Many economists think their profession has something to say about almost everything. This is because nearly everything can be thought of in terms of incentives and constraints.
The list is endless: decisions to marry or have a partner, the number of children people have, parenting styles, attendance at religious services, the way people choose to die. Many of these issues come under the headings of lifestyle and demographics.
Should economists have a say in these areas, since they are not always immediately obviously about economics?
A more important question is how much say should economists have about these issues and where should we have that say – particularly outside our own professional journals?
The opportunities for comment are almost limitless – letters to the editor in the popular press, speaking invitations, manuscripts in non-economics professional journals, and even casual conversations with our friends, neighbours, and colleagues.
However, on the question of how much say, we as economists should not get carried away with our sense of unique insights. That would be one way to lose all influence and the ability to affect areas outside our own usual domains.
Non-economists (and perhaps even some economists) could find an overbearing sense of “we know best about everything” to be off-putting. Many other professions use the same outcomes and even many of the same things that we refer to as incentives and constraints as predictors of behaviour.
We should be careful to make clear arguments about the particular insights that economics adds and not overstate what economics can predict. We should be equally clear about what economics does not predict or explain well.
But we should take every opportunity made available to us to make known what economists have to offer. We should use the power of persuasion to make our case about the particular insights that we add to the discussion. However, we should remember that without some humility about how our arguments fit (or fail to fit) into the bigger picture, those opportunities are likely to fall on deaf ears.