Frank Meyer – the fusionist journalist who wrote for National Review in its prime years – making a point about economists that I’ve often argued. From his essay, “The Locus of Virtue” (which can be found in this collection):
Economics is closest to an exact science of all the disciplines that study men and society. It is at the same time the farthest removed from philosophical competence, from the capacity to establish value. Economics can neither establish nor confute the validity of a moral system or a political system. What it can do is to demonstrate what the results of alternate courses of economic action will be. The choice between these sets of results (and therefore between the economic systems which lead to them) is beyond the prerogatives of economics. It is a moral and political choice.
So the next time you read Krugman or Cowen or any other distinguished economist, remember this point. It doesn’t mean that they can’t offer compelling moral or philosophical arguments. Moreover, what economists can do is mighty enough. But it does mean that they don’t speak as economists when they do so and they don’t have any special competence when they speak on moral, philosophical, and political issues.
Perhaps we should start referring to these individuals not as “Economist Tyler Cowen” or “Economist Paul Krugman” but with such more useful and accurate terms as “Utilitarian” or “Progressive” or “Libertarian” or any other more helpful word when they are discussing things outside their domain of expertise.