Repugnance Revisited, or: Are Economists Really ‘Evil’?

Patricia Cohen has an article in today’s Times about a recent American Enterprise Institute panel on the notion of repugnance and how it affects markets. In other words, why are some behaviors considered repugnant while others are acceptable, and how and why do such demarcations change over time?

Three of the panel’s five participants — Arthur Brooks, Sally Satel, and Al Roth — may be familiar to readers of this blog. And when we wrote a Times column a while back about whether there should be a free market for human organs, it was Roth’s thinking about repugnance that framed our argument.

I find the idea of shifting repugnance fascinating. My favorite example is life insurance: long ago, it was considered morbid to place a bet that allowed you to profit if a loved one died; now it is uncommon to not do so.

But as interesting as I find the subject, it was something else in Cohen’s article that caught my eye:

Economists are asking the wrong question, [Paul] Bloom, [a professor of psychology at Yale] said at the panel. They assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”

“The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, it’s that they’re evil people,” he said. “They work in a different moral universe. The burden of proof is on someone who wants to include” a transaction in the marketplace.

Economists are “evil people”? I assume Bloom was kidding, although there was no indication in Cohen’s article. Honestly, I’m not sure what he meant, or what she meant. Perhaps the general public does see economists as “evil” — since they analyze the world so coldly, since they seem willing to put a price on anything.

But if so, I would argue that the reason to regard economists as “evil” is in fact the very reason to regard them as valuable. Although there are noteworthy exceptions, economists are among the few groups of people who in this day and age will analyze an issue (whether it’s organ transplantation, political corruption, or sexual preferences), as the Times itself likes to put it, “without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

If that’s evil, count me in.

Addendum: Shortly after this post was published, I received the following helpful e-mail from Paul Bloom:

Hi Stephen,

I just read your entry on the Freakonomics blog, and thought I should send a quick reply.

Yes, my remark about evil economists was a joke. This was perfectly clear at the talk and it’s clear if you watch the video, but not from the NYTimes article, unfortunately. After I make the remark and people laugh, I then say “To put it more fairly …,” and go on to make the point that economists tend to reason consequentially, and are less sensitive to other considerations such as taboo, disgust status quo bias, and so on. I actually think that economists are right to do so in general, and I’ve argued in particular that disgust is useless as a guide for moral behavior. So, no, I don’t think you’re evil!

Best,

–pb

Thanks, Paul, for the clarification. And allow me to remind everyone that my defense of economists was not as self-serving as it may seem, since I am not now, nor have I ever been, an economist.

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  1. mgroves says:

    I don’t think economists are evil, but rather highlight that the world is imperfect, and sometimes the optimal way to do something conflicts with a “fair” way to do something. Economics aren’t taught as widely as reading or math, so I guess that a lot of people just can’t handle the cold, hard truth.

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  2. sw says:

    Its a scary world we live in when preferring reason over bias is considered evil.

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  3. boudu says:

    My two cents:

    There are ‘evil’ people in each profession, but ‘evil’ economists are notorious for making propaganda to keep the status-quo in the world and stop progress. That’s why the “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise” philosophy means.

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  4. Jeff Stier says:

    What is repugnant, is NOT having a market for organs.

    As I wrote in the New York Post,
    Unless you’re lucky enough to have a relative or some other highly motivated and altruistic donor, there is no legal way to improve your chances in the painfully slow race against death.

    http://www.nypost.com/seven/08062007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/ending_black_market_for_organs_opedcolumnists_jeff_stier.htm

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  5. Will says:

    “Good” people rarely improve society. It’s “good” people who, outraged about substandard housing for poor people, pass laws requiring various amenities that drive up housing prices that leave more people homeless.

    “Good” people like former candidate Edwards sue the pants off doctors, resulting in higher healthcare costs that hurt the people he claims to want to help.

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  6. Michael says:

    I agree completely, but economists do not have a monopoly on objectivity, and sometimes their obeisance to their models skews their perspective. Empiricism ftw lol.

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  7. Andy says:

    While I think calling economists “evil” is over the top, I have to post my disagreement with the following statement:

    “…economists are among the few groups of people who in this day and age will analyze an issue (whether it’s organ transplantation, political corruption, or sexual preferences), as the Times itself likes to put it, ‘without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.’”

    It’s farcical to make this claim, to pretend at some mythical standard of objectivity. Dubner qualifies it by admitting that there are “noteworthy exceptions,” which in my opinion compounds this mirage of the impartial economist. Every person is an exception; if this were not so, economists would have nothing to argue about at cocktail parties.

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  8. Chris H. says:

    One of my students told me once: being an economist means never having to say you were wrong.

    I’m always perplexed by why economists aren’t more self-policing. For instance, when you see bogus arguments from the industry-supported economists on any given issue, why don’t others and academics respond to correct their “theories.”

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