I constantly encounter people who think their own career or field of study is the most important one in the world. Educators teach us that education is underappreciated and underfunded. Public health officials diagnose us with insufficient concern for health and inadequate policies to make us take it more seriously. People in the arts sing a tune about the vast significance of music, theater, painting, and sculpture for the human psyche. The linguists at Language Log wax eloquent about the need for more and better linguistic education.
Economists are not immune to the syndrome, but I think they are somewhat more resistant. Of course, economists regularly complain about people – especially journalists – who opine about economic issues with hardly a rudimentary understanding of the subject. (That, to be fair, is often the linguists’ complaint as well: that people who know almost nothing about linguistics so often fancy themselves experts on language.) Still, I rarely find economists talking about how everyone should be forced to obtain, and others be forced to fund, an education in economics. Why not?
I suspect it’s because of how economists think about the world. First, we understand the notion of opportunity cost. Any time spent learning any subject (economics, linguistics, accounting, fine arts) is time not spent studying other subjects or doing other valuable things. Second, we grasp the optimality of balance. Diminishing marginal utility and diminishing marginal returns both generally argue against a constant expansion of even the most desirable activity. However important a subject may be, the marginal return of yet more people learning the subject is probably not that great. Third, we appreciate the importance of specialization of division of labor. People tend to be more productive when they focus their efforts on a single area of endeavor, at least once they have a strong enough foundation in basic skills.
I always have to wonder if there’s a bit of “psychological rent-seeking” at work when people go on about the overriding significance of their own field of study. I say “psychological” to distinguish this subtle phenomenon from the more familiar phenomenon of lobbying for one’s causes with a full awareness of one’s self-serving motivations. Perhaps it’s easier to lobby for the expansion of funding and support for your field without guilt if you convince yourself that what you’re doing really is vitally important. True believers make better advocates.
I have, on occasions, almost succumbed to psychological rent-seeking myself. There’s a better case for making people learn economics (I tell myself) because we expect ordinary people – in their capacity as voters – to make decisions about economic policy. We do not, on the other hand, expect car drivers to fix their own cars or accountants to perform heart surgery. And besides, if people knew economics, they wouldn’t be so credulous about everyone else’s claims to importance. So it seems like economics has a better case for funding/support/education than all those other disciplines… But then I remember how little confidence I have in high school teachers to say anything coherent about economics, and my enthusiasm wanes.
And besides, I may have fallen prey to what I call “the tyranny of good reasons.” It’s always possible to cook up some good reason to support this or that policy. The lobbyists in Washington (and Sacramento, and Austin, and Albany…) have mastered the craft of making things sound Important and Worthy of Support. We shouldn’t trust them. And if psychological rent-seeking is real, then maybe we ought not trust ourselves.