Shelia Dow | February 06 2017 | Instititute for New Economic Thinking
As part of our ongoing symposium “Experts on Trial”, Professor Sheila Dow argues that if voters have grown contemptuous of economists’ expertise, that’s because economics has been misrepresented as a technical subject separate from politics and moral judgments
“People in this country have had enough of experts.” Thus the response of key ‘Brexit’ campaigner Michael Gove when confronted with the long list of expert bodies, such as the IMF, that were making the economic case for Britain to remain in the EU.
This is a shocking statement, particularly coming from a highly-educated former Minister of Education. As professional economists, we see ourselves as contributing to society precisely through our expertise. Yet, Gove was picking up on a trend in public discourse that gained further momentum during the US presidential election campaign, of disregarding expert opinion. Nor is it a transitory phenomenon. Empirical evidence of the gulf between expert and lay opinion on economic policy in the US has been provided by Sapienza and Zingales (2013), a gulf which was not affected when the lay subjects were made aware of expert opinion.
Out of the discourse on expertise have emerged two sequential characterisations of the zeitgeist: a “post-democratic” era which begat a “post-truth” era.
The “post-democratic” label described the trend for important policy decisions to be made on the basis of expert opinion rather than any democratic process. It refers to institutional arrangements that explicitly put executive power in the hands of experts, such as independent central banks and the European Fiscal Compact (see further Pühringer, forthcoming). The democratic deficit is further compounded by the extent to which policy-making institutions have been captured by vested interests (Morgan 2017). Seen in this light, some of the political developments of 2016 can be seen as attempts to reassert democracy.
But out of that effort has also arisen what is characterised as a “post-truth” era, implying that truth is popularly regarded as irrelevant to shaping the outcome of the democratic process. Assertions which “feel right” but have no basis in fact are accepted as valid on the grounds that they challenge the elite and its vested interests. Of course, this raises the question of what truth is, with a potential conflict between the understanding of experts and the understanding of the individual voter based on experience. Thus, for example,economists may claim that an economy is strong while individual experience is of economic vulnerability and hardship. If economic expertise is to contribute to policy debate, then the scope for different understandings needs to be addressed. But far from implying that any assertion is legitimate, this scope underlines the importance of justification of understanding, by reason and experience.
Where does this leave the economist as expert?