The relationship between economics and politics

Readers question: Why cannot politics and economics be seen in isolation?

Economics is concerned with studying and influencing the economy. Politics is the theory and practice of influencing people through the exercise of power, e.g. governments, elections and political parties.

In theory, economics could be non-political. An ideal economist should ignore any political bias or prejudice to give neutral, unbiased information and recommendations on how to improve the economic performance of a country. Elected politicians could then weigh up this economic information and decide.

Houses of Parliament london

In practice there is a strong relationship between economics and politics because the performance of the economy is one of the key political battlegrounds. Many economic issues are inherently political because they lend themselves to different opinions.

Political ideology influencing economic thought

Many economic issues are seen through the eyes of political beliefs. For example, some people are instinctively more suspicious of government intervention. Therefore, they prefer economic policies which seek to reduce government interference in the economy. For example,  supply side economics, which concentrates on deregulation, privatisation and tax cuts.

On the other hand, economists may have a preference for promoting greater equality in society and be more willing to encourage government intervention to pursue that end.

If you set different economists to report on the desirability of income tax cuts for the rich, their policy proposals are likely to reflect their political preferences. You can always find some evidence to support the benefits of tax cuts, you can always find some evidence to support the benefits of higher tax.

Some economists may be scrupulously neutral and not have any political leanings (though I haven’t met too many). They may produce a paper that perhaps challenges their previous views. Despite their preferences, they may find there is no case for rail privatisation, or perhaps they find tax cuts do actually increase economic welfare.

However, for a politician, they can use those economists and economic research which backs their political view. Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were great champions of supply side economists like Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph, and  Friedrich Hayek. When Reagan was attempting to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ – there was no shortage of economists who were able to provide a theoretical justification for the political experiment. There were just as many economists suggesting this was not a good idea, but economists can be promoted by their political sponsors. In the US, the Paul Ryan budget proposals were welcomed by many Republicans because they promised tax cuts for better off, cutting welfare benefits and balancing the budget. (1) A popular selection of policies for Republicans.

Economic thought independent of politics

On the other hand, economists who stick to data and avoid cherry picking favourable statistics may well come up with conclusions and recommendations that don’t necessarily fit it with pre-conceived political issues.

Many economists may be generally supportive of the EU and European co-operation, but the evidence from the Euro single currency is that it caused many economic problems of low growth, deflation and trade imbalances.

Economics needs political support

If you study economics, you can make quite a convincing case for a Pigovian tax – a tax which makes people pay the full social cost of the good, and not just the private cost. This principle of making the polluter pay provides a case for Carbon Tax, congestion charges, alcohol tax, and tobacco tax e.t.c.

However, whether these policies get implemented depends on whether there is political support for them.

For example, a congestion charge was proposed for Manchester, but it was very heavily defeated in a referendum. A new tax is rarely popular. As an economist, I would like to see more congestion charging because it makes economic sense. But, what can make ‘sense’ to an economist can be politically unpopular.

The political appeal of austerity

Another interesting example is the political appeal of austerity. After the credit crunch, there was a strong economic case for expansionary fiscal policy to fill in the gap of aggregate demand. Politically, it can be hard to push a policy which results in more government debt. There may be an economic logic to Keynesian demand management in a recession – but a politician appealing to the need to ‘tighten belts’ and ‘get on top of debt’ can be easier slogans to sell the general public, rather than slightly more obtuse ‘multiplier theories of Keynes’

Who runs the economy – Politicians or economists?

Another interesting case is the relationship between fiscal policy (set by government) and monetary policy (largely set by independent Central Banks)

In the UK and US (and Europe) fiscal policy has been relatively tight, given the state of the economy. As a consequence, it has fallen to Central Banks to pursue an expansionary monetary policy to offset the deficiencies of fiscal policy. If politicians pursue tight fiscal policy, Central Bankers have to adapt Monetary policy.

See: problem of politics and economics

Micro economics – free of politics?

There are some areas of economics we could argue are free of politics – basic supply and demand and concepts like the theory of the firm are not laden with political ideology. But, even in micro-economics, you could argue that politics can’t help seeping in. If you take an issue like privatisation – there is a clear political issue. Who should control key industries – private enterprise or the government?


Another issue with economics is that some criticise the subject for prioritising economic growth and maximisation of monetary welfare. Some argue that the aim of society is not to maximise GDP – but to maximise happiness, the environment and being satisfied with what we have. Therefore, a politician from an environmental background may disagree with the whole premise behind macro-economics. It is not just about the best way to promote economic growth. But, whether we should be aiming for economic growth in the first place. That is a political issue too.


24 thoughts on “The relationship between economics and politics”

  1. “In the US, the Paul Ryan budget proposals were welcomed by many Republicans because they promised tax cuts for better off, cutting welfare benefits and balancing the budget. (1) A popular selection of policies for Republicans.”

    1. This is hardly an objective statement by the author. Republicans want tax cuts for everyone. Nice jab, but please be less biased. Your animosity is showing.

    2. Or perhaps you could balance this diatribe by saying that Democrats are right on track to reduce national debt by brilliantly increasing debt several fold for generations to come.

  2. Good piece. I wonder if you have read this paper by Barbara Bergmann which makes a similar case:

    Her perspective appears to be a liberal one, but I think she makes a good argument regarding incentives upon the field, which expands upon your first point:

    “Material gain and career advancement also come into play Any particular economic policy holds the possibility of adding to the income and wealth of some people and subtracting from the income and wealth of others. Politicians beholden to
    particular groups in the population can pick and choose among economists. This gives an incentive for economists to divide themselves into two camps, so that
    whichever party comes to power will have a ready-made corps of economists willing and ready to recommend policies congenial to the party’s constituency.”

    Until I read that, I was completely dumbfounded by what I’d learned in grad school about the history of macroeconomic thought, which reads far more like a partisan argument than a progression of science.

  3. Nice article, but aren’t Keynesian demand management policies criticised for their blunt simplicity rather than there complexity? It is a good photo mind!

  4. I’m a student of English in Nigerian Army College of Education Ilorin,Nigeria I found this article in the process of research and it’s very clear,interesting and understood.

  5. Every Economic decision os made on a political base; and every political decision is made on an economic base.

    • Yes. Can never run away from that. Had the earlier economists still alive like Ricardo, Milton Keynes with their economic theories. Would they still say that economics and politics should be divorced. In the present scenario of covid-19, globalization and over dependent on other countries, based on pure economics theory of absolute and relative advantage, it seems that this theory does not help a country much. Economic reasons aside, any country should be self-sufficient in whatever it needs.

  6. This article makes me understand why my country Kenya of late has been doing well on “text book” economic progress. It is because our president Uhuru Kenyatta is a career management economist kept on his toes by our opposition’s charismatic politician of international reputation, Raila Odinga. Kenya is an almost perfect case study of Economics vs Politics governing forces – economy growth vs good governance; which comes first as a component of socio-economic development?

  7. I can see how the relationship between economics and politics come into play, because usually, every decision made by politicians, will effect the overall economy; but that does not mean that what the economy does effects the political field of politics, because not every situation made in the economy is based upon politics, such as gas prices rising or falling, because politics looks into much more bigger issues that are evolving. Politics can effect the economic view on how people live such as political leaders making deals with countries around the world that make goods for the economy to use, such as the product that say “MADE IN CHINA”.

    • Yes. It looks like David Fisher, CEO & Founder, The Web Lender Portal has copied article without any credit at all.

      • I have plan to write article on the topic of politic vs economic, but I will focus on specific zone, where politics really a factor. This will help me a lot.

  8. I really like how you talked about economics being tied to politics, as evidenced by what economists have a preference in seeing in a society. My brother is going to school for economics and we’ve been having some interesting discussions lately about how some economists want one thing in a society, like the greater equality you mentioned, and others are alright with a large income disparity. What you said about how different economists will report different on such subjects as tax cuts for the rich was very thought-provoking for me and will probably be another topic of discussion for my brother and I.


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