A Code of Conduct for Economists?

The Economist is running a forum on an interesting topic: Do economists need a code of conduct? The economists surveyed disagree on the merits of a code of conduct. Hal Varian is in favor: “YES, economists need a code of ethics. Any economist who reports an opinion or advice on economic matters would be expected to reveal any potential conflicts of interest that could distort the objectivity of the report.” Lant Pritchett, for one, disagrees: “This is not how an academic community should conduct itself. We should stand for allowing truth to emerge from a dedication to the evaluation of ideas, arguments, and evidence based on scholarly and disciplinary discourse.” Your thoughts, please; extra points given for not beating dead horses. [%comments]

Harry Johnson

Economics is barely a profession let alona a science. One approach would be that anyone who failed to see the 2008 financial collapse coming should resign for incompetence. There would not be many economists left. Almost all economists are grinding some seriously shrp axes. They are usually promoting someone's vested interest. It is not possible to do science under those conditions. I predict that in 100 hundred years economics will be esteemed with those other sciences, astrology, alchemy and phrenology. It fails to provide useful predictions and guidance. It is primarily used as justification for upper class looting and other abuses.


If professional American geographers have a code of ethics, which seems well written, it would seem appropriate for professional economists to have one as well.


Beyond this, it would be useful for some kind of licensure or credentialing process for Economists. Accountants, lawyers, engineers all have one but anyone can call themselves an Economist. Outside of academia, this is especially true. Ethical conduct may well be part of the certification process.

MIchael Jacobs

Academics ARE required to report any conflict of interest.

Eric M. Jones

We certainly need a code of ethics for people who write codes of ethics per ISO 9666. You can never be too regulated!

David Leppik

Every field has rules of ethics ("code" or otherwise), and how serious the rules are depends on how scary infractions are. Every academic is familiar with rules against plagiarism and sexual relationships with students. Many fields require conflicts of interest to be revealed.

Some argue that a code of ethics would limit research. This is certainly true in psychology and medicine, but I before those ethical guidelines were put in place there were many experiments which were gruesome, cruel, and yielded major insights.

To argue that economists don't need a code of conduct is to argue that what they do has no real negative impact on people. Which implies that economic theories and advice (no matter what they are) have only a positive impact, or no impact at all.

Bindi Papadum

It is unethical for economists to omit facts or understate evidence to make their assertions more persuasive. I suspect this happens on news shows routinely, but how can I be sure? I'm no expert. How to combat it? If the subject matter presented by the economist requires more than a layman's knowledge, he should be balanced by a rebuttal from a second economist of equal charisma and knowledge. Simply put, the layman is nearly defenseless and cannot be expected to pick apart the opinions of an expert. This imbalance in knowledge invites unethical shortcuts and sloppy arguments.

Economists should understand the cost of being unethical. If exposed by their peers their reputations would be ruined.

Furthermore, they can be outsourced.


Economists have such an outsized influence on our daily lives, and have the ear of influential policy makers, that they definitely need an ethical code to guide their profession.

Despite being a "science" soft on empirical facts and heavy on abstractions, we somehow take their advice as the Word.


I think David (@ 26) has in his last paragraph distilled the matter perfectly.

Ofc, without being required to fully disclose my details I could just be his sock puppet...

Steve Nations

I don't understand Mr. Pritchett's argument. Is he suggesting that any conflict that an economist has will not affect his/her research and recommendations/conclusions? Or is he suggesting that it doesn't matter because the academic community will ensure that the truth comes out in the end?

Either way I think he's way off base.


I don't think a code of ethics alone would ensure ethical behavior. Better to tie compensation to the predictive value of their research. From what I understand of economics, the purpose of the profession is to be able to predict future events - and it does this very poorly.

Compensation should be seen broadly - this would mean no tenure for academics, and claw backs on bonuses for the Wall Street economists (if their research is used to direct poor investment decisions, they should have to pay as well).

Not allowing economists to be protected from the results of their research should give us the ethical behavior we want out of the profession.


Economists proposing policies must have an ethical liability to reveal all assumptions built into the policy model. It must go something like

"I have revealed all assumptions, as known to me, based on which this policy model is prescribed. Al my future explanations for success/failure of the policy will be based on these and these only. If I have to bring in additional explanations, I must admit that it is a failure on my part and the school of thought i represent. This is especially when I repeatedly fails."