Sunday Victorian Industrial Monument Blogging
They Are Getting Bolder...

This Means Interdisciplinary War!

Neil Sinhababu calls for the Revolt of the Moral Philosophers:

The Ethical Werewolf: Taking political philosophy back from the economists: The take-home message for you and me is that economists have managed to convince people of indefensible views on normative topics such as what it's rational for individuals to do, what's an appropriate object of moral criticism, and what would be a good distribution of resources. I don't know how many of them would, when pressed, defend these sorts of claims -- their discipline isn't supposed to be one that makes normative claims.

Saying you're not making any normative claims is, of course, a good way of getting people to accept the normative claims you make. A lot more in this sort of thing depends on the sorts of emotions that get communicated as people talk about stuff and the loaded words you use. Pareto optimality, for example, has 'optimality' built into it, and who doesn't like optimality? Of course, as Rawls tells us, a distribution where one person owns all tradable goods and services while nobody else has anything is Pareto optimal.

In any event, this is the kind of thing we ought to be concerned about, both as citizens and as philosophers. While ideas from other parts of academia can't get out to the public, economists are convincing people of ridiculous theses in moral and political philosophy that their research doesn't even support. (It probably helps that widespread social acceptance of these theses is favorable to the interests of very wealthy people.) I'm not really sure what we can do about the spread of bad political philosophy through economics 101, but there's got to be something.

He is responding to Matthew Yglesias:

Matthew Yglesias » Ideas Matter: [A]s Brad DeLong pointed out yesterday, economists’ protestations that they’re doing value-free social science actually embeds an implicit idea that “that shifts in distribution are of no account–which can be true only if the social welfare function gives everybody a weight inversely proportional to their marginal utility of wealth.” In other words, under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people. Nobody ever says “social welfare function” when engaging in practical political debate, but the idea that not caring about distribution constitutes some kind of neutral middle ground is an important underlying premise of much practical political debate, and it’s viability stems from the fact that everyone remembers being taught that this is true in their Economics 101 courses.

As a third example, as a society we’ve become accustomed to the idea that when empirical evidence seems to contradict basic economic theory—as when the United States experienced rapid economic growth under conditions of widespread unionization and a high minimum wage—that we ought to accept the theory as true. This, again, is usually a claim you hear being made by economists, but its social prestige ultimately is a kind of idea in epistemology or the philosophy of science. And all this, of course, is to say nothing of the specific influence of particular empirical claims in economics which hold that high levels of taxation and government spending are everywhere and always economically destructive....

I do think that these big ideas matter.... They’re enormously important in terms of setting the terms of political debate, in terms of influence what’s considered “possible” and what kinds of people have standing to have their views taken seriously. Building a better world ultimately requires getting people to understand that both the empirical and philosophical underpinnings of America’s free market society are much weaker than is generally understood. That doesn’t mean these questions will ever be debated by politicians at a live town hall. But it does mean trying to press a better understanding of these issues on the mass elite who set the tone for much of American political life.

If any of those fighting on the anti-economist side of this disciplinary war want to contact me to ask me to serve as a spy reporting to them the plans of the inmost secret counsels of the economist, the password is "swordfish"...