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. Matt says:

    It’s not that economists are evil, it’s that they understand the difference between “immoral” and “amoral.”

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  2. Allen Varney says:

    Well, Will, “good” people also gave us laws mandating clean air and clean water, and regulating child labor.

    Economists aren’t so much “evil” as amoral and conditioned to unsustainable outlooks. For instance, company accountants seldom make provision for the long-term consequences of deforestation and other unsustainable practices. The accountants don’t have to, because economists regard natural resources as consumables. This short-sightedness
    leads to demonstrably negative global effects that can easily be called “evil.”

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  3. Paul S. says:

    Well maybe not “evil” but certainly sociopathic in a lot of eyes. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sociopath)

    As Levitt’s previous post re: Hannah Montana demonstrates, some problems have dimensions that are poorly quantified; for those problems, material solutions will, minimally, “feel” incomplete. I like to toy with the idea that non-material solution sets (examples: religion, art, ethics) represent historical attempts to fill the gaps left by rigid empiricism. In ye goode olde days the “gaps” greatly outsized the data, thus the primacy of God, tribe, ritual and family. But pity the poor ideationalists who, like the Red Queen, must run faster and faster simply to stand still: empiricism unrelentingly fills in gaps.

    I guess there’s a secondary question which is actually more important than “what things should/should not be quantified?” (because, given sufficient time, any thing *can* be quantified). Namely: “which solution sets should represent the first resort: material or ideational?” This might be the difference between “liberal” and “conservative” (in the classical senses).

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  4. David Peterson says:

    It seems to me that implied in her article there’s an idea that there is some collective “we” that should make the decision as to whether or not to put a price on something. This is opposed to leaving the decision up to individual actors.

    And whether or not she likes it or not, everything does have a price. The question is whether or not it’s monetized or in the case of an organ market, paid with human lives.

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  5. Justin James says:

    Economists are not evil. Free market economists who beleive that anything and everything should be allowed to be bought and sold (which is not all free market economists, I must add) provide justification for evil. I have heard way too many people use FME (and it’s associated pal, economical “survival of the fittest”) as an academic gloss on top of some twisted version of what’s right and wrong. The conflict is that FME does not disallow itself to be used this way, it is simply the logical outcome of FME when carried to the extreme.

    Granted, any theory of economics can be treated like this. The Marxist theories have proven themselves quite pliable in justifying all sorts of horrors. But FME, as the “hot theory” of the last few decades, is just begging to be painted as “evil”.

    J.Ja

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  6. Otto says:

    Ignoring the “good vs. evil” debate for a moment, doesn’t the hesitation towards selling organs (or starting an organ market) stem from the perverse economic incentives that are created by doing so? And do not economic arguments begin to break down when it comes applying them to the value of life? To wit, one of the underpinnings of economics as a social science is that individuals act rationally…how rational can you expect parents to be when bidding for the sole kideny that will save their daughter’s life (for example)? Also, the potential for unscrupulous individuals to exploit the system is real and dangerous.

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  7. bkp says:

    Psychologists are not “evil” for understanding bad behavior, but economists are for understanding the truth, that most “evil” is a rational outgrowth, and is not actually irrational. So of course we are a threat to psychologists.

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  8. gator80 says:

    The following is all on the assumption Bloom was not joking:

    Bloom suffers from at least one of the following: lack of understanding of economics, arrogance, faulty logic. Probably all three now that I think about it.

    Economists work in a different moral universe? How is that different from saying, “I am moral. If you do not see things the same way I do you must be immoral.”

    I would argue Bloom is more likely the immoral one. Good economics has consistently been shown to improve living standards. Bad economics dooms individuals to poverty. I’m not saying economists all agree or that they are always right. Like scientists and doctors there is debate and ongoing study as their disciplines evolves. But somehow taking a position which, if carried to its extreme, would deny the opportunities that arise from good economic thinking, hurts people and is therefore immoral.

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