Never count on economists to defend the public interest

This is something that should always be kept in mind in economic policy discussions: most economists are pro-Market, not pro-Public Interest.

It is especially important to keep this in mind when we read commentary such as this, in which an economist from one of Canada’s smaller economics departments conflates being pro-market with being in the public interest.

This point is sometimes hard to see, especially since many economists hold to the deeply ingrained syllogism that being pro-market is straightforwardly being in the public interest.

But they are a lobby group like any other, and cannot be relied upon to defend the general public interest.*

Economists, particularly academic economists (and like all academics), rely on, for their social status, research funding and a quiet concious, having the public view them as working in the public interest. And given the majority of economists are true believers in the “market” that inevitably gets conflated with being in the public interest

Cloaking oneself as being in the public interest is of course one of the oldest rhetorical stances to take since like wearing the national flag it clearly puts the speaker in the role of the hero and casts those being spoken against in the role of the villains. This is all the more easy to to do when the terms of conversation are being articulated in fuzzy, ill defined concepts such as the “public interest” and “pro-market”. When an economist uses those terms they have very exotic definitions in mind that most lay people would not readily grasp. Perhaps I am being too charitable: I can’t, in fact, find a definition of the public interest in any my economics text-books.

The public interest is a rather fuzzy notion. We can perhaps all agree that it has something to do with public goods but that just raises the thorny issue of what is and what is not a public good. In any case the argument at least has to be made that a specific policy is in the public good and why. Just standing around hands waiving in the air mindlessly chanting pro-market rhetoric like “free trade” or deregulation does not really cut the mustard.

Indeed after a generation of pro-market policies like financial liberalization and deregulation with cascading financial crises of increasingly damaging intensity culminating in the Great Financial Crisis that was 2007 and from which no advanced capitalist economy has yet to emerge; in which whole nations like Iceland, Greece and Ireland were raised; in which untold millions of workers were put and remain out of work; and as a consequence a massive hole was blown in public finances around the world, it should be clear that pro-market policies are not always or even in the majority of cases un-problematically in the public good to say the very least.

Notice that even if you are want to argue that it was bad government regulation in the US which caused the Great Financial Crisis the fact is that decades of financial liberalization and deregulation (pro-market policies) directly led to the formation of global investment and insurance markets which made sure that a “made in the USA” problem had serious global consequences. And it is not just that economists did not foresee these negative consequences they actually argued in favour of these policies on the grounds that such a crisis was less likely to occur and that the consequences would be less severe in the event that it did occur because these pro-market policies allowed risk to be more evenly spread. So much for theory.

That a pro-market economist is given a national soap-box on which to conflate being Pro-market with being in the Public Interest does not bode well for the Public Interest.

* The first four paragraphs are an inverted paraphrase of the linked commentary. I apologize to my readers for reproducing a very clichéd prose style.


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