August 15, 2013

The Social Responsibility of Economists

  • Peter J. Boettke

    Director, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
  • Kyle O'Donnell

    Research Analyst, Charles Koch Foundation
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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. We 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 fosters 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 our view, economics should embrace a radical humility, where the role of the economist is a humble student of society, or lowly philosopher, and that 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.