More Thinking on Ethics : How about Ethics and Economics

by Linda Beale

More Thinking on Ethics : How about Ethics and Economics

A few days ago, I broached a question about “The Countermajoritarian Difficulty and Congressional Ethics“.  We seem to talk a good deal about congressional or political corruption, usually referring to elected officials taking bribes, commiting some kind of fraud such as failure to report taxes or gifts, committing sexual harassment on the job, or otherwise engaging in generally disapproved and personally reprehensible activity.  Why, I asked, don’t we treat politicians’ failures to consider the public good as an equal or greater ethical failure?

Joe McCarthy was a lying publicity seeker who destroyed numerous individuals’ lives to further his own megalomania and dogmatic views of right and wrong, come what may to the country that he was ostensibly serving.  It was a witness’s heartfelt question–do you feel no shame? –that ultimately expressed the deep emotional harm McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt had created and played a role in bringing Congress to its senses and the anti-government activities investigations to an end.

Today, that groundswell of community disgust at the antics of a figure like McCarthy won’t work with congresspeople like Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Eric Cantor, Rand Paul and Ted Yoho (the Florida Republican House member who was a vet and who has naively suggested that the US can solve its debt payment problems by “sitting down with creditors” like he did in his veterinary clinic and who thinks it won’t really do much harm to let the US government default if it means keeping a law that a few radical anarchists don’t like from taking effect).  They are apparently oblivious, because they are so arrogantly sure of their own dogmatic views, immune from facts, and inclined to ignore harm to individuals they don’t agree with (the poor, the vulnerable, the sick) while grandstanding for their Tea Party/right-wing “base” and the dogmatic, anarcho-libertarian “principles” they claim to be living by.

Yet it seems we need an ethical guidestone for dealing with these kinds of shenanigans.  Somebody in Congress needs to step to the plate and suggest a revamping of the rules to prevent dogmatic abuse of the legislative process with the intent to derail the government itself.  This is, ultimately an ethical, moral and justice issue.

Yves Smith has been thinking about ethics, too, from the perspective of the role of ethics in economic theory.  Like me, she is deeply suspicious of the exaggerated role of economic theorists in setting fiscal, economic, and tax policy and the way economic modelling pushes fairness considerations to the periphery.  She raises some important questions for consideration, as do the many thoughtful comments on the post.  See Ethics and Complex Systems, Naked Capitalism (Oct. 16, 2013).

The way economists frame and analyze questions make it well-nigh impossible to incorporate matters of ethics. …[M]ainstream economics has fetishized the use of mathematics, and consideration of fairness aren’t easily integrated into reductivist models. Even the accepted heresies, like information asymmetry and principal-agent problems, show how markets can fail to deliver desirable outcomes but those sub-optimal results are usually characterized as inefficiencies, not as “unfair” or “bad”. …

[M]ost economists have a clear point of view on what they think the measure of success of economic policies should be, whether it is narrow commercial terms (growth, GDP, interest rates) or broader social outcomes. But even economists who care about the latter (as in they care not just about the level of growth but also how resources are shared), often think of the problem in a combination of distributive and mechanistic terms.

The weakest form of the “greater social welfare” arguments think that the first consideration should be growth and if we have more growth, the distributive problems (who gets how much) are easier to solve. Some who argue more fiercely social welfare oriented policies sometimes do so from a vantage of human dignity, but more often, their arguments are efficiency-based. …

So another way to think about this problem is that economists effectively put unfair economic outcomes in the same box as externalities like pollution. And just as companies often fight with the public at large over how much pollution is acceptable, so too is there debate over how much unfairness is tolerable. …

I contend that this perspective is inadequate and in fact has done great harm. Over the course of my life, one of the side effects of the increased infiltration of economic-style thinking into more and more walks of life has been a decline in a sense of social responsibility among what passes for our elites. …

Related articles

The GOP Default Enthusiasts

The Countermajoritarian Difficulty and Congressional Ethics–Ending the Shutdown

Ethics and Complex Systems

International Encyclopaedia of Ethics

Applying Traditional Ethical Positions to Environmental Problems and Policy

Ethical Economics…?