Useful Idiots qua Economists

I think we all agree that solving ethical issues or deciding on values cannot be left to economists. I don’t think many economists would fancy the role. But I’m not sure how it can not be left to politicians. Democracy, as Schumpeter remarked, is rule by politicians. I am struck by how often posts on this blog imply that economists rule the world. They are nowhere near doing so, of course — and that’s a very good thing! But I still can’t see an alternative to politics, unsatisfactory though it often is.

— An Econometician’s Argument, RWER, 5/8/2020

Implicit in the red herring argument that ‘economists don’t rule the world’ is the claim they have no relationship, influence, or role in politics and that there is a nice neat divide between the role of economists in society and the theories they create separate and apart from politics and politicians. History doesn’t bear this claim out on many levels. It assumes economics and economists are innocent of playing any role, for better or worse, through economic theories and their influence upon upon society and politicians. The world is not black and white; economists have had and do now play a role in socio-political outcomes.

~ ~ ~

The length to which those in the profession go to push their simplistic narrative [on free trade] are nothing short of exasperating. When reading some of the pronouncements and arguments put forward by proponents, you would be hard pushed not to think that you were looking at the words of cult members or conspirators. Consider the words uttered by Paul Krugman—often supposed to be a liberal or left-of-centre economist. Krugman is determined to tell his audience that those who argue that Ricardo’s argument is not relevant to the real world simply do not understand it. He then equates rejection of Ricardo’s theory with rejection of evolutionary theory and equates both with some sort of aversion to mathematics. He writes:

At the deepest level, opposition to comparative advantage—like opposition to the theory of evolution—reflects the aversion of many intellectuals to an essentially mathematical way of understanding the world. Both comparative advantage and natural selection are ideas grounded, at base, in mathematical models—simple models that can be stated without actually writing down any equations, but mathematical models all the same. The hostility that both evolutionary theorists and economists encounter from humanists arises from the fact that both fields lie on the front line of the war between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: territory that humanists feel is rightfully theirs, but which has been invaded by aliens armed with equations and computers. (Krugman 1996)

The patronising tone [2] is manifest here in that Krugman is implicitly invoking what we earlier called the ‘limiting principle’. The naive dupes who reject the economist’s advice on free trade are the cultural theorists and the postmodernists. They are intellectuals that spend more time reading books than they do undertaking the hard work of writing down equations and looking at statistics. Krugman’s speech is dog whistle politics all the way—and we should stress that it is politics because free trade is a highly politicised issue that only economists think can be sanitised in such a crude fashion. (Pilkington 2016, 330-331)

These economists become what Vladimir Lenin in the context of a rather different ideology called ‘useful idiots’. That is, propagandists that are being used by others for motivations that they do not understand. In the 1990s, they were useful idiots for large corporations that wanted to scrap factories in the West and move them overseas. At the time of writing, they are useful idiots for corporations who want to protect intellectual property rights in the face of new technologies under the guise of the free trade ideology. Rather, hilariously dogmatic free traders today have also become the useful idiots of monopolistic forces who use public sector subsidies and technologies to produce products that they then sell to the public at exorbitantly high prices. When this price-gouging activity is threatened by overseas companies making generic knock-offs at a fraction of the cost, the corporations call in the free trade army to defend their so-called ‘property rights’. (Pilkington 2016, 331)

The forces at work behind dogmatic free trade arguments at any given moment in time will never be self-identical. In order to understand the agenda behind any trade policy at a given moment in time, you must examine it in critical detail. What the free trade dogma does is it tricks economists fooled by their own simplistic narratives into becoming propagandists for whatever the powers-that-be want to impose on various countries at any given moment in time. This is not an exaggeration either. In his talk, Krugman closes by laying out a series of propaganda tactics to preach the generally unpopular argument for dogmatic free trade to the general public and, most especially, the soppy ‘cultural’ intellectuals. He says:

I cannot offer any grand strategy for dealing with the aversion of intellectuals to Ricardo’s difficult idea. No matter what economists do, we can be sure that ten years from now the talk shows and the op-ed pages will still be full of men and women who regard themselves as experts on the global economy, but do not know or want to know about comparative advantage. Still, the diagnosis I have offered here provides some tactical hints. (Ibid.)

In this book, I have tried to steer away from direct considerations of policy. But I have laid out a brief discussion about free trade not because I am advocating protectionism but because it is a prime case where we see what function abstract economic theory can play in politics and society. That much economic theory is based on ridiculously narrow assumptions and unrealistic a priori premises should, at this stage, be obvious. But it is worth being clear how the types of people that espouse this sort of thing can be used by political forces that they do not understand and cannot comprehend. (Pilkington 2016, 331-332)

I have always been averse to the idea that economics as it is currently taught is some sort of organic outgrowth of the ideology of the ruling class. I do not find the Marxist story convincing that economics as it is currently taught is a mere reflection of the interests of the ruling class. Rather, I think that the explanation is much simpler: economists have cast such darkness over their own discipline that they can make themselves believe in basically anything that suits them at any given moment in time. All one has to do is feed them a very simple argument that seems internally consistent, and they will mistake this consistency for some Absolute Truth about the real world. Such people are very useful to the powers-that-be. They are the same people who were promoted to positions of power in the Medieval Church. It was not that what they were saying was so much a reflection of the interests of the elite so much as it was that what they were saying was a brilliant distraction from what was really going on. Contemporary mainstream [and some heterodox] economics is less the ideology of the ruling class than it is the opiate for establishment intellectuals who find that their little models and their ridiculously simplistic arguments get them invited to all the rifht places. (Pilkington 2016, 332)

2 It should be noted that Krugman is playing to his audience’s elitism in his rhetoric by calling Ricardo’s idea ‘difficult’ as he does throughout his lecture (entitled ‘Ricardo’s Difficult Idea’). In fact, it is not a remotely difficult idea. Most teenagers understand it perfectly well when laid out in high school economics class. The more reflective ones, however, do not swallow it hook, line and sinker.

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