Last week I found myself discussing – indeed partially defending – economics in the face of somewhat indiscriminate accusations of “neoliberalism”. I have no doubt that some economists – while rarely self-defining as “neoliberal” – find themselves in sympathy with the political project that is usually signified by that label. But that is a long way from saying that economics and economists are, by definition, the handmaidens of the currently hegemonic political paradigm. Some of them may serve as useful idiots for the cause. But that is a different matter.
During the course of this discussion I argued something along the lines that it is just as important to look at the detail as to focus on the big picture. In particular, more people need to recognise the progressive economisation of policy. This is arguably playing a role in edging us into a post-democratic world. In this context “economisation” means requiring policy proposals to pass the sort of tests that economists deem to signify that proposals are based upon “robust” evidence. The whole structure of impact assessments, one-in, one-out rules, and the activities of the Regulatory Policy Committee are components of this insidious economisation. It was argued over a decade ago – by Bronwyn Morgan – that such regulatory devices can act as a strongly conservative force on policy making. It is much easier, generally speaking, to demonstrate the costs of change than it is to even articulate – let alone measure – the full range of benefits that will accrue. So policy changes fail the cost-benefit test, and consequently don’t occur. [Read more…]