Why economics has a democratic deficit - RSA

Why economics has a democratic deficit

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  • Picture of Reema Patel
    Research Director and Head of Deliberative Engagement, Ipsos
  • Economic democracy
  • Economics and Finance

Economics has a democratic deficit for three key reasons - a lack of transparency, a lack of legitimacy and a lack of accountability. Reema Patel explores what they are, and what can be done about it.

There are many reasons for why more democratic approaches to economics are necessary and valuable. As well as shaping better and more informed economic decisions and improving its quality, meaningful efforts to engage citizens on economics helps us explore citizen values and voices about economics, promotes transparency about economic priorities, and strengthens democracy and debate. Despite the enormous potential democratising the economy has for a new approach to economics, there is a serious democratic deficit in economics. This takes three forms:

  • The transparency deficit: There is a lack of transparency in economics about the 

    political implications involved when economic decisions are made, and this lack of transparency is compounded by the inaccessibility of economic language.

  • The legitimacy deficit: There is a lack of legitimacy in economic decision making caused by the dominance of technocracy and the exclusion of citizen voice. This has fuelled a rise in populism and revoked the ‘social licence’ of policymakers and economists.
  • The accountability deficit: Declining accountability has resulted in narrowness to economics itself, with a debate that is less creative, less connected to, and less able to respond to our collective social problems.

The transparency deficit

“Only when the general public displays awareness of these issues will professional economists find it impossible to browbeat them by declaring themselves to be custodians of scientific truths.” – Ha-Joon Chang  (Economist)

Economics is often presented as the domain of the ‘experts’ alone when it is not. There needs to be more transparency about the political choices behind economic policy. Yet despite the clear public interest in asking these questions directly of citizens and engaging them in informed dialogue and discussion, it is rare for economists and policymakers to do so. This is compounded by the existence of jargon that often shrouds simple, intuitive concepts in complex language, resulting in citizens shying away from expressing their views on economics as confidently as they might on other issues that form an important part of public debate – such as gay marriage, or the NHS.

As economist Ha-Joon Chang explains, economics is a fundamentally political and moral subject, its origins being in moral philosophy. To explain that economic decisions are determined by ethical and political judgements, Chang uses the example of child labour, which he notes was a legitimate object of market transaction (even in the world’s richest countries) until the early 20th century. According to Chang, this example demonstrates to us that the market itself is a political construct as opposed to a ‘natural order’ that cannot be tampered with by political intervention. As such, economics is as much about citizens as it is about ‘expertise’; and that expertise must be in service to citizens and their values and ethics, not the other way around.

The legitimacy deficit

We live a world in which economics is experiencing a crisis in legitimacy and public trust at the same time as holding disproportionate influence and power. The 2016 referendum on the European Union in the UK exposed an enormous disconnect between citizens and the economic, political and policymaking consensus; as did the 2008 world financial crisis in which we witnessed scenes of political protest from citizens at the site of major financial institutions across the world. In the past year, the Edelman Barometer of Trust has reported a global implosion in levels of citizen trust in policymakers, companies, politicians and economists. Oxford Dictionaries declared the international word of the year in 2016 to be ‘post-truth, defined as an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. The rise in populism and the era of ‘post-truth’ is a signal that politics and democracy itself needs to change. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of economics where issues that are cloaked in economic jargon or confusing language conceal trade-offs and choices that are more legitimately the domain for public dialogue and public participation.

The accountability deficit

Economic policy is an area that has considerable influence and impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens through the decisions made by governments about the future of the UK economy. Despite this, there are limited efforts to engage citizens on economics itself. This lends itself to an accountability deficit; often economic decisions are made ‘behind closed doors’, with little, to no public engagement. As a consequence, they often find themselves subject to fierce public scrutiny and criticism when announced. Controversial decisions have been made that have faced public backlash, and have forced a reversal of government economic policy – examples of these have included the government’s plans to introduce the bedroom tax and planned cuts to personal independence payment (PIP) disability allowances.

This approach of ‘decide, announce, defend’, which dominates economics and economic decision making has two effects. Firstly, it is costlier and more damaging to the legitimacy of decision makers in the long term. And secondly, it pushes economics itself further and further away from citizens – perpetuating a vicious cycle of an economics that is resulted in narrowness to economics itself, with a debate that is less creative, less connected to, and less able to respond to citizens’ concerns and problems.

Where next?

In its place, we propose that economic decision makers and institutions prototype, adopt and embed citizen engagement approaches such as the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council and citizen assemblies such as the Brexit Citizens’ Assembly. These are collaborative, co-productive dialogues between citizens, experts and policymakers with a view to strengthening legitimacy, transparency and trust between citizens and experts. Yet we recognise that doing this well is far from easy. It requires us to recognise that there are barriers – systemic and institutional – that need to be addressed to enable democratic innovation to flourish in a sustained way. Our interim report on the Citizens’ Economic Council due to be published later on this month will lay out in more detail the way forward on these issues.

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy, as part of a series on new economic thinking.

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  • Most people think that our social system of macroeconomics is so complicated and difficult to understand that they leave it to the experts and dismiss further attempts for themselves to see how it works. This is wrong because our social system is not all that complicated, nor hard to understand and we can learn a lot about it when we ask some simple questions as to how it can be arranged.


    Unfortunately much confusion has been deliberately introduced when the original concepts of Adam Smith 1767 "Wealth of Nations"  were subsequently reduced  and distorted, which does not help with this understanding. My recent book and its associated papers is a serious attempt to solve many of these dilemmas, be fair to this pioneer and make our subject more accessible to students and teachers, although unfortunately to oversimplify it for easy comprehension by the common public is not the way to go. 

    This 310 page book and methodology is an attempt to turn what was a pseudo-science into a real one, and to show that there are a limited number of ways an economy can become unstable and for this stability to be restored. The book is titled: "Consequential Macroeconomics--Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works" and may be obtained as an e-copy for free by writing to me   chesterdh@hotmail.com  The two short less than 10 page papers are SSRN 2865571 "Einstein's Criterion Applied to Logical Macroeconomics Modeling" and SSRN 2600103 "A Mechanical Model for Teaching Macroeconomics" respectively, and they are on the internet.

    It is suggested here that the more complicated aspects of BREXIT and of how governments can control the way the country grows and how it fails to achieve this due to political meddling, should be better understood once the basics in these works are properly absorbed.

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