Why are vot­ers ig­nor­ing ex­perts?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

By the time Bri­tish cit­i­zens went to the polls on June 23 to decide on their coun­try’s con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union, there had been no short­age of ad­vice in favour of re­main­ing. For­eign lead­ers and moral au­thor­i­ties had voiced un­am­bigu­ous con­cern about the con­se­quences of an exit, and econ­o­mists had over­whelm­ingly warned that leav­ing the EU would en­tail sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic costs.

Yet the warn­ings were ig­nored. A pre-ref­er­en­dum YouGov opin­ion poll tells why: “Leave” vot­ers had no trust what­so­ever in the ad­vice-givers. They did not want their judg­ment to rely on politi­cians, aca­demics, jour­nal­ists, in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions, or think tanks. As one of the Leave campaign’s lead­ers, jus­tice sec­re­tary Michael Gove, who is now seek­ing to suc­ceed David Cameron as Prime Min­is­ter, bluntly put it: “peo­ple in this coun­try have had enough of ex­perts.”

It is tempt­ing to dis­miss this at­ti­tude as a tri­umph of pas­sion over ra­tio­nal­ity. Yet the pat­tern seen in the UK is oddly fa­mil­iar: in the United States, Repub­li­can vot­ers dis­re­garded the pun­dits and nom­i­nated Don­ald Trump as their party’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­date; in France, Ma­rine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Na­tional Front, elic­its lit­tle sym­pa­thy among ex­perts, but has strong pop­u­lar sup­port. Ev­ery­where, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of cit­i­zens have be­come hos­tile to the

Why this an­gry at­ti­tude to­ward the bearers of knowl­edge and ex­per­tise? The first ex­pla­na­tion is that many vot­ers at­tach lit­tle value to the opin­ions of those who failed to warn them about the risk of a fi­nan­cial cri­sis in 2008. Queen El­iz­a­beth II spoke for many when, on a visit to the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics in the au­tumn of 2008, she asked why no one saw it com­ing. Fur­ther­more, the sus­pi­cion that econ­o­mists have been cap­tured by the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try, ex­pressed in the 2010 movie ‘In­side Job’, has not been dis­pelled. Or­di­nary peo­ple feel an­gry about what they re­gard as a be­trayal by the in­tel­lec­tu­als.

Most econ­o­mists, let alone spe­cial­ists in other dis­ci­plines, re­gard such ac­cu­sa­tions as un­fair, be­cause only a few of them de­voted them­selves to scru­ti­n­is­ing fi­nan­cial de­vel­op­ments; yet their cred­i­bil­ity has been se­ri­ously dented. Be­cause no one pled guilty for the suf­fer­ing that fol­lowed the cri­sis, the guilt has be­come col­lec­tive.

The sec­ond ex­pla­na­tion has to do with the poli­cies ad­vo­cated by the cognoscenti. Ex­perts are ac­cused of be­ing bi­ased, not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause they are cap­tured by spe­cial in­ter­ests, but be­cause, as a pro­fes­sion, they sup­port the mo­bil­ity of labour across bor­ders, trade open­ness, and glob­al­i­sa­tion more gen­er­ally.

There is some sub­stance in this ar­gu­ment: al­though not all econ­o­mists, and cer­tainly not all so­cial sci­en­tists, ad­vo­cate in­ter­na­tional in­te­gra­tion, they are un­doubt­edly more in­clined to­ward high­light­ing its ben­e­fits than the av­er­age cit­i­zen is.

This points to the third and most con­vinc­ing ex­pla­na­tion: while ex­perts em­pha­sise the over­all ben­e­fits of open­ness, they tend to dis­re­gard or min­imise its ef­fects on par­tic­u­lar pro­fes­sions or com­mu­ni­ties. They re­gard im­mi­gra­tion – to which Cameron at­trib­uted the Leave campaign’s vic­tory – as a net ben­e­fit for the econ­omy; but they fail to pay at­ten­tion to what it im­plies for work­ers who ex­pe­ri­ence down­ward wage pres­sure or for com­mu­ni­ties strug­gling with a scarcity of af­ford­able hous­ing, crowded schools, and an over­whelmed health sys­tem. In other words, they are guilty of in­dif­fer­ence.

This crit­i­cism is largely cor­rect. As Ravi Kan­bur of Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity pointed out long ago, econ­o­mists (and pol­i­cy­mak­ers) tend to look at is­sues in the ag­gre­gate, to take a medium-term per­spec­tive, and to as­sume that mar­kets work well enough to ab­sorb a large part of ad­verse shocks. Their per­spec­tive clashes with that of peo­ple who care more about dis­tri­bu­tional is­sues, have dif­fer­ent (of­ten shorter) time hori­zons, and are wary of mo­nop­o­lis­tic be­hav­iour.

If econ­o­mists and other ex­perts want to re­gain their fel­low cit­i­zens’ trust, they should not be deaf to these con­cerns. They should first be hum­ble and avoid lec­tur­ing. They should base their pol­icy views on the avail­able ev­i­dence, rather than on pre­con­cep­tions. And they should change their minds if the data do not con­firm their be­liefs. This largely cor­re­sponds to what re­searchers ac­tu­ally do; but when speak­ing to the pub­lic, ex­perts tend to over­sim­plify their own views.

For econ­o­mists, hu­mil­ity also im­plies lis­ten­ing to peo­ple from other dis­ci­plines. On im­mi­gra­tion, they should hear what so­ci­ol­o­gists, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists, or psy­chol­o­gists have to say about what co­ex­is­tence in mul­ti­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties may en­tail.

Sec­ond, ex­perts should be more gran­u­lar in their ap­proach. They typ­i­cally should ex­am­ine poli­cies’ im­pact not only on ag­gre­gate GDP in the medium term, but also on how poli­cies’ ef­fects are dis­trib­uted over time, across space, and among so­cial cat­e­gories. A pol­icy de­ci­sion can be pos­i­tive in the ag­gre­gate but se­verely harm­ful to some groups – which is fre­quently the case with lib­er­al­i­sa­tion mea­sures.

Third, econ­o­mists should move be­yond the (gen­er­ally cor­rect) ob­ser­va­tion that such dis­tri­bu­tional ef­fects can be ad­dressed through tax­a­tion and trans­fers, and work out how ex­actly that should hap­pen. Yes, if a pol­icy de­ci­sion leads to ag­gre­gate gains, losers can in prin­ci­ple be com­pen­sated. But this is eas­ier said than done.

In prac­tice, it is of­ten hard to iden­tify the losers and to find the right in­stru­ment to sup­port them. To ar­gue that prob­lems can be solved with­out ex­am­in­ing how and un­der what con­di­tions is sheer in­tel­lec­tual lazi­ness. To tell peo­ple who have been hurt that they could have been spared the pain does not give them any less rea­son to com­plain; it just fu­els re­sent­ment of tech­no­cratic ex­perts.

Be­cause grow­ing pub­lic dis­trust of the pro­vides fer­tile ground to dem­a­gogues, it poses a threat to democ­racy. Aca­demics and pol­i­cy­mak­ers may be tempted to re­spond by dis­miss­ing what looks like a cel­e­bra­tion of ig­no­rance and re­treat­ing into ivory tow­ers. But this would not im­prove mat­ters. And there is no need to sur­ren­der. What is needed is more hon­esty, more hu­mil­ity, more gran­u­lar anal­y­sis, and more re­fined pre­scrip­tions.

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