Varieties of ignorance in political economic policy-making

About the project

We hear a lot about the power of economic expertise (and of experts)—whether it’s the news media calling on the latest expert to tell us where the economy is headed, or a populist critic arguing that experts are out of touch with the real world.

While it is certainly true that governments and international organisations rely on economic expertise to get their job done, there is a lot that these institutions simply don’t know. Sometimes that ignorance is inconvenient, sometimes it’s dangerous, and sometimes it’s politically useful.

I became interested in the role of ignorance in economic policymaking while doing archival research into the internal policy debates in the early 1980s in the United States and Great Britain, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan first came into power. I had begun the research expecting to find an unmatched display of economic expertise. After all, these were the years when the fathers of neoliberal economics, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were directly advising policymakers as they and the politicians of their time sought to put neoliberal theory into practice. Yet what I found when I started to read through the various internal memos and minutes was a great deal of confusion, uncertainty—and, yes, down-right ignorance.

This project seeks to map out the varieties of ignorance that we find in economic policymaking in the United States, Great Britain and Canada from the 1970s though to the late 1990s—tracing the role and effects of four distinct forms of ignorance: wishful thinking, cluelessness, muddling through, and denial.

Why ignorance is political

Rather than being its opposite, ignorance is always a part of knowledge. As researchers, we begin with a question, not an answer. There will always be a finite number of things that we know and a potentially infinite number of ones that we do not know.

Ignorance can play a strategic role in some cases. Although ignorance does sometimes pose serious practical and political difficulties for policymakers, it can also be quite useful for them to ignore or deny knowledge of certain inconvenient facts.

Ignorance also plays a foundational role in economic theory. When we dig a bit deeper into different economic theories, we find a whole host of assumptions about what is knowable and what isn’t and who should remain ignorant. For example, most neo- and new-classical economic theory is premised on the belief that the government not only cannot but should not know too much about the economy.

Ignorance is therefore immensely political: what forms of ignorance we use, what kinds we avoid, and whether we admit to the limits of our knowledge all have profound consequences for how we act or fail to act.

In a world in which cluelessness, muddling through, wishful thinking and, above all, denial appear to be playing an increasingly central and dangerous role, rather than pretending that we can counter them with some kind of pure and absolute expertise, we need a better understanding of the central role of ignorance in our lives.

Recent work on ignorance

Although I have yet to publish any article-length work on my findings, some of my early thinking can be found in my post on varieties of ignorance for the SPERI Blog.

I also gave a Leverhulme Lecture on “Varieties of ignorance in neoliberal policy: Or the possibilities and perils of wishful economic thinking,” which can be seen here: