Policy Differences Among Economists and “Disinterested Citizens”

Milton Friedman argued in 1953 (and again in 1967) that economic policy differences are rooted primarily in different views about the consequences of those policies — and that these disagreements could largely be eliminated by better positive economics (!).  Specifically, he wrote:

I venture the judgment, however, that currently in the Western world, and especially in the United States, differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action – differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive economics – rather than from fundamental differences in basic values, differences about which men can ultimately only fight.  (1953)

I have been much impressed, in the course of much controversy about issues of economic policy, that most differences in economic policy in the United States do not reflect differences in value judgments, but differences in positive economic analysis.  I have found time and again that in mixed company – that is, a company of economists and noneconomists such as is here today – the economists present, although initially one would tend to regard them as covering a wide range of political views, tend to form a coalition vis-a-vis the noneconomists, and, often much to their surprise, to find themselves on the same side.  (1967)

This is a highly problematic contention and something that not even his wife Rose was willing to accept.  Indeed, she thought nearly the opposite: “I have always been impressed by the ability to predict an economist’s positive views from my knowledge of his political orientation” (1998).*  

My view is that values and interests, not scientific understanding, are at the root of most political differences – and this holds for economists as much as for the rest of us.  Indeed, even when economists are in agreement on policy despite different political views, this is often because of a commonly shared fundamental agreement on values, namely a generally consequentialist – even utilitarian – ethical framework that itself is exogenous to economics as a science.  

It is worth nothing that Milton wavered later in life in his confidence in this earlier view, noting “I am much less confident now that I am right and she [Rose] is wrong than I was more than four decades ago when I wrote the methodology article…” (1998).    

* Rose’s view is very, very troubling since it would make scholarship merely an adjunct to politics rather than a neutral scientific enterprise that might or might not have policy implications. (It is worth explicitly pointing out that she implies the causal arrow is going from political orientation to economic view, rather than the other way around).

9 thoughts on “Policy Differences Among Economists and “Disinterested Citizens”

  1. > Rose’s view is very, very troubling since it would make scholarship merely an adjunct to politics

    Not troubling to me. It’s always been obvious that economics is just politics with money. That doesn’t apply to actual scholarship, forunately.


  2. Troubling? I have yet to meet a social scientist whose scholarship wasn’t an extended post hoc justification for his pre-conceived ideological determinations. And that’s especially true of economists who strive mightily to put the science in social science . . . mostly by writing the black box of human behavioral psychology out of the equation with the suspiciously convenient ceteris paribus.

    In my experience, Rose’s observation is troubling only insofar as it describes the limitations of the human intellect.

    1. Your circle of social science acquaintances seems limited. In my observation, it happens with some regularity that people set out to confirm a hypothesis but fail to do so, even showing the opposite of what they intend.

      Let me give just one example. The Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan was a single mother setting out to demonstrate that being a single parent wasn’t damaging to kids. This is what she believed and wanted to show. Based on the evidence, she reached the opposite conclusion and has done some of the most highly regarded work showing the negative consequences of growing up in a single parent family.

      I don’t know anything about your background, but it must be very different from mine. I don’t think we can ever completely remove our biases from our work, but many scholars do make a valiant effort to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. I would say, however, that having spent considerable time with both political scientists and economists, economists draw a much sharper line between positive and normative arguments than political scientists do.

      1. Your last point is a testable claim that may be true.

        I agree — value-free social science is possible and happening all of the time. Even if you start with certain hypotheses, a good social scientist lets the cards fall where they may once you see the data (not that some social scientists don’t try harder to see if the “wrong” results are data artifacts rather than the real thing — didn’t this happen with Putnam’s research on social capital and diversity?)

        My bigger concern (and one that MF discussed and worried about in the articles cited above) is that values/ideology affect the type of questions asked by individual researchers and the type of “important questions” that the disciplines, peer reviewers, and their journals consider worth publishing. So, lots of good social science exists that tests whether X increases equality or representativeness or you name the left-oriented D.V. (and this is seen as value-free) whereas the field would laugh at a similar article that was as rigorous but tested for freedom! Indeed, the entire field of American political development is focused on looking at the rise of the state — and a lot of that work seems premised on that being a good thing (look at how these folks scoff at Coolidge or would scoff at my namesake if they even bothered to look at him) with Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, the progressives, etc the heroes.

      2. I remember several years ago in a political science seminar the discussion was on comparing the effectiveness of different presidents using their ability to get legislation passed as a metric. I suggested that maybe not passing more legislation was a metric of effectiveness (and noted in passing that I was sort of a fan of gridlock)

        This comment was not well received.

  3. I think William James agreed with Rose:

    “The true,” to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as “the right” is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.

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