Bryan Caplan  

How Persuasive Is a Reputation for Consistent Advocacy of Efficiency?

Sumner's Free Trade Example... In Defense of Macroeconomists...
The more I think about Robin's position on efficiency, the more it puzzles me.  In his talk, he heavily emphasized economists' need to build an iron-clad reputation for "neutrality" in order to persuade a world full of non-economists who distrust us.  If we preach and practice "efficiency always," people will feel more comfortable relying upon our advice.

This sounds good.  But what evidence is that there that a reputation for consistent advocacy of efficiency is actually persuasive?  Does Robin point to any evidence from psychology?  No.  Does Robin point to any evidence that rigid efficiency advocates are more politically influential?  No.  Does Robin even claim that his rigid efficiency advocacy makes him unusually politically influential?  Quite the opposite; see his first-hand account of the "terrorism betting market" witchhunt.

According to Robin's official argument, "If economists stand by efficiency, it will make them persuasive."  But on reflection, doesn't his real argument seems more like, "If economists stand by efficiency, they will deserve to be persuasive"?

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Zdeno writes:

Robin's theory predicts that an economics blog whose content is primarily flighty conjecture rather than carefully-reasoned Bayesianism will achieve less readership and influence than his own.


Economists would benefit from becoming less terrified of voicing their opinion, not more.

William writes:


Aww, snap. Nice one.

Zac writes:

I have also been thinking a lot about Robin's argument and I now find it more convincing. I take Robin's argument as: to the extent that economists have any influence at all, it is because they have proven tools for measuring efficiency. This is why you would go to an economist during a conflict as opposed to a man on the street or a moral philosopher. Consulting an economist during a conflict might lead to a peaceful resolution where everyone wins. If instead we base our arguments on morality, we are no better or more persuasive than the moral philosopher (or preacher).

Although many people disparage economists, I think their standing in affecting policy is quite higher on average than for moral philosophers. Evidence: as far as I know, there is a lot of demand for economic consulting within government and business but little demand for moral philosophy consulting. If there is a reason for this other than the fact that people see economics as a scientific approach to achieving efficient outcomes, what is it?

In most cases, being an advocate for efficiency leads you to be an advocate for liberty. In cases where it might not, and an efficiency analysis leads you to conclusions contrary to moral intuition, either be silent or give your opinion in a role as "non-economist," that is, do not pretend that what is actually an argument from morality is actually an argument from efficiency.

My remaining issue with Robin's argument: I do not think that advising for efficiency in the grotesque hypotheticals strengthens his case. It is better to say that in those cases, economic efficiency has little to say about what should be done. However, arguing against protectionism from an efficiency standpoint rather than the standpoint of liberty makes sense for economists. Few people are convinced by the view that protectionism is immoral (it is), but many are convinced that we should have free trade because it is efficient.

There is no argument against efficiency. Efficiency is good. You have more resources to use when you are efficient. You have coffee and a doughnut instead of just coffee.

The argument is against arrogance, against the idea that an economist with paper and some equations can determine what is efficient for thousands of other people, or just one other person.

I like math and equations. Equations are a good way to explore possibilities, but they do not represent the "truth" or "reality". They might, or they might not. An equation plus a lot of practical thought and experience can lead to good policy. An equation alone is a disaster.

If I am making chemicals, it is efficient to dump the waste into the nearby river. That imposes costs on the other users of the river. When I include those costs, then a waste-processing plant looks like the most efficient action.

So, when anyone asks for power or influence ("read me, believe me, follow me"), their claim to greatest efficiency poses a question. Is this a statement about their ruthless personality, or is it a claim to greater understanding?

Obama proposes to make the lives of 95% of the population better by taking more from the wealthy 5%. This is an argument of pure, ruthless efficiency. This policy is disturbing, however, if the lives and independence of that 5% have to be figured in. What did they do to deserve expropriation?

The bank robber Willie Sutton was motivated by pure efficiency to improve his life and mood.

[edited] Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job.
But to me the money was the chips, that's all. Go where the money is and go there often.

August writes:

If the government is seeking to acheive immoral ends, why in the world would we want it to be efficient? Too often the 'efficient' way to get rid of a problem is to get rid of the person with the problem. We have had enough murderous governments chasing effeciency throughout the 20th century to show this isn't the way.

Dog of Justice writes:

Too often the 'efficient' way to get rid of a problem is to get rid of the person with the problem.

Very, very good point.

Arare Litus writes:

(1) I'm not sure that efficiency matters for important issues - for simple matters of allocation of resources it is very good, as it brings value, but there one is selecting between options that everyone is basically on board with and one is just picking 'the best' (@Zac - as far as I can tell this is why people like economists as consultants, to save money and pick among "close" options). But for "real" issues a simple linear sum on one metric seems silly, crazy even.

(2) Doesn't debate assume a liberty viewpoint? Didn't Bryan thus automatically win?

Robin Hanson writes:

This new post of mine responds.

Kevin writes:

As a philosopher, I find Robin's suggestion that 'efficiency' is a 'neutral' criterion bizarre. How can you claim to be neutral by reducing ethics to a criterion that most people think is wildly unethical?

Arare Litus writes:


I like your use of irony.


Robin Hanson writes:

Zac asks the right questions; why is economics more used that other social or moral sciences if not for its appearance of neutral technical analysis to promote a common interest?

Andrew, I made clear that we should be wary of partisan economists, and not just believe anything we are told.

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