Does Economics Have an Egalitarian Core?

Tyler Cowen, who appears in these parts pretty regularly, writes in a Times column about the egalitarian core of the economics profession:

Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.

Cowen concludes by exploring a modern-day application of this putatively egalitarian core:

A distressingly large portion of the debate in many countries analyzes the effects of higher immigration on domestic citizens alone and seeks to restrict immigration to protect a national culture or existing economic interests. The obvious but too-often-underemphasized reality is that immigration is a significant gain for most people who move to a new country.


Seriously??? What the heck is 'natural equality'??

Seminymous Coward

I always thought it was fairly obvious that most economic models either start from a libertarian utopia or rapidly converge to one. For example, purely economic thought sees discrimination as an opportunity to higher equivalent workers for lower wages, which would rapidly trend to identical ones. Most economists hate excessive intervention in the market with a very low threshold for excess.

I would like to think that purely economic views conclude that government enforcement of social rules is silly administrative overhead, but that's less clear; it requires some assumptions about the utility gained by those who like the rules and lost by those forced into compliance with them and the relative proportion of each.

Regarding the benefits to immigrants, the hard truth is that most people who are already inside the nicer countries just don't care. If they did, "Made in the USA" and similar campaigns would just be white noise to them, like it is to rational purchasers.


Enter your name...

I believe that the research shows that "most people who are already inside the nicer countries" do indeed care: specifically, they care about social identity. The two persistent themes in the immigration debate over the decades, and no matter what society you look at, are the economic issues and the social issues. It's not solely a question of whether my life is financially improved by the immigrant. The other half of the question is whether I accept the immigrant as belonging or as being "from away".

This analysis works for international migration as well as people moving from one part of a larger country to the other. (What was the joke in Germany after reunification? The former East German says, "We are one people!" And the former West German says, "Yes, you are, and so are we!")

The social question appears to be strongest when it's easy to see change in society as a result of immigration. The occasional immigrant might be a novelty, perhaps to be judged on his or her own merits and ability to fit in, but when an older person looks at the children and sees that the next generation is contains a sizable proportion of "foreigners", they are unhappy and start talking about assimilation and "our values". It doesn't matter whether the immigrants are Irish immigrants on the East Coast around 1845, former black slaves moving North after the US Civil War, or Latinos in Arizona today: social cohesion and a sense of identity matters in this debate, and matters even among people who are rationally convinced that importing Asian hi-tech wizards or Middle Eastern multi-millionaires is an unqualified economic benefit.


Seminymous Coward

I meant they didn't care about the effects that benefited the immigrants. I suspect you read "Regarding the benefits to immigrants" as equivalent to "Regarding benefits because of the immigrants." I apologize for the imprecision of my wording.


"...immigration is a significant gain for most people who move to a new country."

1) This is news?

2) So is robbery a significant gain for most robbers.

Joby Elliott

"If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently."

I don't know about that. The possessions and status of people does require them to be treated differently in many cases.

A guy with a gun is treated differently than a guy without one, for very practical reasons. A guy with a billion dollars should also be treated differently.


The problem with "egalitarianism" is that there is more than one way to interpret "fairness" or "equal treatment". For example "Everyone plays by the same rules", "Everyone gets the same outcome" and "Everyone gets the same starting conditions" are three possible definitions of "fairness". You could find people that would advocate any one of them, but you can construct a scenario where they exclude each other.