Ask someone at a party about their views on whether they think the use of Bioprosthetic Valves to treat Thrombosis is worth the increased risk of reduced leaflet function and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare and not be invited back. If somebody is feeling particularly generous they might explain that they don’t really know what you’re talking about and aren’t knowledgeable enough to give an opinion. If, on the other hand, you raise the question of how important it is to keep debt down, or whether economic stimulus is the right response to a crash, or whether Labour or the Tories are better on the economy, you’ll get a range of opinions about what we should do and why the bankers/Labour screwed everything up (delete as appropriate depending on the company you keep).
Are opinions on medicine and economics really so different? Corbynistas and Labourites are happy to reel off their favourite Krugman and Stiglitz quotes and mutter on about how it was a global recession and Labour played no part in it, and free-marketeers will talk endlessly about overspending in Greece and how the market does things infinitely better. I’d like to propose an alternate view: I have no idea what’s right for the economy, and neither, in all likelihood, do you. The general public are astoundingly ignorant: six of every seven voters don’t know the difference between debt and deficit, one of the most googled questions in the prelude to the election was ‘what is austerity?’, and only 30% of people could correctly pick out the definition of quantitative easing in a multiple-choice quiz. Maybe you think you’re more informed and that while the general public might not have a good grasp on economics, you basically know what you’re talking about. But what if I begin to question you as to your thoughts on whether Britain is currently in a liquidity trap? Or what if I ask you about the advantages and disadvantages of Fractional-Reserve banking? My suspicion is that you would quickly get rather lost, as I, and most other non-economists, would too.
There’s this odd view that economics is rather simple, and if you ask somebody who has strong views on what ought to be done with the economy, you’ll often get a response that implies that anyone with the opposite view is an idiot who doesn’t properly understand the facts. A particularly funny example of this was one audience member of Question Time who began his comment with, ‘economics is really simple’, proceeded to give an example of how if he bought more pints than he could afford he would go bust, and ended with, ‘it’s not difficult guys’, as if the panelists who had spent thousands of hours thinking about economics had somehow all completely ignored the obvious and objective facts that guide the way the economy works. Of course, he was quickly and effectively shut down by Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Marxist economist who was thrust into the public limelight when he became finance minister after Syriza’s incredible electoral success, who explained why the audience member’s personal budget was not a good model for a country’s economy. On the left, there is a different but related view that economics is largely based in morality and values. If, for example, you oppose rent controls (as the vast majority of economists do), this does not come down to an issue of empirical data but one of morality, you are accused of having your view not because you have come to a reasoned conclusion but because you don’t care about people being unable to afford housing.
Why is it that we are comfortable letting experts tell us what is best when it comes to medicine but when economists are telling us something, we largely ignore it and assume that we know better? Why is it that we feel comfortable to weigh in on debates where we have very little expertise? One reason is that we are expected to vote in a general election and a large part of that vote will be what you believe with regards to the economy; if you don’t form some sort of view on what ought to be done, you’ll find it very difficult to say with any great confidence who ought to govern. Another reason is that lots of us have a great vested interest in one economic policy being implemented over another, either because it will personally benefit us financially or because it supplements our views on the role of the state or another political belief.
Perhaps what we ought to do is let the economists economise (or not) and we can argue about the stuff that mostly comes down to values rather than empirical evidence that experts can interpret better than we can. There are some debates that genuinely do come down to our values: is it right to kill people who commit heinous crimes? Should we compromise on our civil liberties for increased national security? Does having higher levels of immigration dilute or otherwise impact on our culture? Of course, these debates involve factual evidence as well, but often they really do come down to personal beliefs rather than being unable to understand the arguments of both sides, as is the case in economics. Some might argue that it is horribly naïve to get a large group of economists together and let them just get on with it, but one possible counter-example to this is the Bank of England, which, when made independent from the government under Gordon Brown, thrived and offered a renewed and non-partisan stance on interest rates. Could we not create similar things for the budget or other economic policies?
Ideology has been injected into economic debate where it is not necessary or helpful. Economics is not an exact science in the same way that medicine is, but it is more rooted in fact than often seems to come across by the way it is debated. A degree of objectivity should be applied to economics, and academic and serious debate rather than politician intuition should come to the forefront of the way that we think about economics. The success of our country is so largely dependent on the health of its economy, and it is vital that the we transition towards new ways of thinking about economics.