This question has been doing some rounds on the internet lately. I think it is a profoundly unfortunate question, not only because it can have about 7 billion equally valid answers, but because it is irrelevant. Why do I think so? Let me first use an analogy. Then I’ll explain what we can learn about law and politics from the fact that we like to argue about the quality of our economists.
Is Honda Civic a better car than a Toyota Corolla? The answer to this question depends on the needs and preferences of a prospective car buyer. I think Honda Civic is a better car, and that’s why I bought one. In fact, I think that Toyota Corolla is an ugly car. Aesthetics are an important attribute of a car to me. A friend of mine, who is a mechanic, advised me not to buy and American car because they break down more frequently than Japanese cars. Since mechanical durability is also an important attribute for me, I took this into account as well. There are many other factors that I took into account when choosing a car. But, does the fact that, according to my needs and personal preferences, Honda Civic is a better car that Toyota Corolla or some American car mean that other people should buy a Honda Civic too? Of course not. Other people have their own needs and preferences that may be better served by a Toyota Corolla or some other car.
So, What’s the connection between choosing a car and answering the question from the title of this post? Like services of a car or any other human product, services of an economists exist because they are used by people. Different people have different needs and preferences that can be served better by one economist or another. For example, when I want to get inspired by an economist, I watch a YouTube video of Murray Rothbard or Milton Friedman. I like the way they convey economic ideas to their audiences. But, someone else may seek inspirational service of other economists, including Paul Krugman. How important is an economist’s inspirational power for the overall assessment of his quality? Like in my Civic-Corolla analogy, this depends on how much you value this attribute of an economist. I value it very much, but some people may not care. They might care more about how many times an economist published a paper in the American Economic Review or about some other of the countless number of attributes people may care about.
But, why do we argue about who a better economist is but almost never argue about which car is better? I think one of the major reasons for that is the fact that we have the ability to choose our cars, but we can’t quite choose our economists. For example I did not pick the chairman of the Federal Reserve or the economic advisors of Barack Obama or Stephen Harper. Nevertheless, I have to use the services of those people that I did not choose. I may be perfectly satisfied with their services, but the sole fact that I did not choose them increases the probability that I may not be satisfied with these services. This is why we get the urge to use all means we can to persuade others that our favorite economist should be their favorite economist. This way the ideas of our favorite economist have a greater potential of getting the approval of our political leaders. And this will enable some of us to enjoy more of the services of our favorite economist.
Thus, although quarrelling about who is a better economist is silly, it is perfectly understandable. It is a consequence of the human desire to satisfy one’s goals using other peoples services, and it is also a consequence of our political and legal systems. Our political and legal systems make it sometimes impossible to use the services of your favorite economist without forcing other people to use the services of the same economist.