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. Different Lee says:

    to say economists are among the few groups who will analyze and issue “without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved,” is patently false on its face. Why would economists be more immune to bias than any other group? Dubner admits as much when he uses the “with notable exceptions” qualifier, which is a common pundit device to immunize one from criticism.

    Yes, free trading in organs would lead to perverse incentives. And it succintly explains why our health care system is so messed up. The demand curve for health care is not efficient vis-a-vis society as a whole. To put it another way, a rational individual with a terminal disease would would be willing to pay his entire net worth to live another day. That’s why the country spends so much money on inefficient surgeries and drugs rather than on public health. Public health spending (broadly speaking) would provide society better health care at a lower cost.

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  2. erin m. says:

    To follow up on “Different Lee’s” first point regarding objectivity, I would argue this is exactly the downfall of many economic, biological, etc. arguments. Once the human hand is involved, how could any form of research and analysis be free from bias? It’s simply not possible. humans cannot become God-like creatures free from all influences. Does this mean that the research performed in these disciplines is paralyzed by the inevitable subjectivity of the human actors involved? Of course not, but all analyses must recognize the impossibility of getting at some sort of transcendent larger truth that rests above human bias and they should never tout complete objectivity.

    This being the case, I would argue that sociologists would be a group who studies highly politicized issues often without a facade of objectivity. Instead, many sociologists address these issues from many angles and they include, analyze, and identify many of the biases surrounding them instead of creating some sort of thought experiment where these factors magically disappear. I do not think it is a virtue of economists that many are prone to making super-human claims of scientific objectivity in their work.

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  3. cbb says:

    My problem with economists is twofold:

    1. They don’t take enough things into account, assuming that what they perceive as “rational” is the true definition.

    2. Despite this flaw in their logic/methodology, they seem to think that their findings are the ultimate truth.

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  4. Hans Smith says:

    I’m a student of bioindustry ethics, soon to be a practicioner (I’m a master’s student at the moment). We often strive to frame discussions about difficult issues like free markets for organs around teleology vs. deontology. Teleology is based on increasing the “good” in the world overall (utilitarianism), while deontology is based on rules, duties, laws, etc.

    I think economicsts can be perceived as evil by some because they often value the teleological argument above the deontological argument. As Brad said, economists seem to undervalue the “intangible social and psychological costs implicit in decision making”, but I think this is just a function of trying to publish rigorous arguments that are based on numbers when available.

    There is no doubt that many economists have published papers that argue for the benefits of some new policy, based on calculated financial benefit in the long run. These papers will often include a caveat at the end saying something similar to the effect that “intangible social and psychological costs” should be considered, but haven’t been included in the paper specifically because they are so intangible. Predictably the paper is then referenced in a newspaper article, etc. with no mention of this caveat, just stating, “____ argues that organs should be sold on a free market”, portraying the economist as a heartless individual focusing strictly on the numbers of the situation.

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  5. Morgan Finch says:

    Do you seriously think that economists have no bias? The idea that everything has a monetary cost IS a value judgement.

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  6. Luke Lea says:

    Is economics evil?

    As a positive science, economics is notable for the assumptions it does not make as much as for the assumptions it does. Among the former, economists do not assume that, all else equal, a dollar is worth more to a poor person than a rich one; that the happiness of people in their own society is more important than the happiness of people in other societies; or that the happiness of our posterity is as important as our own.

    What economists do care about is Pareto efficiency: that given some initial distribution of resources, those states are preferred under which it is impossible to make some people better off without making others worse off. In the case of free trade (between the United States and China for instance) it is only necessary that in principle some people could be made better off without making others worse off. The fact that in practice it has made most people in the U.S. worse off than before is no affair of theirs. On the contrary, once a redistribution of resources has occurred as a result free trade, Pareto efficiency requires nothing in the way of rectification.

    All past sins are forgiven. We owe no special consideration to our fellow citizens and no consideration whatsoever to future generations.

    That is an evil philosophy.

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