The humility of economists*

In the course of working on a forthcoming lecture, I’ve been dipping back into James Scott’s superb 1998 book Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

The book describes the catastrophic consequences of a number of idealistic grand schemes of the 20th century, including Soviet collectivization and Tanzanian ‘villagization’. In the conclusion, Scott focuses on the common theme of the failure to take account of the radical uncertainty of the future.

“Social and historical analyses have, almost invariably, the effect of diminishing the contingency of human affairs,” he writes. “A historical event or state of affairs simply is the way it is, often appearing determined and necessary when in fact it might easily have turned out otherwise.” He offers policymakers some rules of thumb:

1. Take small steps – and stand back and observe in between each.

2. Favour reversibility. “Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.”

3. Expect surprises.

4. Plan on human inventiveness. “What is perhaps most striking about all the high modernist schemes is how little confidence they repose in the skills, intelligence and experience of ordinary people.” The less is ‘left to chance’, the less room for local experience and knowledge.

He doesn’t spell out the conclusions for social scientists, but the main one I take from the book is: be extremely cautious about assigning causality. Or in other words, be far, far humbler about what we know than is typical. A lot of economic analysis suffers from the same high modernist blinkers as the disastrous social engineering described in the book.

* Spot the irony – just in case you hadn’t

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale Agrarian Studies)

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2 thoughts on “The humility of economists*

  1. LoL, I saw the title and thought “Irony Alert!”

    Seriously though, there is more wisdom in those four steps than almost everything I’ve ever read on the Econ Blogosphere.

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