Varieties of Ignorance in Economic Policymaking

This project is part of the CIPS World Order Programme

Jacqueline Best

There is a wealth of scholarship on the role of expertise in governments and international organizations. Much less is written on the role of ignorance in policymaking – in spite of its prevalence. After all, ignorance is not simply the opposite of expertise but rather an integral part of it: in order to learn something new, we first have to figure out what we do not know; and even once we do develop new knowledge, there is always so much more that remains unknown. Drawing on the emerging literature on the sociology of ignorance, this project seeks to map the varieties of ignorance that we find in economic policymaking and to trace their roles and effects. Some forms of policy ignorance are a product of genuine confusion; others are reflexive – aware of the limits of knowledge in a given area and intent on coming to terms with it; while still others are willful and involve refusing inconvenient truths.

This latter form of willful economic ignorance has become particularly visible today: consider the willingness of some political leaders to ignore public health evidence regarding COVID-19 when it appears economically inconvenient, or the fantastic claims made by the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, and the many governments intent on ignoring the costs of pursuing carbon-intensive economic development. Although these forms of wishful economic thinking are extreme, the broader phenomenon is not new. This project seeks to take a step back and put these recent examples into a broader historical context, asking: what relationship does this kind of willful ignorance have with other forms of ignorance, how have these different varieties of ignorance evolved over time, and what practical implications do they have? 

This project will examine two key moments in the post-war history of economic policymaking—the early New Right policies of the 1980s, and the centre-left “Third Way” policies of the 1990s. It will examine the form and role of economic ignorance across three different national cases—Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. The principal source of data will be archival records of government internal discussions and decisions, much of which is only now becoming publicly available, combined with selective interviews with key decision-makers. Much of the past scholarship on the role of economic ideas in the 1980s and 1990s has relied on interviews, because of the limits on accessing original documents. As the archival record becomes available, it has the potential to transform scholarship in this area by revealing the more complex and fraught way in which economic ideas are translated into practice.

This research has the potential to make very concrete social contributions by shedding light on the wider context for the troubling forms of willful economic ignorance that we see today. In doing so, the project seeks to provide new insights into how we might build a healthier and more reflexive approach to economic knowledge and its limits today.

There’s lots more concrete material on my work on ignorance on my website: