David R. Henderson  

Values are Subjective

What makes you think Li knows ... Media, Misanthropy, Murder, an...

As I've often mentioned on this blog, at the start of every course I teach, I cover The Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom. I tell my students that the 3rd pillar tends to be the hardest one for people to grasp but that, once they grasp it, they find that it's very powerful.

But the 7th pillar, "The value of a good or service is subjective," turns out to be harder to grasp than I thought. I watched about 2.5 hours of the Republican candidates "debate" last night: the first 2 hours live and then, with a break to watch Jeopardy, the last half hour. On Facebook this morning, I saw that a political scientist friend, who has shown himself highly economically literate, wrote the following:

No, I did not watch the debate last night. I'm confused about why intelligent people do, since they all know it's primarily for entertainment purposes, and has next-to-nothing to do with governing ability.

As is my policy with Facebook posts, I will not name him because I don't have permission to do so.

He's probably right that the debate "has next-to-nothing to do with governing ability." I won't challenge that statement.

But what caught my attention was the idea that intelligent people shouldn't watch it because "it's primarily for entertainment purposes." I'm sure he's right that many watchers watch it for entertainment purposes and maybe CNN, especially given some of the absurd questions asked, such as whose face should be on the $10 bill, does the event for entertainment purposes. But, and here's where Pillar #7 comes in, each of us has his or her own purpose.

My purpose was not entertainment, although I got some of that. My purpose was to judge the candidates' honesty and to know more about where they stood on issues. So, for example, when so many Republicans and neo-conservatives are trying to make people afraid of Obama's agreement with Iran, would any of the candidates say anything positive about that agreement? One, Rand Paul, did. Another, John Kasich, didn't go for the red-meat answer.

Or, to take another example, would any candidates say that because the leader of a government of another country does evil, he or she, as President, would not meet with that leader. And, if someone did say that, would any of the candidates remind the audience, while standing in front of Reagan's Air Force One, that that's exactly what Ronald Reagan did? Some candidates, Carly Fiorina being the fiercest one, did say that she wouldn't meet with Putin. Rand Paul said he would and that talking is generally good.

Or take marijuana. Rand Paul has been a leader in pointing out that people like Jeb Bush can get away with smoking marijuana as a teenager or young man but that many others in society are not so lucky. Would Rand Paul speak up about that and, if he did, what would Jeb Bush say? I want to know. Why do I want to know? I just do. Values are subjective.

And I learned a lot on that issue. Rand Paul did raise the issue and point out the differential treatment accorded people like Jeb Bush. And Jeb Bush admitted that he had smoked marijuana, while still arguing for laws that would potentially put people in prison for doing what he did. Also, I found it interesting that the only fear that Bush expressed was his fear of his mother's disapproval. I think a lot of people in America could handle fear of their mothers' disapproval if they smoked marijuana but that the bigger fear for many is that they would be charged with a crime. I think Bush's humor and the snickering in the audience showed really just how juvenile Jeb Bush and many of the audience were.

And I haven't covered everything I learned last night.

Back to Pillar #7. It's sometimes hard for people to grasp many of the implications of the pillar. If person A says he disapproves of person B's taste, that does not necessarily show a failure to grasp the pillar. But if person A says that person C has said what a TV show is about and, therefore, why would person C ever want to watch it, that does show a failure to grasp an important implication of Pillar #7.

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Phil writes:

I agree wholeheartedly with your notion that number 7 is hard for students to grasp.

But, knowing you grasp the The Pillars, I am drawn to the first: TANSTAAFL. I am surprised you found that watching 3 hours of "debate" among many marginally viable candidates a long 14 months before the election was worth the opportunity cost. I honestly thought you valued your time more than that.

I guess we all have our dalliances. Back to Number 7.

Charlie writes:

"My purpose was to judge the candidates' honesty and to know more about where they stood on issues"

Gordon Tullock is still very confused, why do you want this? You know your vote doesn't matter, right? Maybe because you ha a blog though...

Taips writes:

Considering that

8. Creating jobs is not the same as creating wealth
is just
4. The only way to create wealth is to move resources from a lower-valued to a higher-valued use
where resource = time effort and deadweight loss of taxation if applicable
lower-valued use = sustaining a job contrary to comparative advantage
higher-valued use = leisure, or alternative occupations, whichever is better,

Why do you give 8 its own pillar?
PS I couldn't necro the original post so I am commenting here. I am aware this is not relevant to the post itself.

Colombo writes:

I know of some people that reject this idea of subjective value because they think it implies ethical nihilism.
I don't know if the value of a good or service is subjective, but whenever I talk with people who believe that things have objective values I ask them to give me one example, and that results in a conversation stopper, or a subject changer. Then some people start over again with the labor-value theory, and I start snoring.
Isn't it funny how many people believe the LVT is true, but reject the concept of property?

James Hanley writes:

Your decision to keep me anonymous further increases my respect for you. But I'll out myself and agree to your point. I wrote incautiously.

Ironically, I frequently emphasize the subjectivity of value, including just the previous day in my Globalization class. So I can't even plead ignorance as an excuse, just sloppiness.

I think what I really meant was that I don't understand why intelligent people treat them as meaningful exercises in judging candidates' capacity to govern. I've organized debates for state legislature-level candidates before, and because local elections get less play in our media (at least where I'm at) and perhaps because there was no television, the candidates performed seriously and the public learned much about the candidates.

But presidential candidates generally receive considerable media attention,and except for a newcomer like Fiorina, it's hard for the political observer to not know what they stand for. Can new things be learned in the debates, as Mr. Henderson argues? Certainly, but I think the ratio of substance to silliness is too low to take the debates seriously as a on-net productive approach to democratic choice.

But admittedly I do not find them entertaining myself, as feeling as though my head is about to explode for hours on end isn't my idea of entertainment, and that subjective valuation led me astray in my writing. As a guy who's just made plans to go to the demolition derby next weekend, who the hell am I to sneer at the idea of intelligent people watching someone just for entertainment value!?

Daublin writes:

Of the ways to be entertained, maybe this isn't a bad one. You seem to largely agree with your critics, though, David. You even took a break when Jeopardy came on, when a better form of entertainment rolled around!

As a thought experiment, what would you think of someone cancelling a couple of hours of their ordinary office work and watching the debates from 10:00am to noon on a work day? When I try that thought experiment, my mind rebels. I can think of many, many things that are better to spend time on if I'm trying to be productive.

As another thought experiment, do you really believe that any of the candidates simply won't even talk to Vladimir Putin? I find that hard to imagine, just like it's hard for me to picture Barack Obama closing Guantamo or stopping the drone bombings, no matter what he said in the debates.

J Hanley writes:

As the culprit to whom David refers, I wrote a longish response earlier, but it hasn't appeared, and I'm wondering if it's still in moderation (I didn't swear at him, I promise!) or if it disappeared into the ether (perhaps I accidentally hit the "cancel" button, which is located inconveniently close to the "submit" button, especially given how small the buttons are on my phone and how clumsy my fingers are)?

Hazel Meade writes:

This reminds me of how I evolved from a point where I would read Time and Newsweek every week for the news, to when I would follow specific issues online, and then read Time and Newsweek to find out what Time and Newsweek were saying about these issues.

Some people watch the debates because they think they are going to see which candidate "wins". After a while, you watch the debates to gauge the spin.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

"...the differential treatment accorded people like Jeb Bush."

Perhaps I'm missing something, but what was the differential treatment accorded "people like Jeb Bush"? Is it the fact that Bush (and others "like him") didn't get caught, that constitutes "differential treatment"? And, is the implication that those "others" are "like" Bush merely because they didn't get caught, or is there some other distinguishing, common characteristic that is here left unstated? For example, did Bush actually get caught and released because of his wealth and position? That seems to be the innuendo (and quite successfully played at that), but it does not appear to be the case factually.

Shall we release all burglars, arsonists and larcenists because many others (of whatever social and/or economic class) were "lucky" enough not to get caught? Or, even if they did get caught, had better lawyers?

If I'm not mistaken, Jeb's brother George was arrested and plead guilty to DUI. He also stole a Christmas wreath while at Yale. Are these valid arguments that George W. should therefore be an advocate for legalising DUI and larceny?

There must be more to this argument about marijuana and "people like Jeb Bush"..

eric writes:

That marijuana laws are a priority suggests that Paul wouldn't be a good President. Good idea, but our biggest problem/opportunity is not legalizing marijuana. Reminds me of libertarians who talk too long about the Gold standard.

Brian writes:


Regarding the idea that values are subjective, I think I disagree for the following reasons. First, subjectivity implies that we don't all agree on the question "What is the value of x?" But I think we CAN all agree on whether a particular person values something or not. We might all agree, for example, that you value political debates, though perhaps not as much as Jeopardy. The value TO YOU is objectively determined. I think what you really mean to say is that "value is personal." That is, it depends on an individual's tastes and unique incentives.

But even if "value is personal" is the more accurate rendering, there's still an objective quality to it. We can analyze your behavior and determine whether your choices are logically consistent with your stated values. And we can all agree (objectively) on how logically consistent you are. So I would argue that value is both objective and personal. Presumably it can also be subjective at times (we don't all agree on how much something is valued), but it cannot be defined as being solely subjective.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Vivian Darkbloom,
Shall we release all burglars, arsonists and larcenists because many others (of whatever social and/or economic class) were "lucky" enough not to get caught? Or, even if they did get caught, had better lawyers?
And the reason is that all of those people violated other people’s rights. The marijuana user, qua marijuana user, does not. Do you see the difference?

David R. Henderson writes:

That marijuana laws are a priority suggests that Paul wouldn't be a good President. Good idea, but our biggest problem/opportunity is not legalizing marijuana. Reminds me of libertarians who talk too long about the Gold standard.
Are you suggesting that Rand Paul should have refused to answer the question that Jake Tapper asked him?
And, by the way, he spent substantial time on foreign policy.

JJ writes:

"That marijuana laws are a priority suggests that Paul wouldn't be a good President. Good idea, but our biggest problem/opportunity is not legalizing marijuana. Reminds me of libertarians who talk too long about the Gold standard."

How is not a priority? Hundreds of thousands of people being locked up in a cage over a victimless crime? How is something like minimum wage a real issue but drugs not? I would rather lose my job due to a minimum wage then become imprisoned.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:


Of course, I see a difference, but that wasn't the point of Rand's comment or the one you made in the above post.

How does this connect with "differential treatment of people like Bush"? You can make a victimless crime argument without invoking "people like Bush", can't you? Isn't invoking that a red herring if your real argument is that marijuana use is a victimless crime? And, why didn't Rand Paul use that argument if it is the real basis for advocating legalisation of marijuana? Again, the point you made in your post was about differential treatment---not about victimless crimes, so I think you are somewhat conveniently changing the argument. But, of course, that was my original point---there *must* be more to the argument than the fact that someone didn't get caught.

John T. Kennedy writes:

David, Do you mean all values are subjective, including all moral values?

For instance would it be merely subjectively wrong to torture innocents for fun?

David R. Henderson writes:

@John T. Kennedy,
David, Do you mean all values are subjective, including all moral values?
No. That’s why the statement of the pillar is “The value of a good or service is subjective.” BTW, when I teach this, I make that point very clear.

Greg Jaxon writes:

Moral valuation vs market valuation
A natural-born killer may very well subjectively value others' lives well below what we typically hold to be the moral value of a life. Her individual valuation just does not constitute a moral evaluation.

Values that are subjective can acquire an objective quality when they make substantive appeal to objectively observable facts (e.g., the stability of the world's gold stock) and when they submit to the collective judgments of others (e.g., points of the Common Law). I suspect that Moral Values seem to be universally true because they've evolved as a consensus of subjective valuations. Aristotle or Pope Francis might argue that they existed a priori somehow, and perhaps that is the best way to insure their universal acceptance. But whether it is how humans minds actually formulated them... I doubt that we're born somehow having moral values locked into our human nature. Instead we discover our nature by observing the vast numbers of humans we meet and the laws of the societies we've formed. It comes to almost the same thing, but permits an evolution of moral perspectives, which is also what we observe. Relativism is ruled out because every valuation occurs within an objectively real context at a particular time and place, where a definite code of morals exists.

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