists use. Partial equilibrium analysis is apolitical. Regression analysis is value-free. The economist who uses these tools may or may not have a political agenda, but the tools never have an agenda.

    I thought it was well understood (at least since David Hume) that you cannot deduct “oughts” from “is’s”, that you cannot derive normative statements from purely positive ones. Science in and of its own can never tell us what to do. It can only tell us about the likely consequences of taking a particular action. We then must decide whether we like these consequences or not. So whenever an economist (or anyone else) gives policy advise, they rely explicitly or implicitly on some value judgement.

    In my experience, political discussions rarely ever involve disagreements about values. 99,9% of the people agree on the basic goals of policy: more freedom is better than less freedom, a higher living standard is better than a low one, a more equal distribution of income is better than an unequal one, an intact environment is better than a polluted one, etc. Almost always the disagreement is about how to achieve these goals. And those disagreements result from different opinions about the effects of particular policies. You, Timon, for instance think that cutting working-hours by law would make people healthier and reduce unemployment. I think that it would probably increase unemployment and would not make people healthier overall. Our disagreement can be resolved, at least in principle, through facts and reasoning – which is one reason for running a blog like ours. I don’t recall any discussion in which you and I did not share the same values or did not agree on the ultimate goal.

    (I’m not sure at this point if this has anything to do with your blog, but hey, it’s a free forum!)

  2. I think I agree on most of it and additionally deem it as well written. Just with regard to one formulation I have to clearify… “But there is a politically neutral and value-free economic science – the methods, models and tools that economists use. Partial equilibrium analysis is apolitical. Regression analysis is value-free.” …We easily can agree on that methods in terms of instruments are value-free. But their selection and application hardly is. My assumptions about the market and its agents crucially determine the outcome of partial analysis. Which data I take into account and whether I assume linear relation crucially determines the outcome of regression analysis. My point therefore is: we economists as social scientists always incorporate or apply some sort of beliefs – even if not necessarily our own ones. So while I would agree that many and hopefully most of us try their best to keep politics and normativity aside – at least until it comes to conclusions and advises – I think technically there is little work done that is able claiming to be completely value-free.

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