Cato Study: “Economists Should Talk to the Public”

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Cato Studies:

Economists Should Talk to the Public

It has been said that if all economists were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion. In a new Cato Institute book edited by Daniel B. Klein, nine of this century's greatest economists do agree on one thing: economic research must be firmly rooted in public issues and contribute to better understanding of economic concepts by public officials and voters.

Klein, associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University, gathered essays from Friedrich Hayek, Ronald Coase, Thomas Schelling, Gordon Tullock, Israel Kirzner, Frank Graham, William Hutt, Clarence Philbrook, and Deirdre McCloskey addressing the essential issue for economists: How do we contribute to human betterment?

Klein calls on economists to use their expertise to help make a better society, not just to pursue technical precision. He and the authors point out that there are major differences between political economy and such disciplines as physics, chemistry, engineering, and medicine. Practitioners in the latter fields are experts appointed to make important decisions. "But the actual decisions of political economy are made, not by experts, but by ordinary public officials and voters—the 'Everyman,'" Klein writes. "The practitioner of political economy is typically highly ignorant of basic economic ideas."

One result, Hayek writes, "is that in economics you can never establish a truth once and for all but have always to convince every generation anew." Consequently, in this field, Hayek concludes, "almost more than any other, human folly displays itself."

Klein raises a series of key issues addressed in the essays, including, How can economists influence public affairs? Should economists remain principled although it may hurt their careers? How much should economists attempt to mold society? For the most part, the authors encourage economists to become more engaged in public discourse, although they do disagree, naturally, on which specific ideas and solutions should be stressed.

Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan of George Mason University says the book "raises pro-vocative questions that should make all economists think. What is our raison d'être?"

This article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.