I spoke at the launch of the RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council on Wednesday. The topic of the debate was ‘Can Citizens be Economists?’ The context for the launch was obviously the debate leading up to the referendum last week, the challenge to the role of experts, most infamously by Michael Gove, and the challenge from all sides about the statistics used to bolster both the campaigns.  

This post pulls together what I said in blog form. However, there were some great speakers and it is worth watching in full.  

Experts onlyIt’s important to note that all of the economists in the audience tonight are also citizens. So of course citizens can be economists.

This may be a somewhat facile point to make, but it illuminates a deeper truth that challenges the basis of the question; can citizens be economists? Well, it’s patronising to think otherwise. The question is whether citizens need to be economists to take part in debates about the future of the economy?

My short answer to this is no, citizens don’t need to be economists. I must be clear at this point. I’m not saying that economists aren’t needed. This is not some post-enlightenment, anti-expert manifesto. However, what I do think we need to see is economists and all experts taking their rightful place in debates.

So why don’t citizens need to be economists? To pick three reasons:

  • economics isn’t the only form of expertise needed to inform economic debates. We need scientists, engineers, transport and housing planners etc. etc. It’s absurd to think that individual citizens should be experts in all of the disciplines required to run a strong modern economy;
  • it elevates technical expertise above other forms of expertise. It assumes that knowledge from technical disciplines perfectly describes the complex, interdependent world that we live in. This falsely implies that technical knowledge alone is enough to make decisions because …;
  • it assumes that there is a right answer that can be identified through a sifting of the technical evidence alone. This is what I found most dispiriting about the referendum debate. Both sides presented the decision as a zero sum game, as if their side of the argument was the road to the sunny uplands of economic prosperity. Neither side even acknowledged that their arguments required a series of trade-offs, leading to both winners and losers. There is no right answer to the debate about leaving the EU, just as there isn’t about any serious economic decision facing this country – Paul Johnson from the IFS picked this theme up in his contribution to the evening’s debate.

To add depth to technical expertise citizens bring two key things to public policy decisions:

  • expertise about their own communities, lives, needs and desires, which are in the end what policy decisions are about. This expertise is often downplayed (and even denied) in policy debates. Indeed, it is only by combining technical expertise with citizen expertise that more fully informed decisions can be taken*; and
  • insight about how they would make the trade-offs required when taking decisions that have both winners and losers. Our experience of engaging citizens demonstrates that they bring valuable ideas about the principles that should be followed when making these decisions, clear perspectives on the kinds of governance and accountability processes needed to ensure that decisions are as fair as possible, and solutions that ameliorate the impact for those who might lose out.

So, what role does that leave for technical experts in economic debates?

None of what I have said implies that experts should retreat to their ivory towers and butt out of public life. In fact, quite the opposite, their role is critical. There is a real world out there, a physical and social reality that conforms to rules that are, in principle, known or knowable: gravity is a fact; it isn’t possible to make energy out of nothing; and economic incentives will trump idealistic models of production, for example.

Technical experts provide hard boundaries for economic debates. They help to restrict the choices that we have. However, as I say above, their expertise can say nothing about trade-offs that should be made within a given set of choices.

All too often technical experts don’t appear to understand the scope of their role when acting as ‘the expert’. Instead what often happens they move between two completely legitimate roles, as:

  • technical expert, providing information that defines the shape and nature of a particular technical boundary to a decision; and as
  • citizen, engaging in the valid debate about which trade-offs are right for them as individuals and the country as a whole.

By shifting between these two roles without acknowledging which hat they are wearing, technical expert or citizen, they add to the confusion that politicians often sow between valid technical expertise and valid personal opinion. This devalues technical expertise and, I think, contributes to the public’s distrust of experts in general.

So, I think this means that experts must:

  • show considerably more humility;
  • acknowledge which role they are playing and when;
  • stop presenting opinion about areas that are outside their domain of expertise as facts that they are certain about; and
  • acknowledge the limits of their knowledge within their own area of expertise.

It may seem perverse, but it is only by properly restricting the role they have to play in public debate that technical experts can hope to be taken more seriously by politicians, the media, and most importantly of all citizens.

Photo credit: Ross

*of course, just as technical expertise can be influenced by implicit assumptions, partial perspectives and bias, so too can citizens’ expertise about their own communities. This does not invalidate either form of expertise in principle, it just requires all actors to do their best to acknowledge their assumptions and biases.