As if in direct response to one of my recent posts on “ignoring the experts,” the best mainstream economist Noah Smith can come up with is there is no single, unified elite opinion—perhaps on Brexit but not on most economic issues.

The “elite” isn’t a single unified bloc. There are many different kinds of elites. Politicians, bureaucrats, wealthy businesspeople, corporate managers, financiers, academics and media personalities can all be labeled elites. But there are huge fissures and rivalries both within and between these groups. They are almost never in broad agreement on any issue — Brexit was the exception, not the rule.

That’s not saying much. Of course, elites and elite opinions are divided. They have always have been and certainly are now.

The issue is not whether different groups or fractions within the elite hold different opinions, but the limits of those differences and the views that are marginalized or excluded as a result.

Consider the views of mainstream economists (which is really what my original post was about). They hold different views about most economic issues—from labor markets to international trade—but the range of differences is very narrow. As I explained back in January:

while conservative mainstream economists believe that efficiency, growth, and full employment stem from allowing markets to operate freely, liberal mainstream economists argue that markets are often imperfect and therefore the only way to achieve (or at least approximate) those goals is to intervene in and regulate markets. Those are the terms of the mainstream debate in economics, from the origins of modern economic discourse in the late-eighteenth century right on down to the present.

Think about it as the difference between the invisible hand and the visible hand.

Liberal mainstream economists, of course, hotly contest the free-market doctrine of their conservative counterparts. But notice also that they hold in common both the goals and the limits of economic policy with conservatives. Liberals and conservatives share the idea that the goals of an economy are to ensure efficiency, growth, and full employment. And they share the idea that economic policy should be limited to tinkering with capitalism—in the direction of more regulation or, for conservatives, more free markets—in order to achieve those goals.

That’s it, the limits of the mainstream debate.

Mainstream economists use different theories and promote different policies within those narrow limits. What they exclude are theories and policies that fall outside those limits—and thus, in their view, don’t deserve a hearing.

Their expertise ends when it comes to theories that focus on such things as the inherent instability of capitalism or the role of class in determining the value of goods and services and the distribution of income. And they exclude policies that either change the fundamental rules of capitalism or look beyond capitalism, to alternative ways of organizing economic and social life.

What that means, concretely, is mainstream economists tend to minimize the damage—to different groups of people and to society as a whole—of existing economic arrangements. Just as Paul Krugman minimizes the loss of jobs from deindustrialization (“we’re talking about 1.5 percent of the work force”), Smith understates the disruptive effects of globalization (in referring to “some economic setbacks” for the middle-class of rich nations while presuming everyone else has gained).

So, yes, mainstream economists (like the elites whose position they never contest) often find themselves disagreeing among themselves about theories and policies. But it’s precisely because the limits of their disagreements are so narrow, there’s always a surplus of meaning that falls outside of and escapes their purview. That’s when alternative theories and policies flourish—and all mainstream economists can do is invoke their self-professed expertise to attempt to quash the alternatives and relegate them to (or beyond) the margins.

Sometimes, of course, it works and non-elite opinion falls in line. But other times—after the crash of 2007-08, in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, and so on—it doesn’t and the narrow limits of expert opinion are challenged, parodied, or ignored. And other possibilities, always just below the surface, acquire new resonance.

Elites, who simply can’t or don’t want to understand, suggest the masses just eat cake (or, today, crack)—and, like Smith, hide behind the idea that “there are no easy answers to the challenges of the modern global economy.”

  1. Nick says:

    The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….


  2. […] buying what mainstream economists are selling. They are (as I’ve argued here, here, and here) ignoring the so-called […]

  3. […] buying what mainstream economists are selling. They are (as I’ve argued here, here, and here) ignoring the so-called […]

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