What Do Economists Contribute?

By Murray, Philip R. | Ideas on Liberty, July 2000 | Go to article overview

What Do Economists Contribute?


Murray, Philip R., Ideas on Liberty


What Do Economists Contribute?

edited by Daniel B. Klein New York University Press 1999 156 pages * $50.00 cloth; $17.50 paperback

Reviewed by Philip R. Murray

Professor Daniel Klein of Santa Clara University is one of the most engaging and creative economists around. In What Do Economists Contribute? he and nine other economists (most of them known to readers of Ideas on Liberty) try to explain just how economists contribute to the betterment of mankind. Although the title implies that the book is directed to students and intelligent laymen who would otherwise not know the answer, the book is aimed just as much at professional economists themselves. All three groups, especially undergraduates contemplating graduate study in economics, will be fascinated and perhaps troubled by what they read.

Klein asks: "Are economists today, in making their individual choices, led to promote ends of human betterment?" He begins by playing the devil's advocate and gives several reasons why the contributions of economists might not lead to human betterment. Economists can be and often have been flat out wrong. Those who denigrated saving, for example, contributed to a lower standard of living today. Even when the advice of economists is good, the public will not necessarily take it. Economists who warned against wage and price controls in the 1970s could not convince the public to shun them. Sound economic principles, moreover, may be misapplied. Observe how free trade has mutated into "managed trade."

The problem is not that economists lack clout, but that some seek to maximize their influence by stooping to promote special interests. The late F.A. Hayek, in the essay reprinted here, urges economists not to "directly aim at immediate success and public influence." Seek "light," he recommends, not "fruits." In this way the economist maintains intellectual integrity and lessens the likelihood that economic insights will be misapplied.

If what economists have to contribute is so good, why don't more people tune in? Israel Kirzner grapples with George Stigler's claim that economic advice is not valuable. Stigler rejects the notion that societies would adopt bad policies without heeding the advice of economists and uses economic principles to support his claim. Kirzner responds: "it is just not the case that economics teaches the worthlessness of economic policy advice." The problem with Stigler's view, according to Kirzner, is that it fails to recognize error and its correction. People, including economists, make errors, and economists make valuable contributions when they correct them.

Clarence Philbrook responds to criticism that what some economists contribute is unrealistic thinking. …

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