Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate (Economists' Edition)

Economics is a moral science, so why do so many associate "economics" -- especially free market economics -- with immoral behavior?

Let us say that you are complaining about your situation. You don't like your job. You don't think the job pays enough. You want to do something else. What will an economist say?

Well, the first thing an economist will say is that you are in fact doing what you want. Of course, in a literal sense this is true. You are always doing what you want, given your options. Of course, too often economists leave out that latter part: given your options. They mean that, but people need to hear it.

Of course, an economist can also come up with a variety of options:

Quit your job.
Find a new job.

If you point out that you have been trying to find a new job, they will suggest increasing your human capital. As if that were a cost-free solution. Increasing your human capital requires time and money. And you're working that crappy job because you have no money.

Of course, there are other options. You won't need to make as much money if you changed your life style. Who needs a house and car, anyway? It's not like you need the latter to get to a job. And if you're trying to support a family, why not abandon the family? That's an "option." Now, you're probably not going to find an economist who will make those arguments, but I promise you that that is what people understand to be meant when it is suggested that you have "options." But of course, not all options are moral ones.

When immoral options are suggested -- either explicitly or implicitly -- you shouldn't be surprised if others find your solutions immoral, and end up thinking that because your options derive from the economic way of thinking that economics itself is immoral.

I mean, what on earth can you think people will think of you if you suggest that a meth-addicted prostitute is doing what she wants? She may be, in the economists' sense of the term "want," but to anyone else on earth, she's clearly not. Few people are going to think through what an economist is really saying: "Given the person is addicted to meth, and given that such an addiction makes employment in many fields outside of prostitution difficult if not impossible, and given the cost of being addicted to meth, and given the amount of money a person can make as a prostitute, this person wants to be a prostitute." With all of those "givens," one can likely agree with the assessment. But you almost never hear anyone hedging when they claim that you are always doing what you want to do at any given time.
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