Friday, January 28, 2011

Ethical economists again...

Alex Tabarrok at marginal revolution applauds Glaeser's take on the ethical basis of economics and quotes a text-book he has co-authored with Tyler Cowen which he claims makes a similar point (see below).

In this case, I'd make the point that their "take" is only superficially similar. It presupposes more. Glaeser's point was that you make an assumption when you jump from "the person chose A over B" to "A is better for the person than B," and that "preferences" before you make this jump refer to nothing more than what you would observe the person choosing. Cowen and Tabarrok, on the other hand, write as though they've already made this jump.More specifically, they seem to beg the question when they state that economists don't second-guess people's "preferences" and do "not regard some preferences as better than others" and don't mind it if people "like" wrestling better than opera. Choice, here, is already taken as (always??) an expression of what serves the choosing person's actual tastes and judgments best.

Even though the predictions of economics are independent of any ethical theory, there are ethical ideas behind normative economic reasoning. An economist who rejects the idea of exploitation in kidney purchases, for example, is treating the seller of kidneys with respect—as a person who is capable of choosing for himself or herself even in difficult circumstances.

Similarly, economists don’t second-guess people’s preferences very much. If people like wrestling more than opera, then so be it; the economist, acting as economist, does not regard some preferences as better than others. In normative terms, economists once again tend to respect people’s choices.

None of this it to say that economists are always right in their ethical assumptions. As we warned you in the beginning, this chapter has more questions than answers. But the ethical views of economists—respect for individual choice and preference, support for voluntary trade, and equality of treatment—are all ethical views with considerable grounding and support in a wide variety of ethical and religious traditions.


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