A beginner’s guide to economic ignorance

Ignorance is not the antithesis to knowledge, but it is part of it. Wishful thinking, muddling through and other forms of ignorance play a crucial role in shaping economic policy and its effects on society.

Part 1 of this mini-series by Jacqueline Best is available to read here.

We hear a lot about the power of economic expertise—whether it’s the news media calling on the latest expert to tell us where the economy is headed, or a populist critic arguing that experts are out of touch with the real world.

While it is certainly true that governments and international organisations rely on economic expertise to get their job done, there is a lot that these institutions simply don’t know. Sometimes that ignorance is inconvenient, sometimes it’s dangerous, and sometimes it’s politically useful.

Just take a look at some the economic arguments being made in favour of Brexit in the UK, or the willful denialism underpinning Canadian provincial and federal Conservatives’ attacks on carbon taxes, and you can find plenty of evidence of the political uses of economic ignorance today.

It turns out that economic ignorance has a long pedigree. I became interested in the role of ignorance in economic policymaking while doing archival research into the internal policy debates in the early 1980s in the United States and Great Britain, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan first came into power.

I had begun the research expecting to find an unmatched display of economic expertise. After all, these were the years when the fathers of neoliberal economics, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were directly advising policymakers as they and the politicians of their time sought to put neoliberal theory into practice.

Yet what I found when I started to read through the various internal memos and minutes was a great deal of confusion, uncertainty—and, yes, down-right ignorance. This finding led me to ask three key questions: What kinds of ignorance do we find in economic policymaking? What roles does ignorance play? And what are the political stakes involved?

Understanding the varieties of economic ignorance became one of the three key research themes for my time as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at SPERI and the basis of one of my Leverhulme Lectures on February 6, 2019. You can watch the full video below.

Here are a few of the things that I have learned about economic ignorance (so far).

1. Ignorance is more complicated—and more interesting—than we generally admit.

Rather than being its opposite, ignorance is always a part of knowledge. As researchers, we begin with a question, not an answer. And even once we begin to answer that question, ignorance remains somewhere in the background. One of the tricks of knowing anything well is to figure out what we don’t need to know (this, of course, is one of the greatest challenges in writing a PhD thesis – or just about anything else of significance).

There is always so much more that we do not know than that we do actually know. This should be blindingly obvious, and yet it’s also somehow deeply unsettling for us as scholars (and “experts”) to admit.

2.   Ignorance is always political—even when it’s not strategic

Ignorance can play a strategic role in some cases, as Linsey McGoey has pointed out. Although ignorance does sometimes pose serious practical and political difficulties for policymakers, it can also be quite useful for them to ignore or deny knowledge of certain inconvenient facts.

Yet even when it isn’t strategic or willful, ignorance is immensely political: what forms of ignorance we use, what kinds we avoid, and whether we admit to the limits of our knowledge all have profound consequences for how we act or fail to act.

3. Ignorance is central to economic theory

It may seem odd to talk about ignorance in the same breath as economics. After all, much conventional economic theory is based on the assumption that markets efficiently use all available information.

In fact, ignorance plays a foundational role in economic theory. When we dig a bit deeper into different economic theories, we find a whole host of assumptions about what is knowable and what isn’t and who should remain ignorant. For example, as both Will Davies and Melinda Cooper have argued, most neo- and new-classical economic theory is premised on the belief that the government not only cannot but should not know too much about the economy. Economic theories like these seek to map out a kind of distribution of ignorance and knowledge that is based both on efficiency and morality.

4.   There are (at least) four different varieties of economic ignorance worth paying attention to.

In digging through the archival records for the early Thatcher and Reagan years, I found four distinct but related forms of economic ignorance at work. Here are a few helpful definitions for those interested in tracking the role of ignorance in past (and present) economic policymaking:

Wishful and magical thinking

Definition: Willfully ignoring how ridiculous an idea is.

Example: In the 1980s, policymakers in both the UK and the US argued that the magic of rational expectations theory meant that it was possible to reduce inflation without the usual pain of a major recession as long as the government’s commitment to controlling the money supply was credible.

Cluelessness

Definition: Genuine confusion about what is going on (particularly when your ridiculous idea doesn’t work).

Example: Once it became clear (about a year into each government’s term) that a) neither the UK nor the US government could control the money supply, and b) recessions of historic proportions were underway, confusion, cluelessness (and finger-pointing) ensued.

Fudging and muddling through

Definition: Doing what you can to a) make your magical thinking seem more believable, and b) in spite of your cluelessness.

Example: Both the British Chancellor and the American Budget Director rejected the economic forecasts produced by their bureaucracies (because they contradicted their magical thinking) and either proposed their own highly inaccurate one (in the American case) or largely ignored it (in the British case). When they were presented by staff with inconvenient facts about the contradictions in their proposals, they resorted to various “presentational” fudges to make them less obvious.

Denial

Definition: Blissfully ignoring all of the above and pretending that it’s someone else’s fault when things go wrong.

Example: This is precisely what both British and American governments did in the years following the abject failure of their early attempts to put their policies into place, denying that these were “real” monetarist experiments or rebranding their efforts as “political monetarism” when actual monetarism turned out to be a dud. It is also, of course, what we are living with on a daily basis right now, as so many of our political leaders deny responsibility for the failure of our economic thinking and practice over the past decades—and for the resulting damage to economic justice, to our democracies, and to our planet.

5.   It’s not dangerous to admit our ignorance—in fact the opposite is the case.

Although it’s natural to respond to the obvious dangers of many of these forms of economic ignorance by seeking a return to a purer, more absolute kind of expertise, this would be a mistake. Yes, we must be attuned to the ways in which willful ignorance can blur into mendacity and call it out as such. But to pretend that we can avoid ignorance altogether is itself a dangerous kind of wishful thinking.

Instead, we need a more humble and reflexive kind of expertise that acknowledges its limits and recognizes the value of a healthy kind of ignorance—the kind that leads us to recognize what we don’t know, that spurs us on to ask new questions, and that prompts us to find better answers.

Part 1 of Jacquie’s blog on ‘neoliberalism’s unfailures’ is available to read here

Jacqueline Best’s lecture on Varieties of Ignorance