I’m not always in favour of the kind of argument defended here – it all depends on context, intent and, as the author says, whether it’s offered as the start or the end of a conversation – but the case for this style of argument is well put by Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling
Larry Summers appointment as head of the National Economic Council has resurrected the controversy about his notorious World Bank memo, in which he argued that African countries were vastly under-polluted.For me, though, that episode was a perfect – yes perfect – example of what economists can and should contribute to public debate.
Instead, what economists have are questions, not answers. They can offer arguments based in logic and evidence but which contradict instinct and consensus. They can force people to acknowledge that some moral principles, keeping poor Africans safe, can conflict with others – making them richer. They can force people to think.
Yes, Summers memo showed that economic logic has limits. But it also showed that cosy morality has costs too.
Better still, Summers memo was intended to be the first words of a conversation, not the last. He was valuing debate as an intrinsic good. The question that leaps out of every line of that memo is: what if anything is wrong with this idea?
And this is what is so rare, and valuable. Too many policy pronouncements are intended to be last words, as if the puny mind of one individual suffices to solve tricky policy problems.
Worse, they are often mere projections of ego. Among newspaper columnists – and in this regard Polly Toynbee, Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlecock are indistinguishable – this consists of a form of grunting intended to signal that the author belongs to the readers tribe.
Among politicians, it consists in the effort to signal that one has judgment, in the precisely opposite sense of the Summers memo – being the ability to pander to the received ideas of the trash media. The upshot is that on the rare occasions when a politician does say something intelligent, he is howled down.
The great virtue of the Summers memo was that it showed a hope that policy debate can be something better than this, richer in evidence and logic and free of ego* and intellectually stimulating – that there is a place for thinking in policy debate.
Sadly, this hope was not fulfilled. But I like to think Mr Summers has not learned from experience.
* Anyone who points out that Summers has a big ego is missing the point here.