There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while and started in the beginning of February, but because I’m a lazy procrastinator I just pasted a few links and then let it sit for a few months. I came across some relevant links and decided to add them, but reconsidered and elected to make them their own post that I could get out of the way right now.
Steve Walt has a post titled “The cult of irrelevancy“. It complains about academics who excuse their irrelevant work by saying that nothing they do would matter anyway even if they tried. The question of whether or not they can have any influence is for another day, for now I’ll discuss the normative issue. Granted that they can influence policy, do we want them to do so or seek irrelevance?
And let’s not forget that tenure isn’t granted to allow a life-time of self-indulgent scholarship, but to allow scholars to take risks in their research and to confront controversial subjects without fear of coercion. In exchange for job security, a decent living and a high level of intellectual autonomy, our fellow citizens have a right to expect us to take our teaching responsibilities seriously and to use our knowledge to address serious issues.
To me Walt’s sense of duty immediately brought to mind Charles Murray quoting Richard Herrnstein (and not just because I’ve got yet another proto-post on all three of them):
For Dick, being a tenured professor at Harvard was not just the perfect job, but the perfect way to live his life.
“It was too good to be true; there had to be a catch. What’s my part of the bargain? he had asked himself.
“’And I figured it out,’ he said, looking at me with that benign, gentle half-smile of his. ’You have to tell the truth.’
Around the same time, coincidentally, Robin Hanson has a response to Bryan Caplan on their liberty vs efficiency debate giving his Efficient Economist’s Pledge.
I’ve mentioned at Overcoming Bias that I distrust people who proclaim high-minded motives, including that of truth. I think people who claim to be devoted to truth or reason or whatever can easily become unmoored and devoted to nonsense unless reality smacks them upside the head. If you are not devoted to rationality itself (or rather devoted to being devoted to rationality) but are using it instrumentally because you have something to protect (even if that something is your bank account) you may be more exposed to such external smacks. The people who love truth the most are not those who claim to, but those who use truth.
Being a cynic, I don’t think academics are responsible enough to be devoted to truth with authority. I agree with Bryan Caplan that we’d be better off if the average economist was making public policy than the average voter/congresscritter. But part of the reason economists are as sensible as they are and have the reputation Robin cites is precisely because they’ve been separate from governance. If the AEA were to become a Supreme Council of Economists as Caplan (perhaps not seriously) proposed, corruption would proceed apace. Caplan admits that he is more extreme than the average economist, and academics in general (the group to whom the modal-Democrat economist seems like a right-wing nut) are self-selected for the biases that made William F. Buckley prefer random pages of the Boston phone-book. Even if I granted them among the best of motives, there would simply be huge epistemological hurdles for the problems they’d be pushed to solve while relying for information on people with other motives. Bill Clinton famously said “I feel your pain”, but he wasn’t literally hooked up to a machine that gave him negative feedback as the aggregate utility of the nation dipped.
In short, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for academics improving public policy. Walt can cherry-pick examples like the Iraq war and Hanson could point to silly licensing restrictions but I’m not convinced that academics would prevent those specific mistakes had they been “the decider” or that their other errors of High Modernism as discussed in James Scott‘s Seeing Like a State wouldn’t outweigh their improvements. Right now I primarily view the value of public policy academics is to provide me with entertainment now that I have become uninterested in fiction. In that respect I benefit more from them the my fellow citizens but would still prefer that my tax-dollars not subsidize them, considering all the low-quality entertainment they also produce that I don’t get any enjoyment from.
Disclaimer: I do note that Hanson’s pledge sounds like a lawyer’s oath to serve their client rather than that of a public servant and that Hanson actually does work for Consensus Point developing prediction markets. Prediction markets are just the sort of skin-in-the-game mechanism I do take seriously. Perhaps I should add “except Seasteading + futarchy” to my pessimistic generalizations.
UPDATE: It seems William Easterly agrees with me.