Jason Stanley continues his important series of opionator columns on the dangers to democracy of misleading public discourse. In his most recent one, Stanley also engages with the impact of misleading speech by experts (for example, Bernanke's coining of "fiscal cliff"). Along the way, he reminds the reader of a Platonic analogy:
Plato was right to regard his views as inconsistent with democracy. His view that citizens are not competent to make judgments about public policy, that economics and policy are areas of expertise like the physician’s, is profoundly undemocratic.
And then again here:
In the arena of contemporary fiscal policy, very much in the news now, Plato’s problem is particularly perplexing. Here, the analogy between someone competent to engage in decision making and a physician seems apt. It is natural to think that competent judgment about fiscal policy requires expert training in economics akin to a physician’s training in medicine. But if only experts can make the judgments here, it isn’t clear that democracy is possible.
Now, to be clear Stanley is not endorsing the analogy between economist and physician (I checked with him first). The Platonic analogy between the economist and the physician was trotted out in Newsweek by Milton Friedman when he was under attack for meeting with and advising Chile's dictator, Pinochet (for more of the context see my piece here):
In spite of my profound disagreement with the authoritarian political system of Chile, I do not consider it as evil for an economist to render technical economic advice to the Chilean Government, any more than I would regard it as evil for a physician to give technical medical advice to the Chilean Government to help end a medical plague. (June 14, 1976)
If the analogy between economist and physician holds then the choice of mathematical language & theory choice, the choice of basic assumptions, and the particular concrete problems that are the focus of economists are all guided and made to cohere by the economic equivalent of a doctor aiming at good health or human flourishing.
Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that (a) good health can always be characterized objectively and (b) that medical practice is appropriately oriented toward it. [*] (In fact, I do not accept (a) or (b).) Still Friedman's position faces two problems, first, in some cases not all policy goals (low inflation, high growth, and income distribution that accords with, say, -- let’s set the bar low! -- some version of Rawls’ difference principle) will always cohere. (In Chile, during the 1970s, the Chicago Boys achieved low inflation, but at the cost of very halting growth and regressive income distributions.) Second, and more fundamental, the good that technical, economic experts promote can conflict with other potentially more fundamental values, e.g., democratic participation, political freedom, the right to human dignity, justice, etc.
Now, leaving aside the particular Chilean circumstances, Friedman was tempted into the analogy not by Plato, but by the idea that there is fundamental agreement of values in a citizenry. This commitment is, in fact, crucial to the distinction between positive and normative as deployed by economists of all ideological persuasions. For, if one can screen off a domain of expertise as un-affected by values, then in that domain one can deploy all kinds of technocratic tools while focusing only on evidential or epistemic concerns.Recall my post on a wonderful (1968) presidential address by the economist, K. Boulding:
We cannot escape the proposition that as science moves from pure knowledge toward control, that is, toward creating what it knows, what it creates becomes a problem of ethical choice, and will depend upon the common values of the societies in which the scientific subculture is embedded, as well as of the scientific subculture. Under these circumstances science cannot proceed at all without at least an implicit ethic, that is, a subculture with appropriate common values. (9; p. 3 in Boulding)
Boulder calls attention to the crucial issue: "Every culture, or subculture, is defined by a set of common values, that is, generally agreed upon preferences." (Boulding, 1) So, societies and value/preference-homogeneity are inter-defined. Within a society welfare is a trivially shared commitment. As an important aside, on Talcott Parsons reading of the history of philosophy, this claim goes back to Hobbes. I mention this not to cite Parsons as authority. But Parsons' narrative was picked up by Frank Knight (about whom I have blogged before) and his two (Nobel winning) prominent students, George Stigler, who struggled with value unanimity in his (now largely unknown) 1943 criticism of the new welfare economics, and, of course, Milton Friedman, who relies on it explicitly in his famous 1953 methodological essay. This is to say, the economist as physician trope is the consequence of a disastrous self-understanding about the nature between theory/model and policy and the roles of values in them.
Now, let's return to Stanley's piece. He identifies at least two problems: (i) the public's democratic representatives are not speaking truthfully; (ii) the policy experts in the public eye are also not speaking truthfully and clearly.
On (i) he identifies what we can best describe as the negative consequences of an "entrenched" oligopoly (my term not Stanley's). For, first-past-the-post and gerrymandering politics has produced a political class the overwhelming majority of which can expect to be returned to power with their colleagues. This had allowed incentives that perpetuate misleading speech to go unchallenged by either party. (Clearly, first-past-the-post is not the only thing to blame--we cannot ignore the role of the press and the experts; and maybe the demos themselves!)
On (ii) the situation is complicated even more, as Stanley notes: "What will happen in an economy is affected very deeply by widely-held beliefs about what will happen, to such a degree that philosophical notions of objective reality do not smoothly apply to the domain of economics." This means, that economics is, in part, what I like to call an 'intentional science.' If economic policy experts cannot take shared values for granted (among themselves and among the public), then given that economics is an intentional science, they cannot exclusively rely on tools that pretend that the normative and the positive are strictly separated. In fact, they need to put themselves and their subjects into the same model(s) and learn to talk clearly and truthfully not just to, but with the public. (This does not require speaking the full truth in symbolic form, of course.) We might call it not only "rule by discussion," but "expertise-generation by discussion."
[*] Full disclosure: my wife is a retina surgeon.