Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On Viewing Non-Economists with Contempt

By Don Boudreaux
My utter mystification at being accused, in the comments section of this post, of viewing ordinary people with contempt causes me to ask: What could possibly give an obviously intelligent person that notion?
I think I have the answer – one that goes further than do the two comments that I there posted in reply.  The answer is that I am very critical of the opinions that most non-economists (and many economists) express about economics and economic matters.  It’s true that I do hold in very low regard – in, indeed, contempt – the “economics” expressed by many non-economists and by the politicians and pundits who cater to economic ignorance.  But this fact does not mean that I regard these people to be stupid or unable individually to tend properly and prudently to each of their own individual affairs.  I criticize such people in the same way that, I’m sure, an experienced engineer would criticize people who, seeking a way to allow motorists to get back and forth across the Mississippi river, propose to build a bridge made only of cotton candy.  And just as the engineer would no doubt amplify the volume of his protests if the clamoring for such a cotton-candy bridge grew loud and began to display a real prospect for being taken seriously, I amplify the volume of my protests when similarly fanciful and unscientific notions – such as making us wealthier with tariffs – grow loud and display a real prospect for being taken seriously.
It is ungenerous – or, certainly, erroneous – to accuse someone who is an expert in X of thinking that those who know nothing of X, yet who express opinions about X, are contemptible.  These expressed opinions about X are typically mistaken, and in many cases even contemptible.  Further, they become a public nuisance when politicians secure power by professing to share these mistaken opinions.  It is, therefore, appropriate for someone who knows better to explain that those opinions are flawed.  And if those opinions continue to be stubbornly held in ways that threaten to generate outcomes quite the opposite of the outcomes expected by those who profess those mistaken opinions, it is appropriate for a knowledgeable person to amplify his or her reasons for rejecting those opinions.
But, surely, just as no one would think the engineer to be arrogant or haughty if he continues to explain why a cotton-candy bridge will not support automobile traffic, no one should think the economist to be arrogant or haughty if he continues to explain why, say, tariffs do not create jobs or raise wages generally, or why the minimum wage will reduce low-skilled workers’ employment options.  Yet no more should it be inferred from the economist’s protests that he views ordinary people with contempt than it should be inferred from the engineer’s protest that he views ordinary people with contempt.
The above originally appeared at Cafe Hayek.


  1. Cue Rothbard:
    “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”

    1. Obviously engineering is a legitimate and well respected discipline. It's an open question whether the same can be said of economics.

      Also, we are taught (in economics) that we are all economic entities. We therefore should and must have economic opinions. Mr. Boudreaux's remarks are ill considered.

    2. @ballyfager

      I find your comment interesting.

      I also find it interesting that a comparison was made between engineering, which can be focused on hard data/numbers to drive decisions on how to "centrally plan"(stay with me) the construction of a bridge for example, when there's a group of interesting economists that I happen to like that suggest you can't use data to centrally plan the economy(effectively that is).

      Seems like an apples to oranges comparison to me.

      Now any of us that are experts in any given particular field might scoff at someone who jumps in and make an uninformed or downright stupid statement, it's human nature-

      But the economic profession as a whole, having driven much of the financial misery via government over the last 100 years, is fair game IMO.

      If a bunch of bridges started coming down you'd bet that there'd be lots of non-experts in society questioning bridge engineers, rightfully so.

    3. Engineering is a discipline which for most things the public can measure by seeing if it works or not and if does how well. Other intellectual fields like economics, climate science, and so on the public cannot so easily measure them. Thus politicians can have lots of "cotton candy" ideas and through fat government paychecks and career incentives find intellectuals to support these "cotton candy" ideas one way or another.

  2. A key point here I think draws from these lines "Further, they become a public nuisance when politicians secure power by professing to share these mistaken opinions. It is, therefore, appropriate for someone who knows better to explain that those opinions are flawed."

    This is why education is so important for the liberty movement and the future development of mankind. If people never learn about the ideas of liberty, peace, and true economics, then they will continue to have their brains and thoughts infected with the ideas of the warfare/welfare state. The idea that it is normal for the US military to be stationed around the world and blowing up a new country every 6 months, that it is normal to expect the government to take care of you from cradle to grave, that it is normal to not have any privacy in your life from government snooping, these ideas will not be beaten back and defeated if people are not educated.

    This is why I try to read and understand as much as I can and send people I know who seem to have open minds to mises.org, antiwar.com, etc.