Can Economists Be Both Popular and Patriotic?

Can Economists Be Both Popular and Patriotic?

Timothy Taylor 06/07/2020 1
Can Economists Be Both Popular and Patriotic?

Alfred Marshall argued that students of social science are bound to dwell on the "limitations and defects and errors" of whatever is popular and whatever will sell more newspapers.

Conversely, any economist who receives popular approval should be assumed that they have failed in their intellectual mission. The sentiment is actually attributed from A.C. Pigou to Marshall. It reads:

Students of social science, must fear popular approval: Evil is with them when all men speak well of them. If there is any set of opinions by the advocacy of which a newspaper can increase its sales, then the student who wishes to leave the world in general and his country in particular better than it would have been if he had not been born, is bound to dwell on the limitations and defects and errors, if any, in that set of opinions: and never to advocate them unconditionally even in ad hoc discussion. It is almost impossible for a student to be a true patriot and to have the reputation of being one in his own time.

The source of the quotation is "In Memoriam: Alfred Marshall," a speech given by A.C. Pigou in 1924 and published as part of a Memorials of Alfred Marshall volume in 1925 (pp. 81-90). The  quotation attributed to Marshall appears on p. 89.

A number of interesting questions lurk here. Does an economist have a duty, to self and to society, to play the role that Marshall describes in public discourse? What about in ad hoc discussion? Is that duty appropriately called "patriotism? It does seem to me that if you find yourself in a setting where you know more, there is some ethical or moral duty not to use your knowledge to take undue advantage of others. This applies to all professions--car mechanics and sommeliers, as well as financial advisers and economists. But it also seems to me that people wear different hats at different times, and a commitment to live all aspects of one's life enunciating "the limitations and defects and errors" of popular opinions seems to exalt an attitude of grumpy oppositional monasticism, which may not be a utility-maximizing way for economists (or anyone else) to live.

A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.


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  • Ben Mundin

    Good read

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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