Sunday, September 30, 2007

On the Ethics of Advising

A book review in the NY Times contains this thought-provoking passage on Milton Friedman:

Friedman’s association with Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, was indeed the worst stain on his career. His defense that his economic advice to Pinochet was no different from what a doctor might give a government on how to deal with an outbreak of AIDS is not very persuasive.
The problem is that the reviewer fails to then explain why it's not persuasive. He seems to assume that the explanation is obvious. But to me, it is not obvious at all.

Here is the basic problem. You are an expert working at an American university. A dictator calls you up, says his nation is facing a problem, and wants your help solving it. Many people, not just the dictator, are suffering because of this problem. What do you do? Does it matter whether the problem is an economic problem or a medical problem? If so, why? (If you want my opinion, here it is: I have no idea. Fortunately, I have never gotten any calls from dictators.)

[As an update, let me be more pointed: You are a professor at Harvard Medical School and the world's expert of deadly disease X. The head of a nation experiencing an epidemic of a new disease similar to X calls you for advice. You know how to make a cheap vaccine for this new disease, and you are the only person in the world with this knowledge. Do you offer the secret recipe unconditionally? If not, what conditions have to be met? If the nation head is a tyrannical dictator, would you refuse to help, knowing that letting the epidemic run its course might cause more suffering than the dictator ever did?]

Similar, but somewhat less emotionally charged, ethical issues arise in the context of advising democratically elected leaders. For two years, I worked as an adviser to George Bush. Now I am an occasional, unpaid adviser to Mitt Romney. To my constant surprise, some letter writers and some commenters on this blog presume that I must agree with, or be responsible for, every position they take. That is a deeply silly assumption.

Presidents and candidates have to make decisions on a multitude of issues. It is unreasonable to expect any adviser to agree on every single issue. Indeed, politicians listen to many advisers with different points of view. An adviser cannot resign in protest every time a decision fails to go the way he advised. The system could not function if people acted in such a self-centered way.

Consider: Should an economist who believes abortion is murder refuse to advise Barack Obama on tax reform? If this economist chooses to become an Obama adviser and Obama wins, is she then complicit in all the abortions that result from President Obama's pro-choice policies? If her advice on tax reform is only partially followed, should she resign her position as adviser? If she continues as an Obama adviser, is she then responsible for all policy positions that Obama takes? Is she even responsible for Obama's tax-reform proposal?

My answers are NO, NO, NO, NO, and NO. In my view, the adviser is responsible for the advice she gives, and Obama is responsible for the positions he takes.

Maybe I am being too easy on economic advisers, like Milton Friedman, myself, and my hypothetical Obama adviser. But I worry about what happens when sanctimony leads people to put too high of a moral "tax" on advisers from academia. Most academics avoid politics altogether, preferring the relative comfort and better compensation of life in the ivory tower. The uglier the world of politics becomes, the fewer academics will venture forth with their input, and the poorer everyone will be as a result.