Economists dominate international development, and, in the case of the World Bank, well, that is an instance of full spectrum dominance. In an article in Public Choice (2010) 142:1-8, titled 'Persuasion, slack, and traps: how can economists change the world?', Bryan Caplan has some bad news as well as some good news.
The bad news is a restatement of the argument of his The Myth of the Rational Voter (Caplan 2007): "I argue that economically inefficient policies survive by popular demand. The public systematically misunderstands economics - and probably many other policy relevant subjects - leading voters to support policies contrary to their best interests. I also maintain that the public's misconceptions are, in a sense, wilful. Most people embrace political and economic beliefs on the basis of their emotional appeal, not dispassionate analysis."
Now, I don't entirely buy this because I think it is too sweeping a claim about how public opinion works, and the drivers of political behavior, but I am reporting. What matters here is that Caplan argues that his is not a counsel of despair. He says that while voters might be irrational it is possible to persuade them by throwing all sorts of things at them: facts, logic, the way arguments on public policy are framed, the values that policy promoters appeal to, and even the choice of words.
So, how can economists change the world? Apparently, they have to start finding 'the best way to communicate the insights of economics in a compelling way.' Caplan is scathing about the 'lamentable rhetorical habits of economists', which is an elegant way of saying very few economists speak or write English. So, he has three suggestions for economists:
- Highlight the contrast between the popular view and basic economists in stark terms.
- Explain why the latter is true and the former is false.
- Make it fun.
Caplan says that: 'Most economists simply aren't trained to win over a broad audience. When they enter the public forum, they go head-to-head with practiced demagogues. To successfully compete here, economists need new skills.'
I disagree that the public forum is dominated by demagogues; again, this is too sweeping a claim. But it seems clear that many economists simply refuse to think about public opinion and how it affects the policy process, whatever the country. Which is why we have the near-universal preference for technocratic solutions that avoid the public, or politics, even when it is clear that public support would be necessary for development results to be achieved. Economists, especially those working in international development, might want to consider Caplan's suggestions. The full article is worth reading.
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