On economists and garbagemen: Reflections on Šťastný
Published online: 13 July 2011
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
In his book on the economics of the economic profession, Šťastný (2010) provides a
valuable service not only to professional economists, but also to the broader public
who ought to be aware of the incentive structure of economic research and therefore
cautious of accepting the advice of expert economists.
In his book, Šťastný makes two broad claims, or two series of claims. The first
revolves around the disconnect that exists between economists’ policy prescriptions
and reality. In spite of the consensual views of economists on subjects like trade
protectionism, rent controls, or agricultural subsidies, these demonstrably harmful
policies remain in place, and sometimes even enjoy popular support. Hence the
frustration experienced by many economists who were lured into economics with the
ambition of changing, reforming, and improving the world.
The second series of claims tries to account for the peculiar interaction between
the supply and demand for economic ideas. Šťastný claims that the growing
irrelevance of economists in shaping public policy has led them to embark on less
and less salient lines of inquiry and to indulge in solving obscure mathematical
problems instead of addressing empirically relevant questions and being a significant
voice in public debates. Worse yet, professional economists have abandoned their
original vocation and, instead of speaking truth to the powerful, they have started to
accommodate the politicians’ demand for a ‘scientific’ and ‘scholarly’ justification
of their actions. As a result, Šťastný argues, economists have become less socially
useful than garbagemen.
Our ambition is not to denounce individual economists or economists as a group—
and neither is that Šťastný’s ambition. What we wish to subject to critical scrutiny,
Rev Austrian Econ (2012) 25:173–183
Paul Lewis and Greg Gardner provided valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper. I thank
Peter J. Boettke for his invitation to submit this paper. Many of the ideas presented here have emerged in
my earlier conversations with David M. Levy. All errors are my own.
D. Roháč (*)
Legatum Institute, London, England, UK