Rhetoric and Economic Policy

Article excerpt

POOH-BAH: Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

PITH-SING: Corroborative detail indeed! Corroborative fiddlestick!

--William S. Gilbert, The Mikado

Economists generally accept the chestnut assertion that "economic policy is an art, quite separate from and independent of, the science of economics" (Coddington 1973 [1983], 237; see also McCloskey 1990, 136, quoting Montague 1900). The causes and extent of this dichotomy are seldom considered. By contrast, rhetoricians deny that any dichotomy exists. They believe "that science and policy are the same, they are rhetoric, they are sophistry, all the way down" (I quote an anonymous referee). To the rhetorician, economics is a process by which persuasion is used to exchange error for truth in the marketplace of ideas. To distinguish between science and policy is to misapprehend the nature of economics.

The rhetorician's argument is undeniably elegant, but it is unsatisfying to the extent that it blocks inquiry into an aspect of economics that has caught economists' notice for more than a century. The public-choice program in economics provides convincing evidence that the rhetoric of economic policy interferes systematically and persistently with the exchange of error for truth in a way that the rhetoric of scientific economics does not. The reason, I conjecture, is that sophistry (the antithesis of principled rhetoric), whose process lies closer to force than to voluntary persuasion, is more welcome in the policy realm. This observation is neither a moral judgment nor a philosophical quibble over the nature of objective truth. It is a judgment based on criteria that are identifiable in theory and perceivable in practice.

Rhetoricians, I believe, would agree that force can be a powerful tool of persuasion, but they stop short of characterizing it as a rhetorical device. Some means of persuasion are not inherently rhetorical. Rhetoric is one of many regions along a continuum of human behavior in general and of communication behavior in particular. Principled rhetoric dissolves quickly into other forms of persuasion--first into mild sophistry, then into outright deceit, and ultimately into abject force. Blithely accepting the claim that "it's rhetoric all the way down" not only surrenders important ground to the rhetoricians' monopoly franchise but also prevents valid and meaningful distinctions from being drawn between science and policy in economics.

I maintain here that the substantive distinction between the science of economics and the art of economic policy springs from the relative ability of each conversational realm to constrain the play of sophistry. I show that the rhetoric of economic policy dissolves most easily and persistently into sophistry where property rights are weakly protected and where the state inclines toward substituting force for opinion.

In this essay, first, I sketch rhetoric's evolution from ancient to modern times. Next, I consider the relationships among rhetoric, force, and opinion, and then I explore the nexus between rhetoric and economic policy. Finally, I arrive at an examination of rhetoric's constituent elements in a policy context.


Rhetoric, which commonly is defined as the method of persuasive public speaking, has been well considered and sharply criticized through the ages. In the fourth-century B.C., Plato's Gorgias (1997a) skewered sophists, politicians, and other rhetorical tricksters whose sole purpose in discussion is persuasion at any cost, frequently through appeals to raw emotion and usually without regard to knowledge and truth. Writing in this vein two millennia later, the philosopher John Locke criticized rhetoric and its all-too-willing consumers, noting that "[i]t is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived, since rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit, has its established professors, is publicly taught, and has always been had in great reputation" ([1693] 1995, 411). …