The Influence of Economists on Public Attitudes toward Government

By Beaulier, Scott A.; Boyes, William J. et al. | American Economist, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Economists on Public Attitudes toward Government


Beaulier, Scott A., Boyes, William J., Mounts, William S., American Economist


I. INTRODUCTION

Do economists in government encourage or discourage the growth of government? Since economists tend to be more skeptical of government intervention in markets (Blendon et al. 1997), one would expect government spending to slow when more economists are employed by the government. In practice, however, economists have struggled to slow government growth Economists in government are not heroic defenders of market capitalism. In fact, when it comes to constraining government, they are no better, and sometimes worse, than other policymakers.

The reason that a government sometimes grows when more economists are in government is straightforward: while economists might, in general, be more sympathetic to markets and competition, they are also more knowledgeable about bureaucracy, rent-seeking, and interest group formation. Thus, the effect of economists in government is ambiguous. On the one hand, economists might be promoters of market solutions; on the other hand, however, economists are also aware of their place in the public bureaucracy. In this paper we call into question the way economists in government should be viewed. Maybe John Maynard Keynes had it right all along when he wrote (1935, 383),

   ... the ideas of economists and political
   philosophers, both when they are right and
   when they are wrong, are more powerful
   than is commonly understood. Indeed the
   world is ruled by little else. Practical men,
   who believe themselves to be quite exempt
   from any intellectual influences, are usually
   the slaves of some defunct economist.
   Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the
   air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic
   scribbler of a few years back.

Although the passage above is one of Keynes's most frequently cited statements, it is usually treated as nothing more than a great turn of phrase. We think there is more to this statement. If economists have as much sway as Keynes thought, then public attitudes and public policy should be affected by the growth or decline in the number of economists relative to the total population. Are the number of economists in government and the public's attitude towards government related? Or, are they simply concomitant events not foreseen by Keynes?

The most sympathetic view of economists in government models economists as experts interested in promoting economic efficiency (Nelson 2002). But, as was first pointed out by Buchanan and Tullock (1962), politicians and political actors--regardless of whether they enter government with a political science, sociology, or economics background--are no different from ordinary people. When presented with the opportunity to increase their own utility, even the best economic advisors in government will put their own interests ahead of the social good.

There is plenty of historical evidence of economists in government failing to roll back the state's power. Rather than blocking big government, economists have often opted for middle-of-the-road or decidedly statist policies. It is still hard to believe that economists recommended and defended price controls to President Nixon and then continued to support their use in petroleum markets through the Carter administration; however, their motivation for doing so was that they stood to benefit by gaining the loyalty and support of the president. At other times, well-intentioned economists stand by as policies get watered down to such an extent that reforms end up being worse than the status quo.

In this paper, we argue that our understandings about economists in government are often mistaken. In particular, economists in government are ineffective at constraining government's growth. If anything, they are cogs in the machinery of government. Their best efforts at promoting efficiency are thwarted by bureaucracy. Over time, government economists become more apt at passing regulations and new spending programs, and they become less effective at promoting efficiency. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Influence of Economists on Public Attitudes toward Government
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.