Yes, experts will lie to you sometimes


The other day I saw Yascha Mounk tweet something about experts lying to the public:

From the initial hesitance to admit that masks work to the current hesitance to admit that the first dose of the vaccine gives you very strong protection against Covid, the whole pandemic has been a year-long demonstration of why the Noble Lie never works in practice.

Now, this might seem like a wild accusation. Did experts really lie, or is this an exaggeration — a moral panic by people who are inclined to distrust experts in the first place?

Well, no, actually they really did lie:

According to Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, masks weren’t advised to the public from the start because of the anticipated PPE shortages…Fauci discusses how effective face masks are at preventing COVID-19 infection and why they weren’t recommended from the start…He…acknowledged that masks were initially not recommended to the general public so that first responders wouldn’t feel the strain of a shortage of PPE.He explained that public health experts "were concerned…that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply.” By early April, the Strategic National Stockpile [of masks] had been depleted…Fauci continued to say that they wanted to give as many masks as possible to front line workers and emergency personnel.“We wanted to make sure that the people, namely the health care workers, who were brave enough to put themselves in a harm way, to take care of people who you know were infected with the coronavirus and the danger of them getting infected,” Fauci concluded.

In other words, according to Fauci, public health experts knew that even cloth masks helped prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they were worried that if they admitted that cloth masks work, people would conclude that N95 masks work even better (which is true), and hoard N95s, thus depriving medical workers who needed the supplies more.

Nor was this lie the impulsive decision of a few rogue experts. It was systematic and came from the highest levels: Both the CDC and the WHO discouraged people from wearing masks.

Does this mean that experts, as a group, are liars who shouldn’t be trusted? No. But it’s important to know that experts aren’t always honest with the public, and to realize why they are sometimes dishonest. And here I think economics can provide a useful historical example.

For many many years, economists were quite gung-ho in their support of free trade. Surveys showed that almost everyone in the profession supported the idea:


In fact, economists glowingly touted free trade as one of the only things — perhaps the only thing — they could agree on. Here’s Greg Mankiw in the New York Times in 2015:

Among economists, the issue is a no-brainer…Economists are famous for disagreeing with one another…But economists reach near unanimity on some topics, including international trade. The economic argument for free trade dates back to Adam Smith, the 18th-century author of “The Wealth of Nations” and the grandfather of modern economics. Smith recognized that the case for trading with other nations was no different from the case for trading with other individuals within a society… Politicians and pundits often recoil at imports because they destroy domestic jobs, while they applaud exports because they create jobs. Economists respond that full employment is possible with any pattern of trade. The main issue is not the number of jobs, but which jobs. Americans should work in those industries in which we have an advantage compared with other nations, and we should import from abroad those goods that can be produced more cheaply there.

Now, there was nothing dishonest about this agreement itself; economists really did think free trade was good (and most probably still do). What was dishonest — and knowingly dishonest — was the justification given for why it’s good.

In his article, Mankiw claims that letting countries trade with each other is no different than letting individuals trade with each other. But it’s clearly not the same. A country is made up of many individuals. And even the classical economists recognized that trade can hurt some of the people in a country. When America opens up trade with China, for example, workers in occupations that compete directly with China may lose out.

This is not a controversial proposition in economics. It follows very clearly from the simplest models of trade. If you ask economists about it, they will frankly admit that liberalizing trade creates “winners” and “losers”. They will then typically go on to tell you that free trade creates enough benefits that the winners can compensate the losers. For example, here’s an excerpt from some class notes by Fatih Guvenen:

In practice, trade will affect each person differently…In short, there can be losers. What the theory says, however, is that the winners win a lot more than the losers…In principle, you might want to take some of the winners’ gains and give them to the losers, but in practice this isn’t that easy to do….[T]he winners should be able to compensate the losers and still be better off, but in practice it rarely happens. More than that: people lose jobs all the time for lots of reasons, and trade is unlikely to be a major factor in most cases.

Note that Guvenen (who by the way is an excellent economist whom I know and highly respect!) believes that it will be politically hard, perhaps impossible, to compensate the people who lose out from free trade. And so it has proven. In a famous 2016 paper, David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson find that workers displaced by competition with China after its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 tended to be permanently hurt by the shock. Some went on welfare, some found jobs for half what they used to make. There was no program of government transfers to take money from people who benefitted from trade with China and pay it to people who were hurt; that kind of thing generally exists only in econ textbooks.

Now, when dismissing the worry about job loss from trade, Guvenen predicts that it’ll be small compared to job loss from other reasons. That prediction isn’t based on any classical theory — it’s a guess. And Autor et al.’s paper shows that in the case of trade with China, it was an incorrect guess; lots of people lost their jobs from that one. Meanwhile, Mankiw’s editorial — and many other arguments like it — aren’t up front and honest about the fact that trade is going to make some people permanently worse off. Leaving out that key point, which every economist knows about, and which many readers might want to know before deciding who to vote for or which policies to support, is a form of deception.

Nor was this the only form of deception that economists employed in defense of free trade. Economists have known for many decades that some countries as a whole can be hurt by free trade. If a multilateral trade agreement — like the WTO, for example — admits new member countries, existing countries who compete directly with the newcomer nations can become poorer. This is called “trade diversion”, and it follows directly from the same simple classical economic theories of comparative advantage that economists typically use to justify free trade.

In other words, America as whole — not just some workers inside America — might actually be hurt by allowing a country like China into the WTO! Maybe economists didn’t mention this possibility because they thought it was unlikely. Or maybe they decided that making the world better off as a whole — i.e., lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty — is more important than Americans’ parochial concerns for their own country’s welfare. But that was their own judgement call and moral opinion; by not telling Americans that multilateral trade agreements might be worse off, economists were deceptive.

In fact, it has long been an open secret within the economics profession that the simplistic pro-trade case being made to the public intentionally hid the more complex reality. Dani Rodrik, in his 2016 book “Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science”, writes:

Economists’ contributions in public can…look radically different from their discussions in the seminar room…in public, the tendency is to close ranks and support…free trade…[For example,] the most vociferous advocate of free trade in the profession, Jagdish Bhagwati, owes his academic reputation to a series of models that showed how free trade could leave a nation worse off.

Why did economists do this? Why did they leave out “winners and losers”, trade diversion, and all the modern complex models that show ways free trade could have substantial downsides? The answer is right there in Mankiw’s column. Economists believed that the people couldn’t handle the truth:

In the case of international trade, three [popular] biases…are most salient…The first is an anti-foreign bias. People tend to view their own country in competition with other nations and underestimate the benefits of dealing with foreigners…The second is an anti-market bias. People tend to underestimate the benefits of the market mechanism…The third is a make-work bias. People tend to underestimate the benefit from conserving on labor[.]

In other words, economists believed that if they told the public the complex truth, they’d be activating deep-seated irrationalities among the hoi polloi. Instead of revealing what econ really says about free trade — that it offers huge opportunities but also real dangers and drawbacks — they decided to push a simplified fable in order to push back against what they saw as society’s innate tendency toward protectionism. They decided America couldn’t handle the truth.

And to be fair to the economists here…were they wrong? When the free trade consensus among policymaking elites finally collapsed, it came not in the form of subtle nuanced thinking; it came in the form of Donald Trump. Trump did all the dumb and dangerous stuff that economists were so afraid of — he railed against foreigners, he started fights with allies, he resorted to tariffs that ended up hurting U.S. consumers, and he failed to bring jobs back to America or save American manufacturing. It was exactly what Mankiw feared.

But that might not justify the deception. Had economists been up front about the nuances and complexities and uncertainties of trade policy from day one, smart policymakers might have been able to get a head start on crafting smart ways to minimize the risks and harms. Instead, when the break with free trade came, it came in the form of a belligerent xenophobic idiotic populist, because that was the only person who could break through the complacent pro-free-trade consensus that economists’ reassurances had created among the American elite. Maybe it didn’t have to be that way.

Which brings me to the reason experts should be more reluctant to lie to the public: They aren’t experts on the topic of when to lie.

Just because you know about biology or public health doesn’t mean you know whether publicly admitting that masks work will make people hoard them. And just because you know about economics doesn’t mean you understand politics and public opinion formation. When experts make guesses about whether the public can handle the truth, they aren’t acting as experts; they’re acting as amateurs. They’re winging it.

Sometimes in life you have to wing it, but sometimes it’s a sign of overconfidence. Experts who take it upon themselves to decide what truths the public can and can’t handle might be making the same mistake so many smart people make — that because they’re smart about one thing, they’re smart about everything.

Personally, I think experts should err on the side of humility in public communications — and that means telling the truth, even when it’s complex. Sometimes it can be painful and terrifying to trust the public with truths that you feel certain they’re going to misuse or react badly to. But to keep those truths to yourself is to take on a responsibility you were never trained to bear.

And if you’re a member of the public, you should realize that yes, experts will sometimes lie to you. But (with a few exceptions) they usually don’t do this out of lack of concern for your own welfare. Instead, they do it out of lack of regard for your truth-handling abilities. You’re probably not being punked; you’re being babied. So if and when you go fact-checking the experts’ recommendations, remember that they probably do have their assessment of your own best interests in mind. Think of them as an overprotective parent, not as an enemy.