Day By Day

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Economic "Truths"

On a related matter, Guy Sorman, writing in the City Journal declares that after two centuries of experience, economics has finally achieved "scientific rationality". In other words, economics is no longer speculative -- it is "scientific". And what does "scientific" authority tell us? According to Sorman it tells us:
1) The market economy is the most efficient of all economic systems.
2) Free trade helps economic development
3) Good institutions [those that promote transparency, honesty, free exchange, security of contracts, and the like] are good for development.
4) The best measure of a good economy is its growth.
5) Creative destruction is the engine of economic growth.
6) Monetary stability is essential for economic growth; inflation is always harmful.
7) Unemployment among unskilled workers is primarily determined by labor costs.
8) Welfare states are necessary, but often ineffective.
9) The creation of complex financial markets has brought about economic progress.
10) Competition is usually, but not always, desirable.
Read the whole thing here.

While I tend to agree in general terms with most of these prescriptions I am not comforted by the confidence with which they are put forth.

Like all "scientific" authority these prescriptions, when applied to questions of public policy, should be modified by other, non-scientific, considerations -- moral, political, cultural and the like. And, like all other "scientific" understanding is tentative, subject to revision in the light of new perspectives and new evidence.

It should be noted, too, that over the course of the past two centuries nations and other institutions have been carrying out massive experiments based on economic theory. Mercantilism, liberalism, socialism, and a host of other rational economic paradigms have been applied to populations -- often with horrific results. Hundreds of millions of lives have been sacrificed on the alter of scientific authority. Claims that, while economists have made mistakes in the past, they now have achieved the status of "scientific" authority are not, to me at least, comforting. If there is one lesson we should have learned from the terrible example of the past two centuries' history it is that matters of governance should be approached with the utmost humility and that all policies should be tentative.