Morality and Economics

More than anything else, economics is a way of thinking that allows us to more fully identify the consequences of actions. It doesn’t take much economic thinking to recognize that most actions have multiple consequences and that some of those consequences are more desirable than others. Some would say that there are good consequences and bad consequences, but that requires a moral judgement that is quite independent of economics. That’s one of my beefs with a lot of practicing economists: they don’t content themselves with identifying consequences, they also weigh in on the desirability of those consequences. At the very least, the two lines of thought should be kept separate.

Politicians are even less rigorous. They think they know what consequences will be mostly judged as good, so they describe their choices and actions only in terms they hope voters will see as “good” consequences. They act as if there are no “bad” consequences. In the real world, there are always trade-offs; in the real world, people will view the goodness of consequences differently; in the real world, most actions have “good” and “bad” consequences. Politicians tend to ignore these real world conditions. This isn’t a beef about any politician in particular: they all do it – and probably wouldn’t get elected if they didn’t. Most pundits are little better.

I would like to see more focus on the consequences of policies with less opining about which are “good” and “bad” consequences. Identifying consequences, or the likelihood of consequences, is tricky enough without overlaying the process with somebody’s moral philosophy. At the very least, we should clearly differentiate between the two in our thinking.


3 responses to this post.

  1. There is a reason why politicians are not rigorous with their descriptions and words. The position’s accountability is next to nothing, has guaranteed income, and dictates (by tradition and other reasons) that whatever problems exist after him cannot be attributed to him. While it is possible for consistent politicians to arise, the very nature given by the balance of incentives for politicians dictates that the probability of a “statesman” will always be low.


  2. […] Morality and Economics ( […]


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