Moral Economists?

Nancy Folbre has written a blog piece on social responsibility and the logic of economics.  Her piece is a response to Ed Glaeser’s post about the moral heart of economics.    To quote his piece; “Economists are often wary of moral exhortation, as many see the harm so often wrought by arguments that are long on passion and short on sense. But don’t think that our discipline doesn’t have a moral spine beneath all the algebra. That spine is a fundamental belief in freedom.”

In reading their respective pieces, I have realized that I’m still not a good philsopher. Now that I’m a middle aged scholar I thought that I would have acquired some wisdom about the age old questions but that ain’t true.    Folbre makes some nice points about how to embed Glaeser’s vision into an overlapping generations framework.  When you are born, you are not “free to choose”.  Your parents make decisions for you and you slowly acquire your freedom. You make your adult choices and shocks to your health, your earnings and your parents’ health affect the realities you face.  When you are old, you begin to lose freedom as you delegate choices to others over your lifestyle, finances and daily activities.   

The cliche among economists is that each person on our diverse planet has his/her own conception of the “good life” and that free market capitalism is the only system that co-ordinates our varied desires without there being war and Mad Max style competition for resources.   I believe this.

At the same time, Prof. Folbre wants to start a property rights debate. What do we owe each other?  If I pay my taxes and don’t commit crimes, do I owe anyone anything else?   Most economists would say “no”.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

2 thoughts on “Moral Economists?”

  1. Of course they would, which is why reasonable people do not go to economists for moral reasoning.

    Property rights do not define themselves. And in their defining a vision of appropriate relationships is implied. For example, light, smells, sounds all cross boundaries. At what point are the boundaries considered to be violated? This is a moral and political question, not an economic one. It is usually regarded as ultimately a political question.

    In addition, the market is not a neutral transmitter of our choices. It selects some values as more easily transmitted than others, which is why economic reasoning alone, important as it is, is not an adequate basis for any moral system for human beings. For example, within the market things are valued as means, which means that values regarded as intrinsic or inherent do not get as much expression. Of course one can argue there are no intrinsic/inherent values, but that is a moral argument, and not a very satisfying one. Even if one holds all values are instrumental, one would admit that those people who hold values as inherent/intrinsic will not find them adequately expressed.

  2. Oddly, when I read Folbre's piece, I didn't pick up on any desire "to start a property rights debate". I did not see the word, "property", or the word, "rights". I saw a thoughtful piece about humans, as social animals, both empowered by and dependent on complex systems of social cooperation, which encompass family and community as well as markets and, I suppose, bureaucracies. Overlapping generations? Perhaps. But, maybe also hints about how security and insurance and altruism and trust and power figure alongside the delights of rugged individualism. I suspect that Professor Folbre was having a bit of a dig at Professor Glaeser's liberal use of quotations from Adam Smith, by framing her observations to accord with the framework of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

    I haven't done a survey, so I won't claim to know what "most" economists would say on any question. If it were a healthy academic discipline, there would be sharp disagreement about solutions to unsolved problems. I don't question the right and need for any academic to have a point-of-view. I do wonder, though, whether it is healthy to identify a single point-of-view with the settled consensus of a profession, even if a plurality adopt that point-of-view. I would not want to suppress advocacy of "free market capitalism" in Economics, but, in the present state of our shared knowledge, shouldn't Economists be disagreeing about the design of mechanisms for an imperfect work-in-progress, not sharing a faith in the ideal qualities of an abstract counterfactual?

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