The Social Responsibility of Economists

August 21, 2013

In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, the economics profession has been criticized for its apparent complicity in promoting the interests of corporations and the financial industry at the expense of the public interest, which has resulted in increased scrutiny of professional economic ethics. Peter Boettke and Kyle O'Donnell of the Mercatus Center argue that the only social responsibility of economists is to maximize their career advancement within the scientific community of economists, and that the appropriate target for criticism and reform is the institutional framework of the scientific community.

Good science does not require "good" scientists, but good rules of scientific engagement that foster the constant contestation of ideas through open, critical discourse among scientists. If there is a problem of the corruption of economics, the true source is not corporate and special interests, however, but the state's capture and politicization of the discipline.

A code of conduct, as several critics have proposed, would be a wholly ineffective solution and largely irrelevant to the economics profession.

  • In the view of Boettke and O'Donnell, economics should embrace a radical humility, where the role of the economist is a humble student of society, or lowly philosopher who has epistemic modesty.
  • These conditions constrain the economist to a humble position in society, reduce opportunities for the corruption of economics, and limit the potential harm from the economist qua social engineer.

What matters is that ideas are constantly subject to contestation by one's peers, and that the ideas that become part of the public discourse are subject to the contestation of democratic decision making. Just as the market process does not depend on the motivations of individual actors to generate socially beneficial outcomes, but on the institutions within which those actors pursue their self-interest, so too does the institutional framework shape the course of the scientific process and whether scientific knowledge progresses, stands still, or regresses.

Source: Peter Boettke, "The Social Responsibility of Economists," Mercatus Center, August 15, 2013.


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