Friday, December 2, 2011

Economics and Morality

I have noticed a rather poisonous idea that is starting to get noticed -- the link between moral virtue and economic success. Consider these two points below.

Matt Yglesias:

To be clear, I don't think we're looking at hypocrisy exactly. Instead it goes back to the preference for morality tales. Whoever is up at the moment must be up because of their greater moral virtues. I seem to have somehow missed the conservative articles lauding Germany and the Netherlands from back four or five years ago. Instead at the time I was reading lots of stories about the triumph of the Celtic Tiger, the genius of the flat tax in the Baltic states, articles praising Silvio Berlusconi and so forth. Certainly at no point during the Bush administration was there a lot of talk in the right-wing press about the evils of household debt, the overwhelming merits of current account surpluses, or any of the rest of it.

Andrew Gelman:\

Nothing here about “hardworking” or “virtuous.” In a meritocracy, you can be as hardworking as John Kruk or as virtuous as Kobe Bryant and you’ll still get ahead—if you have the talent and achievement. Throwing in “hardworking” and “virtuous” seems to me to an attempt (unconscious, I expect) to retroactively assign moral standing to the winners in an economic race.

The reason that I consider this to be a poisonous idea is that distracts us from the actual moral actions of the people involved. I'd consider the "all bosses are bad" to be an equally poisonous notion. Painting a social class with either virtue or vice is likely to distort thinking and policy in bad ways.

Economic success is good; we all like living in a world where utility is maximized. But I'd thought the linking of material success to moral virtue (consider the finale of the story of Job) had gone out of style. Instead we live in a world where people with significant moral failing (think Steve Jobs) can still contribute to economic success.

Linking these two concepts interferes with assisting the economic losers as it tends to attach the stigma of blame. This is not to say that hard work may not correlate with economic success but that it is important to remember that hard work does not necessarily lead to economic success.

Just ask a medieval serf!

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