The role of economics in policy discussions
Great post. One important piece you left out, however: What is the baseline for "right direction?" What is the standard for testing the hypotheses? For Buchanan, of course, it had little to do with consequentialist outcomes. His test was "agreement." Suppose drug prohibition and enforcement is shown to produce negative outcomes (high crimes, more overdoses, etc.)... does it fail the test of "good" policy on these grounds? Not if the test is agreement. A substantial portion of citizens may continue to view drugs as inherently "bad," despite the negative effects of prohibition. I'm guessing most economists don't see policy through this lens. If our empirical tests yield results that we, in our ivory towers, deem "desirable," that's sufficient justification for the economist to go forward in promoting the use of government force in the lives of others. Hence Buchanan's insistence that economists ought to "stop pretending we are enlightened advisors of benevolent despots" (paraphrasing: Limits of Liberty; 1975, p. 35). Good advice, for sure. But the temptation to insist on particular policies is oh so strong.... for me at least.