Politically Feasible

by Mario Rizzo

Many years ago, the distinguished economist, William H. Hutt, wrote a pamphlet called “Politically Impossible?” He argued that economists should not seek political relevance by proposing only those policies that they perceive as politically possible, practical or feasible. They should speak truth to power, so to say, and advocate those policies that they perceive to be in the “public interest.” (Interestingly, it is often considered a key element of the economic rationality of agents to be able to distinguish the desirable from the feasible.)

As I see it, there are four important reasons for this view. First, economists are not very good at predicting what will be politically feasible. After all, they are not very good at forecasting economic events. Why should they excel in the political realm?

Second, from the public’s perspective it is important that they know what the options are and what their consequences are. If there is any validity (and it may be slight) to the idea of democratic decisionmaking, it is important to distinguish the options from predictions about the political feasibility of these options. If a particular option is not discussed, how can it ever become feasible?

And this brings us to the third reason. We do not live in a static world in which the political balance of power always stays the same. The knowledge disseminated by economics can have an effect (even if small) on the political balance.

The recent Tea Party effect on the debt negotiations was far greater than commentators would have predicted at the beginning of the process. (This is quite separate from the issue of the desirability of that effect.) In fact, I think that the “violation” of conventional wisdom exemplified by the Tea Party is one of the reasons the talking heads are so beside themselves.

Fourth, economists have an obligation to speak the truth, as they see it. What is their truth? At a minimum, it must be to describe the general economic consequences of various policy options without the undue intervention of their own value judgments or with a clear statement of those values side-by- side the economic analysis. This is vital to their role as teachers.

One of the implications of this general perspective is that economists should not seek to be the darlings of the political pundits, the political establishment, the TV shout-programs, or the purveyors of conventional wisdom. They should seek to challenge. The increase of knowledge is disruptive. It is not fundamentally a conservative force. It annoys people and makes them uncomfortable.  

It is “liberal” in the truest sense of the word.



8 thoughts on “Politically Feasible

  1. Mario’s post here and Pete Boettke’s post at Coordination Problem complement each other. What is truly impractical is continuing on the present fiscal and monetary course.

  2. More than just speaking the truth, if economists were able to clearly convey what would be best for the economy instead of just what was politically feasible and attain sufficient media coverage and really be able to reach the U.S. citizens, they would be able to really pressure the politicians into making responsible choices about at least the fiscal future of the country and slowly eradicate the political bickering that has plagued at least the United States recently. With such a government, we would be able to take action much faster and ultimately resolve issues like the debt ceiling in an efficient and timely manner, unlike what occurred this past August.

  3. Re “We do not live in a static world in which the political balance of power always stays the same. ”

    This key point. Any political operator, of course, takes it as a given that he will try to tilt the balance of power to his or his client’s favor, through various means. What makes the Tea Party distinctive is that large numbers of ordinary people work persistently to shape decisions, instead of treating politics like a spectator sport except for the occasional trip to the ballot box.

  4. ThinkMarkets, Coordination Problem, and the newcomer Free Banking have been a haven of important ideas and debates, but I would also like to see them ease into a self-conception as premier gathering places for the ideas and cabinet secretaries in a future U.S. government. This would mean systematic discussion of the policy proposals now circulating in Congress and the leading think tanks; it would also mean putting together an economic program encompassing the best ideas both outside and inside these fora and working to make this the centerpiece of debates among the political candidates and media pundits.

  5. The distinction between seeking and maintaining “relevance” on the one hand, and simple whoring after power and advantage on the other continually eludes me.

  6. During the Second World War, Ludwig von Mises delivered a paper at a conference on the future of Europe in which he concluded his remarks with the following statement:

    “It is a thankless job indeed to express such radical and ‘subversive’ [free market] opinions and to incur the hatred of all supporters of the old [interventionist] system that has amply proven its inexpediency. But it is not the duty of an economist to be fashionable or popular, he has to be right.

    “Those timid souls who fear challenging spurious doctrines and superstitions because they have the support of influential circles will never improve conditions. Let them all us ‘orthodox’; it is better to be an intransigent orthodox than an opportunist time-server.”

    If economists avoid or are intimidated into not stating what they truly consider to be the short-run and the longer-run consequences from implementing various economic policies they not only fail to perform what is surely part of their intellectual duty as a member of society, and will fail in helping to move society in a better direction.

    “Honesty is the best policy.” “Let the cards fall where they may.” “The road to hell is paved with (short-run) politically expedient good intentions.”

    One should take these things to heart.

    Richard Ebeling

  7. If I may connect to the recent comments.

    I have never had a problem with scholars who want to stay pure and not engage in political economy. I also have no problems with scholars who make practical concessions for policy, but preserve principle.

    Let’s just not confuse the two programs.

    I also have no problem with Richard Schulman’s call for consideration of the next group of policymakers. Please let us just keep all these areas of discourse distinct.

    I want to go back to Mario’s post. It is the primary job of economists to articulate the first best. I have advised both private and public entities on that. Which is what they wanted. I have also then explained how the first best could be adapted to the imperfect present. That is art, not science.

    In the context of the current polictical toxic debates, I communicated equally well with both Democrats and Republicans whn I owrked in DC. The current toxic atmosphere is post my Washington experience.

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