Politicians should listen to and argue with academic economists but not “submit” to them, according to Michael Gove, the UK’s former education secretary.
In a debate with Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, the Conservative MP also complained that academics’ “natural tendency” to “veer to the left” had led to a “monoculture in some disciplines”.
The event was held after Professor Portes challenged Mr Gove on Twitter over the ex-minister’s defining soundbite of the European Union referendum campaign, that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Leave-supporting Mr Gove, on being asked why his predictions for the post-Brexit British economy contradicted the views of the International Monetary Fund, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Confederation of British Industry and others, had attacked “organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”.
Opening the debate, held on 16 March by the independent research group UK in a Changing Europe, Professor Portes suggested that Mr Gove had often been “quite happy to fall back on experts” and even quote “organisations with acronyms” when it suited his political purposes.
While economists had a responsibility to “explain [their] basic concepts in clear terms”, they also had a duty to “synthesise the consensus of experts” for the public and politicians, and to “call out bullshit”, such as the claim by some pro-Brexit groups that new trade deals could create 400,000 jobs in the UK, Professor Portes said.
Mr Gove countered, arguing that the “level of predictability in the physical sciences is much higher than in the social sciences”. He said that his comment about experts had referred to organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the IMF, which had warned that the British economy “would take an immediate hit” from Brexit, and Mr Gove argued that they had been proved wrong.
Professor Portes said that macroeconomic forecasting was only a minor strand in what economists did, and that on smaller issues such as “the impact of being in the EU on trade”, academics could “put the data on a graph and show the lessons of history”.
While agreeing that “the past can help us understand the future”, Mr Gove stated there was “almost always another perspective we need to know about”. Although politicians ought to listen to economic experts, it should be on the basis of “challenge” rather than “submission”. The most effective ministers “listen[ed] to a range of views and argue[d] with them”, he said.
In addition, Mr Gove cited warnings that “the natural tendency of academics to veer towards the left had now led to a monoculture in some disciplines”.
“Progress in the past”, he reminded the audience, “has been driven by radicals, mavericks, people outside the consensus”, so it was always worth looking out for “the grit in oyster, the dissident in the academy”.