Front Page Titles (by Subject) Government Experts - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1
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Government Experts - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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“Economics, Economists and Economic Policy: Modern American Experiences.” History of Political Economy (USA), 9 (1977): 48–88.
What do working economists serving as government policy advisers and analysts actually do?
The results of interviewing some 60 government economists (most of whom were academicians on temporary government assignment), debunk a myth. The typical government economist does not live up to the glamorized image of a high powered technician employing the panoply of sophisticated tools of modern economic science to grind out welfare-maximizing policies divorced from political pressures. The interviews asked: What does the government economist do? Under what circumstances? For what specific audiences? Pressured by what constraints? With what economic methods? And with what observable impact?
Not unexpectedly, the interviewer found that the government economists did not devote most of their time to calm academic meditation on the larger questions of the universe, nor to constructing elegant econometric models. Instead, these economists tend to become “quick-draw specialists.” The scant time at their disposal creates their major problem: insufficient time to think through the policies they must devise. Deadlines of only a few hours constantly loom over their hastily scribbled memos and pronouncements. They find little time to analyze existing data on any subject; it is quixotic to dream that one can add anything new through original research. Living off their intellectual capital, government economists go stale after a very few years.
In addition, the constraints of working within the existing career bureaucracy and of hewing to party lines to keep their politicized jobs attenuate their impact. To maintain their “credibility” for the major battles, many accept “small” compromises of their integrity on issues they judge unimportant. When the compromises demanded became too enormous, some have no alternative but to quit.
What kinds of theoretical tools did the interviewed economists wield in their government jobs? Rarely did they employ anything more sophisticated than basic economic principles. More elegant models and techniques were simply not usable for the daily rough and ready decisions; they would have been unsuitable for advising their primary audience: noneconomists and politicians who demanded simplified, elementary explanations and policies. They did not consider this a great defect, however, since even elementary economics has much to teach such noneconomists.
Such is the demythologized governmental world and its limits within which the government economist labors. A moral is permissible for conjecture on how to improve governmental decision making, or the advising of decision makers. We suspect we might increase social welfare by “minimizing” the number and scope of governmental activities upon which government economists expend their scanty hours.