“Unfortunately, no one listens to economists” (1852)
I have written some short essays on the following topics. The idea is to dip into the past to see what I can find which is relevant to things which are going on today.
- Jeremy Bentham on rule by “disinterested experts” or “the fallacy of authority” (1824) here
- Herbert Spencer on the State and “Sanitary Supervision” (1851) here
- Gustave de Molinari on Economists as the Bookkeepers of Politics: “Unfortunately, no one listens to economists” (1852) here
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) reminds us that bad things can happen when so-called experts are able to get the ear of the government. They are not disinterested parties as they often claim and sometimes do much harm in the name of promoting the “greater happiness of the greatest number”. How they make this calculation has always been a problem for utilitarian administrators – whose “happiness” (or rights to life, liberty, and property) get sacrificed for the “greater good”? and over what time frame is this “greatest happiness” calculated, short term or long term? The “argument from authority” is one of the many “political fallacies” used by politicians to bamboozle the voters which Bentham discusses.
There is also the question of which are the best or most appropriate experts to use. It strikes me as not a coincidence that governments choose experts whose advice usually leads to increasing the power of the state and the prestige of the politicians who run those states. Cui bono? It is also not surprising that these experts usually do not include someone like a Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) who would want to know about “the unseen” consequences of this advice, what are the trade-offs, what are the unintended consequences, and who are the vested interests who might benefit from this presumably “disinterested” advice?
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) raises many of these concerns in his piece which was written soon after the cholera epidemic of 1849 swept through London and Paris. He also focuses on the incompetence of government authorities charged with public health and the impediments which government regulations place in the way of private and voluntary solutions to these problems. So what else is new?
Perhaps in the end it doesn’t really matter if economists like Bastiat do advise governments. According to Gustave de Molinari there are very good reasons why governments and the public ignore their advice anyway. It is not what they want to hear, they usually do not understand the economic principles at work, and the “tax eaters” who run the country have no reason to want to give up their privileges and benefits.