The economist as an expert: a prince, a servant or a citizen?

Recently Esther Duflo’s Economist as a plumber speech made huge waves in economic circles. Earlier Keynes had suggested economists to be humble and competent like dentists and also added various qualities for an economist.

However, all these attributes put economists and their craft on a pedestal over other social sciences (0r studies?).

In this  superb post written from the lens of history of economic thought, Alessandro Roncaglia explores this idea of economist as an expert.

The author says we can divide the role as three types:

  • A prince who leads from the front say an economist as a Prime Minister/Finance Minister etc.
  • A servant who makes policies on behalf of the government
  • A citizen who engages with the public writing and debating actively on policy issues.

The author says increasingly economists are seen in the first two categories but they should try and remain in the third one:

When, in November 2008, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II asked at an LSE meeting why economists had not foreseen the world financial crisis, she implicitly considered them as servants to the political powers and the general public — servants who (in that instance) had failed to fulfill their duties. Shortly thereafter, when the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, in a moment of severe crisis called on the Economics professor Mario Monti to take on the job of Prime Minister, he assigned to the economist a role of prince: a leader for society, though not subject to electoral democratic contest.[1]

Both notions – economists as servants or as princes – have deep historical roots, and as I will argue below, both should be avoided. We should, instead, see the economist as a citizen, socially and politically engaged – as any citizen should be – in fostering her own ideas about (at the same time) the common weal and her personal interest — which, as discussed by Adam Smith, is a complex notion distinct from pure selfishness.[2]


To sum up the reasoning, there is no unique ‘true’ economic science – and, if anything, the Classical-Keynesian approach fared much better, in the face of the crisis, than the marginalist-mainstream one has done. When confronted with different approaches, there is no possibility of an ‘objective’ choice of the expert: different economists will provide different interpretations of the economic situation and different advice on what to do. Often, success of one among contending viewpoints depends on its advocates’ relative institutional power — as reflected in their degree of access to research  finance, the media, etc. — rather than on its relative explanatory or forecasting power.[9]

Economists are (or should be) social scientists, not applied mathematicians. This is not to deny the usefulness of mathematics in economic theorizing, but mathematics is a tool to be applied to an underlying ‘vision’ — and this vision should not be kept invisible, nor be considered as unique and obvious; it should be at the center of the economic debate. (The role of the history of economic thought in this account is crucial, as I tried to maintain in other writings.) Again and again, from Adam Smith to Deirdre McCloskey, economists have suggested that the method of the rhetorical debate is better adequate to economic enquiry than judgment from a (majority held) specific point of view. This implies an ethical attitude — in research, in advising policy makers, and in debate both theoretical and policy-oriented, which should be pursued in a systematic way, for instance by attributing full importance to conflicts of interest.[10]

Existence of different underlying ‘visions’ calls for an open debate between economists. As part of this debate, economists should recognize that they are not ‘external’ to the object of their research; they are part of the society they study and, because of this, their views, even their theorizing, are influenced by their own position in society.

Thus, the economist cannot be considered either as a servant to the politician in charge, or as the prince to be summoned to rescue the state in difficult times. The economist should rather be recognized as a citizen — which means, in a democratic society, allowing for different views on what is right and wrong for society. As a citizen, the economist will take part in the policy debate, with the specific abilities characterizing each specific economist, but also with her specific ‘political’ views — trying to get support for her views but intellectually open to the different views proposed by other economists.

This may seem somewhat abstract, but it is, in fact, the very concrete experience of a group of economists active in Italy in the early 1960s, when a new centre-left government took over. The economists participating in the events were politically active, with explicit political orientations: Fuà and Sylos Labini were Socialists, Lombardini was a Christian-Democrat, and so on. They were recognized as good economists, whose advice was to be listened to; but they also took (very) active part in the political debate.[11]

This is how I see the economist: a citizen of our society, more than a savior or a hired expert-advisor to the political leaders of the country.

Amen to this.

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