26 April 2023

Politicians and Economic Experts

The Limits of Technocracy

Anna Killick
2023, Agenda Publishing, 240 pages,
ISBN 9781788215657

Reviewer: Neil Reeder, Director, Head and Heart Economics

In this short book, Anna Killick, a research fellow in the Department of Political Science at University College London, reports on a study into the economic thinking of politicians in western Europe and the USA. A relatively rare consideration of the mindsets of politicians on economic policy, it arrives at a time when the optimism of the early 2000s – such as when former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, confidently deemed the first 10 years of Bank of England independence the “NICE” decade – has long since vanished.

Far from viewing economists’ advice on policy-making as a vital resource, the past decade has seen important instances of UK politicians’ disparaging views, from Michael Gove’s comment during the Brexit referendum “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”, to the Liz Truss administration’s mooted review of the Bank of England mandate, and its side-lining of the Office for Budget Responsibility, during the 2022 Mini-Budget process.

On the basis of 99 interviews (of which 85 were with elected politicians, 14 with advisors), this study presents insights from the UK, USA, Denmark, France and Germany) on such themes as government borrowing, free trade, economic inequality, and climate change policy. The interviewees were chosen to present a widely divergent range of political standpoints, from far-left to far-right, and not surprisingly the study reports widely divergent views on economics and economists too.

For those hoping that the wider geographical perspective will provide reassurance as to what Killick terms “the primacy of economics”, the study provides sobering insights. Roughly one-quarter of the politicians interviewed across the five countries were seen to “pay scant attention to economists”, while the proportion citing economists of a later generation than Keynes or Milton Friedman was low. Killick summarises politicians’ attention to economists as “patchy, low and declining”.

Yet, even though the “exam question” of the report relates to politicians’ views and their willingness, or not, to cede power to economic experts, it contains two important lessons for those economists who feel that traditional economics can be inadequate as an answer to “What economics is, and what it should be” (to use the sub-title to Diane Coyle’s recent 2021 book “Cogs and Monsters”).

The first is in the conduct of the profession. Killick’s report notes a widespread sense among politicians that economists display “excessive technicality, abstraction and lack of reactivity to the fast-moving pace of real-world events” – a strikingly similar perspective to the employers of economists cited in Diane Coyle’s “Cogs and Monsters”, who argued for economists to be much more able to apply problem-solving to real-world contexts and history.  

The second relates to the breadth of considerations for those supporting economic policy. A key strength of the book is in its country case studies, providing insights into a range of economic philosophies and ambitions, their variety complementing Coyle’s perspective that it is not possible to produce “objective” models with incontestable aims regardless of context or history.  

And so, though most relevant for policy advisers in central government, Politicians and Economic Experts is lively and thought-provoking reading for all those with an interest in strengthening the development of economic policy in its broadest sense in the UK.