Bryan Caplan  

Aren't Faux-Agnostic Economists Just Following Tyler's Advice?

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I'm glad that Tyler's criticizing faux-agnostic economists, but I'm enough of a spoilsport to point out that he previously advised his readers to closet their inner economists - at least to their families.


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fundamentalist writes:

I think Hayek's insight that we should have two different sets of economic principles applies here. Hayek wrote that applying the economics of family and tribe to markets is disastrous (results in socialism), while applying market economics to families and tribes would destroy both. faux-agnostics seem to be ignoring Hayek's wisdom.

I realize that Tyler doesn't like to reduce every issue to what some Austrian icon had to say about it, but people like me will continue to throw the wisdoms of the ancients in his face until he absorbs a tad bit of it.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I think the crux of Tyler's argument is this:
"It is not defensible to hold such views but, under the cloak of a not-really-meant agnosticism, refuse to put them on the social science table, so to speak."

But I think the point is that insofar as people make policy decisions based on ethical standards, these decisions aren't necessarily amenable to the social science table. Tyler laments that "they just don't want their personal views subject to full analytic scrutiny", but part of the problem is that the "analytic scrutiny" is usually conducted using irrelevant analytic standards.

An economist can look at something at child labor and say that in terms of the economics discipline, there's nothing really wrong with it. We shouldn't have age limits on working, etc. - every economy passes through a stage where child labor is needed for development, etc. etc. If you have a moral antipathy to child labor, why would you submit that moral position to the "analytic scrutiny" that doesn't take morality into account? I never really thought much about the issue before, but I'd probably have some discomfort with child labor. That doesn't mean I'd share this fundamentally moral judgement in an economics seminar, because it strikes me as a non sequitor. You could call that "agnosticism". I think it's simply a recognition that Tyler's "social science table" isn't the best arbitrator for all questions of practice or policy (although obviously I think it's a good one for most!).

I see this in the health care debate a lot too. A wide swath of economists can agree on the deadweight losses associated with mandates or the inefficiencies associated with the public option. You can acknowledge that and still support mandates (I don't) or the public option (I do, with caveats) because of perceived moral imperatives. That doesn't make you an agnostic. When an economist hesitates if you ask them "do you support the public option", I don't think that should be frustrating at all. when an economist hesitates if you ask them "what do you think the economic effect of a public option would be", that would be somewhat more disconcerting.

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