The Ideology of Economics

by Reihan Salam

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry gently skewers Tyler Cowen’s recent argument that the cosmopolitan and egalitarian perspective of the economics profession merits praise. In Gobry’s view, this “economics ideology” narrows the perspective of the profession in very counterproductive ways. As Jim Manzi argues in Uncontrolled, economists are more like historians than physicists:

When it comes to deciding what policy actions to take, we should listen carefully to economists and other social scientists, but we should treat their assertions differently than we do scientific predictions. Their predictions should be subjected to useful cross-examination by laymen, weighing of technical and nontechnical opinions, introspection concerning human motivation, and all the rest. Beyond this, we should always keep in mind the unreliability of such predictions and treat the fog of uncertainty about the potential effects of our actions as fundamental when considering what to do. I’m not arguing that social science is valueless—I would no more advise a president to make a major economic decision without professional economic advice than I would suggest that he make a decision about war and peace without consulting relevant historians—but I am arguing that we should be extremely humble about our ability to make reliable, useful, and nonobvious predictions about the results of our policy interventions.

These limitations are inherent to the methodology of nonexperimental social science.

And so we should hardly be surprised that there are systematic biases in the economics profession. One of the reasons I was so impressed by Melanie Wasserman and David Autor’s work on the emerging gender gap in labor markets and education is that they have decided to take on a politically contentious subject. To their credit, they are very tentative about drawing any sweeping conclusions from their preliminary inquiry. Ideally, we would see the same tentativeness when social scientists make claims that resonate with biases that are pervasive in the profession. (Some social scientists, including Autor and Cowen, are very good at acknowledging and conveying the limits of the tools of non-experimental social science. They are among the good guys, in my view.) Of course, one reason some of these biases are so entrenched is because they reflect the findings of research agendas that have been in place for a long time. But this raises the related question of which questions have been asked and vigorously pursued and which have not. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.