Economists don\’t kno nuffink says non-economist

So says Peter Preston.

The illusion, for us outsiders, is that economics is at least a bona fide social science – not an actual science (in Einstein ways) or an argumentative science (in Greenland glacier mode) but at least quasi-scientific in its disciplines and rules of thumb. Reality, in a world of competing prescriptions and mounting adjectival excess, would appear to advance a fardifferent case. Some people think they know something. Some people believe quite another. Most people don\’t really follow either side (or quite understand what they\’re saying). Everybody has a view. Virtually everybody can convince themselves that they\’re right. But look at the record and stress the words \”knows\”. Nobody knows anything. Lights, music … curtains.

Given that Preston was Editor of The Guardian for 20 years this might help explain some of the economic positions The Guardian has taken over the years.

There\’s areas where we certainly don\’t know very much, this is true. These tend to be the macroeconomic areas: interest rates, recessions, unemployment and so on.

There are other areas where we know quite a lot: microeconomics. The theory of price, the firm, incentives.

There are even areas where economists are pretty much united: in favour of free trade and against rent control for example. Note that those are the areas where economists have the least impact upon public policy.

But OK, let\’s take Preston as having really put his finger on the point: economists don\’t kno nuffink. It\’s all just matters of opinion, pre-ordained prejudices determining economic views.

That\’s pretty much the end of the Statist project then, isn\’t it? As no one knows no one can plan. Bureaucrats and politicians are as blind as the rest of us, more likely to lead us off the cliff than to those golden uplit highlands (for there are obviously many more ways of being wrong than of being right).

Which is an interesting point: if no one knows then the only possible course is a rigorously free market economy, for in the absence of knowledge how can you know that you\’re doing the right thing in curtailing this or that, planning for the other or regulating the third?

You can\’t.

But, but, comes the answer: we do know that we cannot just have a free for all! OK, therefore we do know something and it isn\’t true that economists kno nothing then, is it?

So let\’s have the things that economists are most certain that they do know: free trade and an absence of rent control: we can move on to other things once you\’ve agreed with those.

4 thoughts on “Economists don\’t kno nuffink says non-economist”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    I think you have to look on this as a stage of poor little Peter’s development. Either he is concerned to undermine the credibility of people who happen to disagree with him by claiming that all knowledge is relative and so no one has any grounds for objecting to his programme. Or he is moving the other way, having abandoned a rigorous and principled defence of his views, but keeping the prejudice and is trying to stop people destroying what is left of his faith.

    I tend to the latter view myself. He is not merely a tool, he is a life long tool, but perhaps in old age he will have to admit his life’s work has made the world a worse place. As it has.

  2. You don’t, in fact, need relevant academic qualifications to run big economies – or to talk the economy talk. You can simply opine away.

    More a complaint about politics than economics, ISTM.

  3. A strange position for someone who edited a paper strongly in favour of state economic planning. How was this to be done if the information cannotbe known?

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