Sunday, July 10, 2005

L & S - Initial Impressions

Well, it's the first full morning here at IHS Liberty and Society. I have just about recovered from the experience of a 2.5 hour cab ride from LAX to Pomona and I'm now feeling up to it. Last night we had an excellent introduction to libertarian thinking from James Taylor. This also introduced the audience to one of Scotland's greatest inventions, the haggis. Sheep's lungs, intestines, pancreas and kidneys, chopped up and mixed with oatmeal and pepper and boiled in the sheep's stomach - what could be better?!

Right now Glen Whitman is giving a talk on 'the economic way of thinking'. I'm interested to see how the students react, particularly those who aren't Econ majors. In my experience people either find economic thinking common sense and obvious (so the reaction is "that is simple - why make a big deal of it?") or they find it strange and challenging, at least to start off. Personally I'm one of the first group so I find the second reaction hard to understand. Clearly the people who display it actually make decisions in everyday life that show economic reasoning, such as chosing between courses of actions in a situation of scarcity so why find it so difficult to describe this in an abstract fashion? I suspect one reason is that the wider culture is very resistant to the notion that things which are good or desirable may not be feasible because of constraints of one kind or another. There is also a common view that to be concerned with economic concerns is morally flawed, that we should pursue the good with no regard to such mundane concerns. Clearly this is ultimately a childish way of thinking, given that we live in the mundane world but it does seem to have a great hold on many people.

This for me is one reason why many people, particularly intellectuals, are in a state of constant frustration. They have a clear idea of what is good and how things ought to be and when this doesn't happen the response is to blame this on malevolence. Sometimes this is true but often it simply reflects costs and limits. However, to hear that something which is good and desirable has costs and therefore may, on balance, not be worth doing is profoundly unwelcome at an emotional level. An example from my own work is policing and law enforcement. If I ask my students on my history of crime course whether in theory we should seek to detect and prosecute all criminals (ignoring the practical difficulty) the almost unanimous answer is that we should. The point I then make is that doing this would mean that the entire product of society would be spent on law enforcement. Given that this would stop us doing many other things, the reality is that we only try to catch and prosecute a certain number of criminals. In many cases we do not even start to investigate crimes because the benefits (possibly catching a criminal) would not exceed to costs (the resources devoted to that that could have been used to do something else) and this is inevitable and ultimately a good thing. Over the years a common response is to reject this, on emotional grounds.

So this is why so many people are hostile to economic reasoning imo. The interesting thing is that in the early nineteenth century economics was seen quite differently, as an enabling rather than a constraining discipline. When and why did this change? An important question I think.

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