Should economists rule the world?

Here is Anil Hira:

This article examines more carefully the oft-made hypotheses that (1) "technocrats" or politicians with an economics background are increasingly common and (2) that this "improvement" in qualifications will lead to improvements in economic policy. The article presents a database on the qualifications of leaders of the world’s major countries over the past four decades. The article finds that while there is evidence for increasing "technification," there are also distinct and persistent historical patterns among Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American leaders. Using statistical analysis, the article finds that we cannot conclude that leadership training in economics leads to better economic outcomes.

Here is the (only temporarily non-gated) link, thanks to Bill Evers for the pointer.  There is also an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on this work, I am told.  The natural defense of economists, which I will not attempt, is to cite selection effects for which economists achieve public office, and what they must do to rule. 

I am happy to admit that governing is most of all about building viable coalitions (more than having good policy knowledge, at many margins), and that we economists are not especially good at that.  So I don’t find this result a surprise.


When I read about studies like this, I wonder if there are enough observations to make a statistically meaningful statement about whether there is any correlation between a technocratic leadership and better economic outcomes. I suspect that the sample size is really small.

A more important question is, would society be better off if everyone were an economist? Or, if the intelligence of the population matched the distribution of intelligences of economists? Should we incentivize the reproduction of economists?

I agree with RWB: these types of study does not have enough data to back up the conclusion. Antoher study that got a lot of attention is the one about unpaid parking tickets by diplomats and corruption index of their country of origin. The authors did the study as a fun project but got more attention than their serious academic work. In these cases, a case study method is a better methodology. Take the case of India. In 1991 the main policy makers were economist (Manmohan Singh, Aliwala (sp?)and they were (three to four)were responsible for getting India out of license raj to openness and the rest is history. Many of the technocrats in Indonesia under Suharto were econ Ph.d from Berkely and engineering graduate from Germany. And one should not forget Cordoso in Brazil.

I can't tell this by the abstract, but I'm curious as to what the unit of analysis is. Is it cabinet members? Presidents? Aides? Legislators? Are these weighted differently whether the state is democratically plural or autocratic? After all, having a president with an economics degree matters little when the legislature is stocked with non-economists, and legislating by decree is anathema to democratic rule. Also, does it matter that economic policy choices are burdened by distributive domestic conflicts and, that somehow politicians with Econ Ph.Ds are either insensitive to these concerns or discount political survival to pursue economic orthodoxy?

Why does this author choose lower inequality as a measure of better economic outcome (using GINI coefficients).

Democracy isn't an institution capable of making good nuanced decisions. I don't think thats ever going to change, and I don't think we'll ever get sound economic policy out of an unlimited democracy. The economy seems like its getting more complex faster than people's economic knowledge is increasing.

Besides, the question is not "who should be in charge?", but "what is the best system to select who should be in charge?". I believe the answer is: Markets.

This paper

suggests that - whatever may hold for nations - top research universities tend to be led by top scholars, as measured by citations.

Tyranny of the majority
Tyranny of the philosophers (plato)
Tyranny of the Economists
Tyranny of a ruling class

Who care? The difference is nil. Somebody believes they can run your life better than you can.

"Robert Mugabe has a Masters in economics from my alma mater (University of London)"

Who knows, maybe in the pre-Thatcher days, Mugabe was taught that wage/price controls are a good idea.

Perhaps if Mugabe went to Chicago, it would be another story...

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