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My Imagined Yet Realistic Debate Between Michael Sandel And The Economics World…

November 24th, 2012 · 146 Comments
Behavioral Econ · Uncategorizable

I am familiar with philosopher Michael Sandel mainly because his Justice course is often in competition with Greg Mankiw’s Ec10 for the title of largest undergraduate course at Harvard. (I think this is the case because both of them satisfy some sort of Social Analysis core requirement, but I am not aware of the details.) Therefore, it’s somewhat fitting that I read some of his writing and immediately envision a debate between him and a number of economists that goes something like the following:

Sandel: Today, we often confuse market reasoning for moral reasoning. We fall into thinking that economic efficiency—getting goods to those with the greatest willingness and ability to pay for them—defines the common good. But this is a mistake.

Esther Duflo: If this were true, why would I be wasting my time thinking about how best to get stuff to poor people? Clearly they don’t have the greatest willingness and ability to pay for, well, anything. (Editor’s note: While it is true that economic efficiency, as a starting point, is defined by stuff going to those with the greatest willingness and ability to pay, it’s not like all economists are philosophical simpletons who don’t recognize that income inequality and other factors can make interpersonal comparisons of value as measured by willingness to pay difficult. See here for People’s Exhibit A. But that’s an excuse to tweak the models, definitions, and recommended policies rather than throw them out entirely. Furthermore, I think that lump-sum taxes- taxes where everyone pays the same amount regardless of wealth or income- prove nicely that economists do not contend that what is efficient is fair, since I don’t hear any economists calling for this sort of policy.)

(Note: Updated to include additional data points.)

Ben Friedman: Okay fine, I did write a book entitled The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, and I did make the argument that there are positive moral spillovers from economic growth, but if I just assumed that economic efficiency and moral good were one and the same, would I have bothered to write 592 pages about it? Let’s chat- after all, my office is only a couple hundred feet from yours.

Sandel: Consider the case for a free market in human organs—kidneys, for example. Textbook economic reasoning makes such proposals hard to resist. If a buyer and a seller can agree on a price for a kidney, the deal presumably makes both parties better off. The buyer gets a life-sustaining organ, and the seller gets enough money to make the sacrifice worthwhile. The deal is economically efficient in the sense that the kidney goes to the person who values it most highly.

But this logic is flawed, for two reasons. First, what looks like a free exchange might not be truly voluntary. In practice, the sellers of kidneys would likely consist of impoverished people desperate for money to feed their families or educate their children. Their choice to sell would not really be free, but coerced, in effect, by their desperate condition.

Al Roth: Sigh. *rolls eyes and shines Nobel Prize* On the up side, it’s because of people like you that I am sitting on a pile of Swedish cash. (Editor’s note: So I can go work in a coal mine to support my family but I can’t sell a kidney? I have a feeling I’m going to be pretty pissed off when I look up the rates of negative outcomes for those two cases. Also, by Sendel’s logic, I am coerced to go to work every day, so somebody has really got to step in and protect me from that. Anyone? Bueller?)

Dick Thaler: You’re right in that the market for kidneys is likely not a properly functioning market…but that’s mainly because the endowment effect makes people unreasonably unwilling to part with their kidneys. If only we were “free” to not be irrationally loss averse…

Sandel: The second limitation to market reasoning is about how to value the good things in life. A deal is economically efficient if both parties consider themselves better off as a result. But this overlooks the possibility that one (or both) of the parties may value the things they exchange in the wrong way. For example, one might object to the buying and selling of kidneys—even absent crushing poverty—on the grounds that we should not treat our bodies as instruments of profit, or as collections of spare parts. Similar arguments arise in debates about the moral status of prostitution. Some say that selling sex is degrading, even in cases where the choice to do so is not clouded by coercion.

Every Economist Ever: The “wrong way?????” Who in the hell are you to tell people what they “should” be valuing? Some economists may try to account for tastes, but none of us are presumptuous enough to tell anyone what their tastes should be. (Editor’s note: As a personal example, people can tell me that I *should* value a white picket fence and 2.2 kids, and I might even see the logic in the argument. That doesn’t mean, however, that such items would actually make me happy. If there were significant positive externalities to me having the fence and the kids, I might understand and accept being herded to this outcome, but, absent those side effects, I find little justification, moral or economic, to legislating based on values.)

Behavioral Economists: Okay, we get it, people are sometimes irrational and don’t always act in their long-term best interests. We’re working on understanding the nature of short-sightedness and how people could be helped by various forms of commitment devices or nudges to better align their incentives with their long-term happiness. But that is very different from saying “I arbitrarily think that this is immoral, therefore you shouldn’t do it.”

Sandel: Increasingly, we accept this way of thinking and apply it to all manner of public policies and social relations. But the economistic view of the world is corrosive of democratic life. It makes for an impoverished public discourse, and a managerial, technocratic politics.

Every Economist Ever: You object to the term “incentivise” but just willingly used “economistic?” (Or were you coerced? By your logic, it’s hard to tell sometimes.) Also, people would have to listen to economists and think way more like economists than they actually do in order for this claim to be credible. But hey, thanks for giving us the benefit of the doubt on our public relevance.

Sandel: Consider the growing use of cash incentives to solve social problems. The NHS is experimenting with what some have called “health bribes”—cash rewards to people for losing weight, quitting smoking, or taking their prescribed medications. In the United States, some school districts have tried to improve academic achievement among disadvantaged students by offering them cash rewards for good grades, high test scores, or reading books. A charity that operates in the US and the UK offers drug-addicted women £200 to be sterilised, or to accept long-term birth control devices.

As ruler of the world, I would not necessarily abolish these schemes. But I would insist that we ask, in each case, whether the cash incentive might degrade the goods at stake, or drive out non-market attitudes worth caring about. For example, if we pay kids to read books, do we simply add an additional incentive to whatever motivations may already exist? Or, do we teach them that reading is a chore, and so run the risk of corrupting or crowding out the intrinsic love of learning?

Behavioral Economists: DO YOU NOT READ OUR BLOG???? (picture them saying that a la Barney in How I Met Your Mother) As People’s Exhibits B and C, we would like to point you to the following:

James Heyman and Dan Ariely, “Effort For Payment: A Tale of Two Markets”

The standard model of labor is one in which individuals trade their time and energy in return for monetary rewards. Building on Fiske’s relational theory (1992), we propose that there are two types of markets that determine relationships between effort and payment: monetary and social. We hypothesize that monetary markets are highly sensitive to the magnitude of compensation, whereas social markets are not. This perspective can shed light on the well-established observation that people sometimes expend more effort in exchange for no payment (a social market) than they expend when they receive low payment (a monetary market). Three experiments support these ideas. The experimental evidence also demonstrates that mixed markets (markets that include aspects of both social and monetary markets) more closely resemble monetary than social markets.

Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, “Pay Enough or Don’t Pay at All”

Economists usually assume that monetary incentives improve performance, and psychologists claim that the opposite may happen. We present and discuss a set of experiments designed to test these contrasting claims.

We found that the effect of monetary compensation on performance was not monotonic. In the treatments in which money was offered, a larger amount yielded a higher performance. However, offering money did not always produce an improvement: subjects who were offered monetary incentives performed more poorly than those who were offered no compensation. Several possible interpretations of the results are discussed.

Put simply, these are but two examples where economists are trying to understand exactly what it is that you claim we assume away- namely, the ways in which monetary compensation crowds out intrinsic motivation and satisfaction. The difference is that we’re busting our humps trying to actually gather data in order to understand how people think rather than just speculate on how they might think and then suggesting using such speculation as a blunt policy tool.

Sendel exhibits a consistent theme of wanting to revamp economics textbooks in order to incorporate philosophy and moral reasoning. Based on what I’ve read, what he really seems to want is economics textbooks to incorporate more of what economists actually think and actually do.

Tags: Behavioral Econ · Uncategorizable

146 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BoZimmerman // Nov 24, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I was so excited to cheer this article that I haven’t gotten around to reading all the links yet, so forgive any repetition. So, first the cheering: Good stuff — maybe my favorite article here. It seems like some amount of frustration brought out the best.

    As an aside, on the monetary/social compensation question: the story of the Isreali day-care dealing with late-pickups came to mind as an example of counter-productive monetary incentives. But the most straightforward research I heard about suggests that monetary incentives can increase Effort, but not Outcomes. If yours is an industry where Effort increases Outcomes, then money wins. However, if yours is an industry where creativity, or certain kinds of mystery solving make increased effort counter-productive, money loses.

    Ok, more reading to do — cheers!

  • 2 econgirl // Nov 24, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks! I will provide some sources for the examples that you mention. The Israeli day-care center experiment- where fines actually increased rather than decreased the number of parents arriving late- is mentioned in the “Pay Enough or Don’t Pay at All” paper, but it is covered fully in a paper by the same authors entitled “A Fine Is a Price.”

    The other point about monetary incentives and effort relates most closely to findings written about Dan Pink in “Drive” that show that monetary incentives can increase effort but not creativity or resourcefulness. In every case, these are issues that social science researchers are actively exploring rather than just assuming away or deeming as not relevant to concepts of economic efficiency or whatever.

  • 3 Mike Fladlien // Nov 25, 2012 at 7:32 am

    This is an excellent post. I love Michael Sandel and use his What is Justice series in my law class. I have often wondered if Mr. Sandel has gotten the economics wrong, however. Still, his logic does explain some human behavior so you can discount it.

  • 4 uair01 // Nov 25, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Also, by Sendel’s logic, I am coerced to go to work every day …

    Also by Marx´s logic: you are free to work for some capitalist employer (the case for most of us) or free to starve. And this imbalance of power is clearly noticeable in many places (see: Walmart). The more “disposable” the worker is the easier it is for the employer to dictate wage and terms of employment.

    I forget the exact philosopher (Kant?) who said that limiting your own freedom (going to work) is freedom too, but only if you can make this choice freely.

    I fear I will get a terrible scientific bashing from you for this remark (I’m just a layman) but I couldn’t resist …

  • 5 joya // Nov 25, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Just a brief reply on one point:

    “Every Economist Ever: The “wrong way?????” Who in the hell are you to tell people what they “should” be valuing? Some economists may try to account for tastes, but none of us are presumptuous enough to tell anyone what their tastes should be.”

    It need not be that Sandel is here telling people what they ought to value. It might nevertheless be the case that some things ought to be valued. (It also need not be true, and almost certainly is not, that one arbitrarily thinks some things moral and some immoral, as you go on to say below the quoted passage.)

    It then assumes a further point at issue between you and Sandel to go on to identify the objects of value with tastes.

    You might disagree with Sandel’s conclusions about justice and markets (as, in fact, I do), but your version of economists’ reply here is too quick.

  • 6 econgirl // Nov 25, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    @ uair01: I’m not sure that I see your point- every econ 101 textbook that I am aware of will go through how monopolies are not socially efficient because of the market power that the single firm in the market has. By similar logic, a monopsony (one large buyer) in labor markets is not socially optimal either, so it’s not like economists are all rah-rah Walmart on this issue. And commitment-device-advocates such as Thaler, Sunstein, and (expecially) Ayres are very much on board with Kant as you paraphrase him.

    On a personal level, I usually find myself pointing out to people that they actually have more choices than they seem to acknowledge in a lot of cases, they just might not have a lot of choices at the wage they want in the field they want in the location they want. This doesn’t mean that they “have” to do anything, however. (I will admit that this point is generally not taken well, since it’s usually in the context of “you don’t *have* to work for a bank, you could move to a smaller place and work at Starbucks.” But seriously, that flexibility is quite liberating, even if it’s hypothetical.)

  • 7 econgirl // Nov 25, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    @ Mike: My impression is that Sandel read a not very enlightened Econ 101 textbook (and nothing else) and is using it as a straw man.

  • 8 Saturos // Nov 25, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Jodi, are you sure you never took philosophy? You’re not bad yourself!

    With efficiency, I don’t like it when economists sell one of their fundamental tools short. It is *extremely* useful to be able to talk about optimal allocations of resources >for a given distribution of income/purchasing power<. Hicks-compensated demand curves illustrate this most clearly. Marshall’s arguments were that K-H improvements (or “increases in total surplus” as he put it) should be generally favoured since if you favor them as a rule then in the end everyone benefits after you net them out. But that sounds suspiciously Kantian to me.

    I like to emphasize that eg. with free trade although in the short run there are losers, in the long run the grandchildren of those losers will be far better off along with everyone else (people can move between sectors). When you think of the Luddites, think also of their descendants. More generally everyone benefits from policy that ultimately increases efficiency more than inequality. Plus, transfers.

    I think the main problem with Sandel is that he doesn’t get that economists are trying to do science. We use utility to predict what individual people are going to do, what interactions that will produce and what that will result in society looking like. We don’t necessarily have to get mired down in the age-old yarn about whether a poor person is really free or not (though I would suggest that the working-girl who has her job taken away thanks to Sandel’s preaching is certainly less free). Honestly it’s nearly as bad as arguing about metaphysical freedom. We should emphasize that all our data as well as our personal experience supports the notion that grown-ups generally have clear notions as to what they think is good for themselves, and worth giving stuff up to get, and if you support people attaining their revealed preferences then here’s how to maximize their utility. If you want.

    Btw love your pic of reading Mankiw to the donkey… was it a Democrat? Also – your videos rule! (I’m a subscriber.)

    Oh and congratulations I notice you just got linked to on MR.

  • 9 Saturos // Nov 25, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Mike and Jodi, probably not as bad as what happened with David Suzuki:

    Do you think Sandel would condone these?

    Btw, as great as your piece is, Deirdre McCloskey had an even more brilliant takedown of Sandel earlier on:

    And here’s Tom Palmer:

  • 10 Saturos // Nov 25, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Sorry, a lot of links in that last one. (They’re all good, I promise!)

  • 11 econgirl // Nov 25, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I like all of these links. 🙂 I think the more I read, the more I get the impression that the idea of taking away prices allows people to fool themselves into thinking that scarcity goes away as well.

  • 12 uair01 // Nov 25, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks for your reply, I’ll try to look up some of the names you mention (totally unknown to me) because they might have interesting things to say.

    Just a detail:
    I tried to follow your blog from my blogspot dashboard and it does not see your recent posts. The newest post I see on my subscription is from 2009. Maybe something is not working (RSS-feed maybe)?

  • 13 BoZimmerman // Nov 25, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Second the thanks to Saturos — Deidre McCloskey rawks.

  • 14 econgirl // Nov 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    @ uair01: The blogspot blog only exists up until 2009- what you are looking at here is running on a WordPress framework via a hosting provider. That said, there are plenty of ways to subscribe/connect/etc., and most of them are listed on the top right hand side of the page. (I will admit, though, that I’m still not quite sure what I’m supposed to be doing with Tumblr.)

    I recommend starting with Ian Ayres’ book “Carrots and Sticks” or some of his related academic writing if you are interested in thinking about commitment devices.

  • 15 Ryan Cousineau // Nov 25, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    I’m mostly in concord with Joya’s point above: when Sandel says “…the parties may value the things they exchange in the wrong way”, which your behavioral economists read as “I arbitrarily think that this is immoral, therefore you shouldn’t do it,” well, except for the “arbitrary” part, that is exactly the argument of a great many, um, how to put this? Moral prescriptivists?

    (I am a moral prescriptivist*.)

    There are definitely seriously held, and more or less defensible beliefs all across the usual political spectra, from Marxists to Christians to advocates of universal suffrage**, who arrive at the principle that some things are Just Wrong, and should not be permitted, be it private ownership of the means of production, prostitution, or the sale of one’s vote.***

    This also ties to Sandel’s initial point about confusing market reasoning with moral reasoning.

    *moral prescriptivist I may be, but make no mistake: I like free-market economics. My intuition is that the exceptional cases are indeed exceptional, but they do exist.

    **is there an economic argument against direct bidding on election results, instead of one-man-one-vote?

    ***I guess you could say, simply, that the price for these things should be manipulated by taxes that capture the externalities, but to give what I’m guessing is a common straw-man against pricing everything, there’s surely a strong moral instinct that there are certain jail sentences which one should not be able to buy one’s way out of at any price. Maybe the counterargument is the Pigouvian tax on major-crime jail time just has to be a billion dollars a day, but can I make a Straussian argument that even if that’s the fair, market-clearing price, it is more intuitive and instructive* to forbid the market rather than explain to the back side of the bell curve why it’s ok to buy your way out of jail time?

  • 16 Eric Rasmusen // Nov 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    “but none of us are presumptuous enough to tell anyone what their tastes should be”

    We actually are that presumptuous. Most economists say they don’t do it, but then they, like anyone else, looks down on certain other people’s tastes. They just don’t care enough about those people’s welfare to bother to try to correct them. An economist with children, though, will harshly criticize their tastes and try to change them if the child likes heroin, or decides to become a prostitute, or to consume all of his savings in one blowout party, or to commit suicide.

    True, when we criticize other people’s tastes we are for the most part outside of our expertise, though not necessarily— Orley Ashenfelter knows a lot about wine, for example. So I do think it’s fair to say that economic theory alone is not the basis for criticizing tastes.

  • 17 Brian Donohue // Nov 26, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Just stumbled on this blog. Excellent post!

    After poking around ‘about the site’ I predict great things for you.

  • 18 Oy. // Nov 26, 2012 at 3:43 am

    AAAGH. Come on, Jodi. I usually really like your posts, but this one felt like lousy sex and I’m going to be a whiny bitch about it because I think Sandel does good work, even if his crusade to educate the masses about creeping “economism” or whatever amounts to a fool’s errand (albeit a relatively lucrative one, I bet).

    If I had more time I’d do the work of modeling what a thoughtful critique of Sandel would look like — in particular, interpreting him charitably and at least attempting to translate his arguments into an economis — but I have papers to grade.

    I leave you with this protip: Sandel is a tenured professor at world-class university with a sterling reputation. That’s by no means a guarantee that he’s not a fool, but it’s pretty suggestive of it. You’d be better off starting from the premise that there’s *something* there in his thought, some grain of truth worth engaging with (and perhaps sharpening / elaborating on) rather than just going through a Daily-Show-style “textual tivo” rebuttal. Cleverness is cheap.

    Whiny bitch out.

  • 19 Oy. // Nov 26, 2012 at 3:47 am

    *”an economist’s idiom”, that is.

  • 20 Recomendaciones « intelib // Nov 26, 2012 at 6:51 am

    […] My Imagined Yet Realistic Debate Between Michael Sandel And The Economics World…, by Econgirl […]

  • 21 Dan L // Nov 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    When you make a simple reductionist argument like, “Also, by Sandel’s logic, I am coerced to go to work every day,” it shows that you are missing the point, which is that although most of us value “freedom of choice,” what that actually means is a matter of philosophy. I don’t have strong feelings on having a free market for organs, but a total inability to see what might be wrong with one *on moral grounds* is exactly the replacement of “market reasoning with moral reasoning” that Sandel is bothered by. (Note that Sandel isn’t even saying, “Don’t have organ markets.” He just thinks that moral reasoning should be part of the public debate.)

    Similarly, when Sandel talks about things like paying kids to read, your rebuttal is something like, “Oh, economists know all about crowding out, and they study it.” But that’s not really his point. Those economic studies are still all about *outcomes* while Sandel is talking about is *values*.

    Here’s something that’s definitely realistic about your imagined “debate”: An academic is confronted with an argument, but rather than address that argument, he decides to just talk about his research.

    Finally, just our of curiosity, what does a typical economist think about indentured servitude?

  • 22 mulp // Nov 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I must say economists of certain stripes seem to be dense.

    Sandel is pretty clear up front that he is making the case that economic theory is not prescriptive of public policy, of republican democratic rule. He argues the kidney sales as an extension of his justice class where he debates utility which was a concept used prior to Adam Smith “inventing” economics.

    I suggest an alternative example. Economic market theory would argue the Vikings and barbarians were rational economic actors and are equally valid as mercantilism. The raiders make a profit from their pillage and plunder and counter the misallocation of capital by the capitalists who hoard all the resources and stifle the economy.

    Politically, we apply the economic theory to the politics of the Vikings: the labor is the raiders. The capital is the boats and weapons. The economy applies labor and capital in war to produce a profit. As the Viking economy serves the Viking political system well, it is thus a defensible political economy.

    If raiding and pillage and plunder are rejected by economic theory, then surely economic theory must consider the 5% of GDP Mitt Romney called for in war making is totally contrary to your political belief. Nothing in war is free market. Surely every economist must be totally anti-war to be consistent with their economic belief defining their political belief.

    Sandel does not use this kind of example to avoid the specter of debating the response to Hitler. But after all, what do economists have to say about Hitler and Tojo. Was it good economics for Congress to declare war multiple times in 1941 in which they committed all the resources of the United States to victory? Wasn’t Henry Ford more rational in promoting free trade with Hitler so the US could profit from Hitlers conquest of Europe?

    Btw, I looked at your Social Security as ponzi scheme post and note that you like lots of economists purposely misrepresent the system as a retirement investment. Surely you do not buy property insurance because payments of claims is not done out of your personal account, but is paid from the premiums everyone else is paying. If you are unlucky enough to not have a claim on your property insurance in your lifetime, you obviously made a bad investment – right?

    Tying this back to Sandel. If SS were replaced with an account, and after you reach 30 and you have two kids, you drive into a tree and are disabled, you and your kids are supported with the 10 years of savings, and then you are euthanized to sell your body, which has no other utility, for the parts to support your kids, and then when that money runs out, your kids are sold into servitude.

    At the time of American Revolution, selling children was a common social policy supported politically as economically sound. But perhaps Ben Franklin being a criminal for breaking his servitude contract led to an unsound political policy that rejects sound economics. And the debt of the war hero Daniel Shays perhaps contributed to the unsound economic policy of bankruptcy bailout being in the Constitution. How could a God given Constitution institutionalize the irrational principle of Bible Jubilee contrary to economic principle.

    Sandel is making a quiet small case for public policy not being dictated by economic market theory.

    If you want to argue that market theory must drive politics, then explain why doctors and hospitals can not treat the poor patient without insurance with broken back like a wrecked car, and sell off his kidneys, heart, lungs, skin, liver, bones, eyes to pay for their sunk costs in treating him.

  • 23 econgirl // Nov 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Based on the previous few comments, I think it’s important to point out that Sandel specifically said that he wanted to “rewrite the economics textbooks,” not “think about how moral reasoning could be weighed against economic principles in policy decisions.” If he had proposed the latter, I doubt we would be having this conversation, but instead he’s proposing a philosophical analogue to including creationism in science textbooks, or, worse yet, replacing the science with the creationism story. (I’m not even trying to knock creationism, I’m just asserting that it belongs in a different place.)

    I find it a bit odd that people like to characterize economists in general as being solely pro-market and not fully respecting human rights and other valid market constraints (I respectfully suggest that this view may be cultivated by a small number of Austrian School and Ayn Rand devotees who are not representative of the overall population), and I think that the doctor example is an appropriate outcropping of this. I don’t think that economists see it as their place to say whether medical care is a right or a paid service, but what economists do is outline is the consequences of a system that is not restricted to paying customers and such (and also in some cases design systems that are as efficient as possible within the constraints given). Such a system does in fact cause various forms of inefficiency, and it is up to policy makers and voters to decide whether the inefficiency and opportunity cost is worth it in order to guarantee medical services to people. It may seem crass to make such a comparison, but such analyses are necessary because resources are not infinite.

    I think this article illustrates the divide among economists that I am talking about:

    In the article, David Henderson notes that Al Roth doesn’t take sides in the kidney transplant ethics debate and instead says fine, I’ll work within the constraint but make the system better. That said, Henderson also chides Roth for not pushing the free market case, which I find a bit troubling.

    A lot of my beef with Sandel’s statements stems from his, as philosophers do, I suppose, pontificating about what morals and values should exist rather than trying to understand what people’s morals and values are. I don’t think that free-market doctrine should automatically inform policy, but I REALLY don’t think that speculation without consensus or evidence should either.

    @ Oy.: Treating everyone as equally worthy of criticism is a helpful way of at least partially avoiding confirmation bias. 🙂

    @ Dan L: I think what economists think about indentured servitude depends to some degree on how much they believe that people are able to predict their future tastes (behavioral economists say not very much in a lot of cases). Some people may rationally enter into such contracts, in which case they will not regret their choices, but others likely will regret their choices. From a policy perspective, the relevant question is whether “saving” some people from a choice they will regret is worth inhibiting the “correct” choices of others. It’s also important to keep in mind that social scientists know that people are not good at imagining how they would feel in another person’s shoes (amputees and lottery winners are the common examples), and I think that this guides skepticism regarding trying to protect people from repugnant transactions in large part.

  • 24 joya // Nov 27, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    I’m not sure if the previous post was in part directed at my earlier comment, but it’s worth commenting on this:

    “A lot of my beef with Sandel’s statements stems from his, as philosophers do, I suppose, pontificating about what morals and values should exist rather than trying to understand what people’s morals and values are. I don’t think that free-market doctrine should automatically inform policy, but I REALLY don’t think that speculation without consensus or evidence should either. ”

    I think I see what you’re getting at here. If someone wanted arbitrarily to pronounce about what people should care about, I would also be suspicious and dissatisfied. Why should I care what that (self-important-sounding) person thinks?

    But that’s precisely what moral philosophy does not do. I think your intuition here is something like: people’s preferences are sacrosanct. But if you think about that a little more, you might find that that intuition has some troubling consequences. Moral philosophy tries, among other things, to figure out whether there is a good *reason* to care about people’s preferences. Is it because being the object of a preference *makes* something valuable? Or is because preferences (sometimes? often?) track what has value? Or is it because preferences are a good guide (the best guide? the only guide?) to well-being?

    Maybe you are aware that these are important and open questions. But if you are, then it’s really unhelpful to use language like “pontificate”, “speculate … without evidence” when describing people like Sandel’s work.

    As for Sandel himself, his driving idea, as I understand it, is that economics is properly a part of moral philosophy. It’s easy to misunderstand that as the suggestion that economists have to give up their mathematical toys and pick up some Parfit. But I think that is a misunderstanding; I expect he has great respect for the mathematical development of economic science. What’s in question is in what way the predictions of mathematical models ought to be used.

  • 25 Aaron // Nov 27, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    You have made Sandel’s point for him when you write that “none of us [economists] are presumptuous enough to tell anyone what their tastes should be.” Taking a value-neutral approach is, in fact, a very specific way of approaching problems, which itself depends on some values (mostly libertarian ideas that happen to be widely shared in the modern liberal–small “L”–world).

    And pointing out that some economists think about the limits of markets is a bit of a straw man. Sandel is broadly correct that, e.g., the microeconomics in Ec. 10 is the study of how incentives drive behavior, while studiously avoiding most discussions of values.

    I took Justice, and also concentrated in Economics; I think much of Sandel’s book is wrong, but you do economists no services by dismissing it as facile.

  • 26 econgirl // Nov 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I find it interesting that, in my opinion, you all are more thoughtful in your comments here than Sandel was in his article. 🙂 I’m noting a theme of “what Sandel meant was…,” and perhaps you are right, but that’s also a large part of what upset me about his article. I feel like he must be aware that thoughtful economists don’t ignore the considerations that he mentions when consulting on policy and such (there is much of this debate when discussing paying students and teachers, for example, and the conclusion is often that the incentives are directed to groups that don’t appear to have much intrinsic motivation to crowd out), but he pretends otherwise in order to make his point more cleanly.

    And while I do think that there are people who take their Econ 101 course and immediately go out and buy their Ayn Rand books and start voting for Ron Paul and idolizing Peter Thiel (see and its sources for some evidence of this), and I do think that this worldview is misinformed or at least incomplete, I don’t think it’s the place of the economics course to try to cram in discussions of fairness and justice. (That said, I do think that mentions of “hey, there are fairness considerations to keep in mind here too, but they are somewhat outside the scope of the course” are important.) As such, I think that your (Aaron’s) approach is a good one- namely to take both the economics and the philosophy in order to think clearly about how to balance the efficiency and the equity considerations.

  • 27 Lucas M Engelhardt // Nov 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Just two comments:

    (1) a “Yay!” – “Who in the hell are you to tell people what they “should” be valuing?”

    Often, what distinguishes economists from anti-economists (different from “non-economists”) is that economists buy into the subjective theory of value. Not to say that we don’t think there is some objective standard of value out there – but, rather, that we accept the reality that people are guided by their subjective perceptions of value. As economists, we don’t have any grounds to condemn people for those perceptions. Now, when we take off our economist hat and put on our moral philosopher hat (everyone has that hat, just few of us make a job of wearing it), we can do things like saying that people really *should* prefer Mozart to Bieber. But, that’s not an economic statement – it’s a moral statement. That’s the POINT of the positive/normative distinction that is standard in economics textbooks. There is a logical gap between “is” and “ought”, and that gap shows up in reality. Positive economics – which is the focus of economics textbooks – simply tries to describe reality. This makes me wonder: how many economics textbooks has Sandel read?

    (2) A “Hey!” – “(I respectfully suggest that this [purely pro-market utilitarian] view may be cultivated by a small number of Austrian School and Ayn Rand devotees who are not representative of the overall population)”

    As someone who considers himself part of the Austrian school – and who is reasonably knowledgeable of that school, I think this is a misrepresentation. Many pro-market Austrians are pro-market because they believe that property rights have a moral basis (see the work of Hans-Herman Hoppe, which is largely influenced by Immanuel Kant’s rationalist morality, and the work of Murray Rothbard which rests on Lockean natural rights), not for utilitarian reasons. In fact, I’d suggest that the most extreme anarchocapitalist libertarians in the Austrian school often reach that conclusion on the basis of a moral case for property rights. Austrians in the Rothbard/Hoppe line are often sharp critics of utilitarian morality for reasons both economic (the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparisons) and moral (the “kill Bill Gates and take his stuff” problem). Many Austrians do lean toward utilitarianism (Mises, for one), but they do so in a nuanced way – often preferring a modified Pareto optimality as a standard to any kind of “maximized aggregate utility” or “total surplus” (once again, because utility can’t be compared interpersonally – and therefore can’t be aggregated).

    I think this also misrepresents Rand’s Objectivist philosophy – which rejects utilitarianism. Rand’s morality is based on each person acting in their own self-interest (deriving this on rationalist grounds from the right to self-preservation). As such, Rand would certainly argue that one person harming themselves to do a “greater good” for someone else is immoral – which stands in sharp contrast to utilitarian reasoning. Rand also is critical of confusing rational self-interest with subjective “happiness” or “pleasure” – which is the foundation for at least some versions of utilitarian ethics.

    As people holding a minority opinion, Austrians are used to be ignored and misrepresented. It’s just disappointing that we have to spend so much time clarifying our actual position – especially in a comment on a blog post that was trying to clarify economists’ actual position against someone misrepresenting economists!

  • 28 econgirl // Nov 27, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    You are absolutely correct, and I didn’t mean to confound the concepts of utilitarianism and rational self interest, since they are obviously not the same. (I’m pretty sure neither Austrians nor Ayn Rand would advocate some morbid combination of suicide and organ donation, even if it were technically efficient from an aggregate utility standpoint.) I was mainly thinking about efficiency when I wrote “utilitarianism,” and it didn’t really come out right. As such, I amended the comment text to be more accurate.

    I also want to clarify that I wasn’t so much trying to characterize the Austrian school itself so much as some of the people who identify with the Austrian school, who I feel often themselves misinterpret what the works of Hayek and others actually say. Furthermore, I find it fascinating that the views furthest apart appear to be those held by Sandel versus those held by many Austrians, since those are the sets of views that are most solidly founded based on moral arguments. I think that really highlights the point that, even if moral reasoning is injected into market reasoning, one isn’t necessarily going to reach Sandel’s conclusions.

  • 29 Economist // Nov 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Man, a lot of critique of Jodi’s post is surprisingly bush-league, and mostly just the typical “economists no good” spiel that is very fashionable to regurgitate at this point in international history.

    I recommend everyone who thinks they are effectively coming at Jodi’s post read Diedre McCloskey’s review of Sandel. If what you all crave is a moralistic take from an economist on the matter, rather than the more typical value-neutral stance Jodi has sensibly taken, you will find your comeuppance with Diedre and she will properly put your misguided critiques in place.

  • 30 Lucas M. Engelhardt // Nov 27, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks for clearing it up!

    And I certainly agree that talking more about morality doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll all end up with Sandel’s conclusions. One thing that I think Mankiw’s text does a very nice job of is pointing out that there are different political philosophies, and that these push us in different directions on the normative questions. (His “Why Economists Disagree” section is quite nice, I think.) The difference between Sandel and those that believe that property rights are a moral right (Nozick, Hoppe, Rothbard, etc.) naturally reach different conclusions, and neither seem particularly convinced by the others’ arguments…

  • 31 David Todd // Dec 1, 2012 at 9:07 am

    From the article, which contains the following comment, purporting to speak for ‘Every Economist Ever’

    ‘The “wrong way?????” Who in the hell are you to tell people what they “should” be valuing? Some economists may try to account for tastes, but none of us are presumptuous enough to tell anyone what their tastes should be.’

    I have a question for readers of that passage. Is recognizing that human beings have intrinsic value a taste?

    Timothy Snyder, in “Bloodlands,” describes the SS plan (“Generalplan Ost”) to exterminate most of the inhabitants of eastern Poland, White Russia, Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine, in order to make way for German agricultural colonists. It would have signified 45 million murders, most to be accomplished by the creation of an artificial famine.

    I don’t much care for projects of that sort. I suppose that “every economist ever” will wish patiently to tell me, very slowly as though speaking to an idiot, that I’m “entitled” to my distaste in the matter; but that my disapproval of mass murder is in principle the same as my dislike, for example, of hard liquor.

    I will be happy to explain then to every economist ever that he or she is mistaken. Of course you cannot demonstrate the value of a human life. Either you see it or you do not.

    But if you do not, you are the enemy.

    You do indeed have every legal right to value things as you please. Probably we would be able to get along under most circumstances; but were we to go back in time, and to find ourselves in eastern Poland in 1942, and I discovered that you were with the SS, and shooting innocents all day long with your Luger or your Mauser, I would be perfectly happy to put a bullet right between your eyes.

  • 32 econgirl // Dec 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    I think that economists would not be in favor of the SS plan for efficiency reasons in addition to moral ones. 🙂 It’s important to keep in mind that people have some tastes that don’t really affect anyone else in a negative way (eg. “I like ice cream” or) and others that harm other people (eg. “I like robbing people”). When I say that economists don’t try to tell people what their tastes should be means that an economist wouldn’t try to convince a person that either they shouldn’t like ice cream or shouldn’t like robbing people, but they might argue for changing the potential robber’s incentives.

    In the cases where tastes affect others, economists recognize that, from a prescriptive perspective, there are certain rights that people have that should not be violated, even in the name of efficiency (eg. property rights, the right to self-preservation, etc.). This is along the same lines as the observation that few economists would actually advocate for lump-sum taxes, even though they are technically efficient. There is a subtle but important distinction between telling someone that their valuation of something is wrong and telling someone that their valuation gets trumped by the rights of others.

    This discussion is even a bit of a red herring since the “I want to sell my kidney” preference is similar to the “I like ice cream” preference in that neither infringes on the rights of others.

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