Economists are – by and large – religious or political advocates

A recent article by March Buchanan in Bloomberg got me to wondering why “Economists” and “Economics” – in spite of their gross and sometimes spectacular failures – have the high status they do. I come to the conclusion that “Economists” are – by and large – just religious or political advocates and “Economics” is no more than a study of social behaviour.

Is Economics a Science or a Religion?

The idea of economics as religion harks back to at least 2001, when economist Robert Nelson published a book on the subject. Nelson argued that the policy advice economists draw from their theories is never “value-neutral” but foists their values, dressed up to look like objective science, on the rest of us.

Take, for example, free trade. In judging its desirability, economists weigh projected costs and benefits, an approach that superficially seems objective. Yet economists decide what enters the analysis and what gets ignored. Such things as savings in wages or transport lend themselves easily to measurement in monetary terms, while others, such as the social disruption of a community, do not. The mathematical calculations give the analysis a scientific wrapping, even when the content is just an expression of values.

Similar biases influence policy considerations on everything from labor laws to climate change. As Nelson put it, “the priesthood of a modern secular religion of economic progress” has pushed a narrow vision of economic “efficiency,” wholly undeterred by a history of disastrous outcomes.

The practice of the black-magic that is considered economics – for it is certainly no science in the Popper sense – gets much of its cloak of respectability from the fact that the Nobel Prize exists (more correctly the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).  

The Nobel prize in Economics should never have been created. In fact Nobel never wanted one and he is probably spinning in his grave as prize winners, one after another, prove – at best – to be mere historians and – at worst – religious or political zealots.  The prize adds more stature to the discipline of economics than it deserves. Almost every economic theorist has developed wonderful hindcasts but few – if any – have produced theories which can consistently make correct forecasts.

WikipediaThe Prize in Economics is not one of the original Nobel Prizes created by the will of Alfred Nobel. ……. In his speech at the 1974 Nobel Banquet Friedrich Hayek stated that if he had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics he would “have decidedly advised against it” primarily because “the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.”

The Nobel family are among the harshest critics of the Economics Prize being associated with Alfred Nobel:

“The Economics Prize has nestled itself in and is awarded as if it were a Nobel Prize. But it’s a PR coup by economists to improve their reputation,” Nobel’s great great nephew Peter Nobel  told AFP in 2005, adding that “It’s most often awarded to stock market speculators …. There is nothing to indicate that [Alfred Nobel] would have wanted such a prize.”

Members of the Nobel family are among the harshest, most persistent critics of the economics prize, and members of the family have repeatedly called for the prize to be abolished or renamed. In 2001, on the 100th anniversery of the Nobel Prizes, four family members published a letter in the Swedish paper  Svenska Dagbladet, arguing that the economics prize degrades and cheapens the real Nobel Prizes. They aren’t the only ones.

To make it worse the Prize  is now “available to researchers in such topics as political science, psychology, and sociology”.

The political advocacy which is inherent in the theses promoted by Nobel Economics laureates have led to spectacular failures. Milton Friedman and his rabid monetarism gave rise to many of the crises today, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen bank with their concept and practice of microcredit have exacerbated the risks of the debt trap into which so many small farmers have fallen. Krugman’s politics are essentially of the left and usually encourage profligacy. His analyses are more destructive than constructive and he has fault to find with almost every other theorist cutting across all political boundaries. He himself has yet to advocate any consistently successful theories. Amartya Sen focuses on analysing the “economics of poverty” but has nothing real to offer for its alleviation beyond platitudes representing his own political values from his ivory tower.

The world’s economies lurch from one crisis to the next but rarely are the crises foreseen. The only constant that can be observed is that growth – when it happens – leads to the improvement of the human condition but no “economic theory” has been able to deliver sustained growth. Growth – when it happens – achieves more for poverty alleviation than any social welfare program. Real wealth creation achieves more in achieving full employment or achieving social equality than merely redistributing a static pot of wealth.

As Mark Buchanan writes:

There’s a real danger in seeing economics as an objective science from which all values have been stripped.

It may be that “economics” will always be subject to the vagaries of human attitudes and behaviour and – since these are never constant or rational – that economics theory applied to political reality can never be more than a very short-term action plan.

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One Response to “Economists are – by and large – religious or political advocates”

  1. midya Says:

    All you had to say was , “Paul Krugman” and you proved your point. Great post.

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