Bryan Caplan  

The Humanity of the Economist

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The Führer of Anti-Market Bias... Reviewing the undercover econo...

A sad, true story: One of my parents' neighbors (allegedly) murdered a transvestite prostitute on Sunday.

NORTHRIDGE - A 50-year-old man who was living in his mother's home in a quiet middle-class neighborhood killed a transvestite prostitute earlier this week with a garden hoe after bringing him back to the house, police said Tuesday.

John Freeman of Northridge had been arrested Sunday on suspicion of murder. Police said his mother was out of town when he picked up the 31-year-old transvestite prostitute Sunday morning and brought him to the house in the 19000 block of Kingsbury Street.

The police don't think it was a hate crime, but it's hard not to wonder.

Hearing about this murder immediately reminded me how Deirdre McCloskey's autobiography Crossing made me very proud to be an economist. By and large, McCloskey found that economists were open-minded and supportive of her choice to change her gender. Here's what happened when McCloskey broke the news to her dean:

His response, after sitting for a moment in slack-jawed amazement, was a stand-up comic routine. "Oh, thank God! I thought you were going to confess to converting to socialism." (Relieved laughter- he was going to react as a friend.) "This is great for our affirmative action program: one fewer man, one more woman" (more laughter). "And wait! I can cut your salary to two-thirds of the male level" (not so funny). And then seriously "That's a strange thing to do. How can I help?" And he did.

I'm not surprised. McCloskey's experience illustrates one of the main features of the economist's ethos. Steve Landsburg nailed it in his essay "Why I Am Not an Environmentalist" from The Armchair Economist [1993, pp. 223-231]:

Economics in the narrowest sense is a science free of values. But economics is also a way of thinking, with an influence on its practitioners that transcends the demands of formal logic. With the diversity of human interests as its subject matter, the discipline of economics is fertile ground for the growth of values like tolerance and pluralism.

In my experience, economists are extraordinary in their openness to alternative preferences, life-styles, and opinions. Judgmental clichés like "the work ethic" and the "virtue of thrift" are utterly foreign to the vocabulary of economics. Our job is to understand human behavior, and understanding is not far distant from respect.

A lot of people think that a world of economists would be a Hobbesian nightmare. But the facts say otherwise: Relatively speaking, these prickly, insensitive economists turn out to be paragons of common decency.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Adam writes:

I have to disagree. Understanding and respect are entirely unrelated.

After all, if you understand that someone is marrying a friend or relative of yours just because they are rich, that doesn't mean that you're going to respect them for it, right?

And likewise, if you understand that there are people who get plastic surgery to look prettier, that doesn't mean that you're going to respect them for it. Beyond that, understanding that there are people who choose to have hormones pumped through them and plastic surgery done so that you can change your gender, not in the biological sense but rather in how you appear (a man will never be able to have a period or give birth, no matter the surgery, right?) because they feel they want to redefine their identity does not necessarily mean that you respect them for it.

I mean, you don't have to think they're bad people, and I certainly don't. I just think they're weird, if I may be so blunt.

But that's ok. A lot of people think I'm weird. We all pass judgment; it would be impossible for us to contextualize things if we did not.

Dan Landau writes:

You absolutely right Brian, it is a great virtue of economics that we don’t decide what other people’s preferences should be. I personally was saddened by Donald M.’s decision to become Deirdre.

The aspect of economist’s respect for people’s choices that I emphasize to students is the following. If the majority repeatedly decides a certain way about some question, they must have a good reason, This is true no matter how crazy their preference seems to us.

daveg writes:

Economics:

The social science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services and with the theory and management of economies or economic systems.

Are you saying that an entire value system can be derived from the study of the production, distribution and consumption of goods? Or are you just saying the study economics is silent on a whole host of values and ethical matters and you are proud not to be bothered with such things?

Paul N writes:

I think the "world of economists" thought experiment is much more interesting than the "everyone has an upward-sloping demand curve" thought experiment over at MR.

Ajay writes:

I have to agree with Adam, this is a person suffering from mental illness. Economists may not make value judgements in their work (there is no economic case against necrophilia) but they certainly are just like everyone else in everyday life, with their own hangups and prejudices. The fact that their practice of economic inquiry makes them more open-minded on average may have some benefits. But it may also have drawbacks like making them more passive when there is true moral injustice. It cuts both ways.

AJ writes:

Economic thinking and education requires that the scientific aproach to knowledge, understanding, testing, and changing your mind be brought to social areas previously dealt with by morals or tradition. Everyone with an economic education has had the experience of calmly considering a value-laden social issue with understanding and analysis that they might previously have dealt with through prejudice or moral thinking. It's similar to the advance of science in understanding the natural world during the last five hundred years where most dealing with the natural world was through superstition, habit, or unexamined ideas. Ultimately it simplifies morality to its more constituent elements. However, the experience of doing this (and perhaps the ability to do so) makes a more tolerant person).

My son's elite private prep school and my alma mater both have tolerance indoctrination as their form of "diversity training." You must be tolerant in the ways we specify. This a mere resorting of the list of what's good and what's bad. A good grounding in economic thinking (not economic conclusions) would be a far better contribution to creating openess and tolerance.

Mike writes:

daveg ...

Where did you pull that silly definition from? It's because of comments like that that folks simply have no idea what economics is all about.

In particular, economics is NOT about theories of managing economies or economic systems, but rather a way to understand how emergent processes and spontaneous order come about in a world characterized by scarcity.

daveg writes:

Where did you pull that silly definition from? It's because of comments like that that folks simply have no idea what economics is all about.

In particular, economics is NOT about theories of managing economies or economic systems, but rather a way to understand how emergent processes and spontaneous order come about in a world characterized by scarcity.

www.dictionary.com.

Regardless as to how bad that definition is, the quesiton still stands. Can you arrive at a complete moral code by "understand[ing] how emergent processes and spontaneous order come about in a world characterized by scarcity."

Does anyone even argue that is the goal of econmoics?

Randy writes:

DaveG,

If you are looking for the convergence of Economics and Ethics, it is this; Ethics must operate within the world of Economics.

I.e, you can't say, we are all equal. You can only say, we "should" all be equal. Economics is what forces you to add the "should".

I think of Economics as the philosophy of the real.

daveg writes:

Interesting. The philosophy of the real. Not bad.

I just wonder how economic principles allow one to come to conclusions such mentally handicapped people are entitled to support from society in general.

I am not implying that economics says we should not support mentally handicapped people. I just don't think it speaks to the issue, or similar "values" issues.

Developing a moral code is beyond economics. Yes, economics can help assist one in developing a moral code, but it not sufficient in itself.

So, while saying "I am glad I work in an area that does not make moral judgments" sounds good, I don't think it is that exciting. At some point you need to make moral judgments and other disciplines are required.

Deirdre McCloskey writes:

Bryan's column mentioning my transition makes an important point--not that my life is a good illustration of that many important points! At the time (1995-1997) I was astonished at the relaxed tolerance that most economists exhibited. I had expected this "conservative" profession to expel me forthwith, and was willing if necessary to abandon my academic career and move to Spokane to become a secretary in a grain elevator. Some of the tolerance was I suppose a thoughtless laissez faire: "He--I mean 'she'--has not hurt anyone, so who cares?" But much was I think a thought-ful laissez faire: "We should as economists assume that other lives are varied and ethically serious, and we should therefore be slow to criticize or to intervene." Thus Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. In a famous passage in Anarchy, State, and Utopia the late Robert Nozick lists 36 names together with "you, and your parents": Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Casey Stengel, The Lubivitcher Rebbe, and so forth. He asks, "Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?"] The political philosopher John Gray declares similarly, "The virtues of the Homeric epic and of the Sermon on the Mount are irreducibly divergent and conflicting, and they express radically different forms of life. There is no Archimedean point of leverage from which they can be judged." That's right, and it is something we need to grasp in our academic economics as much as in our lives.

Gray, John. 1996. Isaiah Berlin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 310

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, p. 45f.

Randy writes:

DaveG,

Since we're discussing moral codes, I think the first question to be answered is; to whom does the moral code apply?

If limited to a group, then actions that benefit the group take precedence over actions that benefit outsiders.

If universal, then the individual is preeminent. Because if the group is everyone, then every individual is equal, and the rights and needs of one do not supercede the rights and needs of another.

Either way, what remains is limited resources, unlimited desires, and competition.

daveg writes:

Either way, what remains is limited resources, unlimited desires, and competition.

So, do you submit that economics is sufficient for a complete moral code? Is that what the "art" is directed towards in academia?

The moral code should apply to all, but that does not mean groups can't exist, or that groups can't have there ownw moral supplemental moral codes.

Chris Bolts writes:

I concur. Economics is a profession that is the most liberal of all the social sciences, but there are those who are trained in economics and seek to make it as conservative as possible, which is what I don't understand. To each his or her own, I guess.

Randy writes:

DaveG,

Re; "So, do you submit that economics is sufficient for a complete moral code?"

First, let me state that I don't accept the premise that a moral code is necessary. A moral code is utilitarian. Its purpose is to further the interests of a group by reinforcing group cohesion. In other words, the purpose of a moral code is to enable a group to compete successfully. And again, a universal moral code has no value because its effect is to make all individuals equal. The only possible universal moral code is the absence of all moral codes.

So now to answer your question. It doesn't take much to make a complete moral code. Any two individuals who agree to behave a certain way with each other have developed a complete moral code. But if that code violates economic laws, it will do little to further the interests of the group. Likewise, the group of citizens of Daveland could agree to a moral code that requires from each according to his needs and to each according to his abilities. Their acceptance of that code won't enable the group to compete successfully.

daveg writes:

First, let me state that I don't accept the premise that a moral code is necessary. A moral code is utilitarian. Its purpose is to further the interests of a group by reinforcing group cohesion. In other words, the purpose of a moral code is to enable a group to compete successfully. And again, a universal moral code has no value because its effect is to make all individuals equal. The only possible universal moral code is the absence of all moral codes.

Why would applying the universial moral code of, for example, property rights make all individuals equal?

Also, the simple "moral" code that one person can't kill another innocent person is a potentially universal code that doesn't make all individuals equal.

Not sure where you are coming from here.

Randy writes:

DaveG,

Property rights and murder. Very good examples. Both are utilized by a group to defend itself against other groups or individuals. Neither is universal as there are groups and individuals who do violate property rights and there are people who murder. Further, each is conditional on group membership. Groups frequently do not apply the same standards concerning either when in competition with other groups.

Bottom line, a universal moral code is imaginary. But if we choose to imagine a world in which every individual grants exactly the same rights to every other individual, then we imagine a world of pure equality. And if we imagine a world of pure equality, we can't imagine it for long without factoring in limited resources, unlimited desires, and competition. Even an imaginary universal moral code is unstable.

daveg writes:

Are you just arguing that becuase there is no world government then these moral codes are not universal?

Or, are you arguing things like war violate the universality?

Examples would be helpful at this point.

Randy writes:

DaveG,

The latter, things like war violate the universality. One can say that we all believe war is "wrong", but it isn't true.

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