Are there any disciplines on earth as hyped-up and overrated as economics? Every subject depends to some extent on others; you can’t, for example, understand history without a bit of geography or human biology, and you can’t master either of those without a bit of chemistry, for different reasons. The same goes for all disciplines – except, for some reason, economics, where the opinion of the experts seems to count for a great deal in discussions where their field is only one aspect.
The great example of this was the euro, which was promoted by the great and the good of the dismal science as a brilliant idea because, of course, reducing barriers between markets will make us wealthier. Of course it will, except… the tiny problem being that the different peoples of Europe have different identities, different ways of doing things, different loyalties, and that their voters want to look after their own interests over those of foreigners.
I wonder whether any publication could have got 300 historians to put in print that a united, democratic Europe was feasible? It seems unlikely, yet strangely few economists seem to have any regard for history at all. Economics is the study of human desires, needs and motivations; history is the study of how those desires and needs have panned out. How can you understand one without the other? It is surely no coincidence that the only senior Labour politician to have expressed concerns about mass immigration before it became politically expedient to do so is the party’s most noted historian, Tristram Hunt.
So as Romania and Bulgaria become the latest countries with which we have open borders, the debate will no doubt be about the economic impact, and the pro-lobby will be satisfied that the 0.1 or 0.2 per cent increase in GDP per capita is reason enough to justify this latest change.
Yet a migrant is more than just a statistic on the Inland Revenue’s database; to those people he has joined in his new country he is a fellow citizen, a partner, someone with whom he is supposed to enjoy a measure of trust, a fellow club member on a grand scale.
I noticed a prime example of this economist thinking in a recent review of Paul Collier’s Exodus. Collier is an economist but his book looks at how migration from one country encourages further migration from the homeland, and so the social costs inevitably become high. This is because people do not behave only as individuals but as members of a family, a clan or an ethnic or religious group; we are sociable creatures, yet current economic-political thinking seems to take a hyper-individualistic view of the human that ignores our nature. As ant specialist Edward O Wilson once said of Communism, ‘great idea, wrong species’; one might almost say the same of the current neo-liberal assumptions.
When the reviewer complains about Oxford sandwich sellers being forced to leave (which seems almost like a parody of how elites view mass immigration), there appears to be no recognition that people are not merely units of production but individuals with identities and loyalties and relationships, whose actions will affect those around them in lots of non-economic ways.
Obviously if you take restricted markets and open them there will be benefits to be had economically, which globalisation has brought. But to ignore the social implications of this, which in turn have economic implications down the line, is just bizarre. Would an economist analysing Palestinian immigration into the Lebanon in the 1960s and ‘70s simply measure their GDP per capita, or factor in that it lead to instability and civil war? That’s a very extreme example to illustrate the principle, but all migrations have some smaller social impact — most importantly on trust within society, something which has been declining at a steady pace both in the US and Europe in recent decades. It seems improbable that mass migration has not played a part – yet you will never hear this mentioned when the subject is discussed on radio, television or in print. Perhaps it is because such social change is harder to measure; or maybe it is just the way that economics is revered and history despised.