When Economics Fails

Tyler Cowen thinks I underrate the radicalism of Stubborn Attachments (SA). He cites his beliefs that we should:

(a) spend less on the elderly

(b) give up intoxicating substances

(c) tithe 10% of our incomes

(d) be prepared to save and invest more if things were other than they are.

Claims (b) – (d) are not, as far as I can tell, made in Stubborn Attachments; (b) is worth a comment nonetheless, since this might be the first time someone brandishes a commitment to sobriety as a badge of radicalism. The first thing to note is that the demand to refrain from self-intoxication is not obviously consistent with Tyler’s value-pluralism: many people value the mind-altering possibilities intoxication brings, and a wealth of artistic production attests to the possibility that such valuation can, in its own way, be productive. This tension illustrates a more general point. Though I think Tyler is correct in his claim that he has “written about more specific policy topics than almost any other economist who has lived,” Joshua Kim could be forgiven for not always seeing how Tyler’s myriad claims and positions fit together. The question here is whether Stubborn Attachments presents us with a systematic and coherent worldview, and it cannot be assumed that everything else Tyler has written will automatically count as filling out its programme.

So let us turn to the (single, three page) section Tyler points us to within Stubborn Attachments as evidence for his willingness to depart from the status quo: his contention that we should be spending less money to save the lives of the elderly. His argument for this claim is that we should come closer to valuing human lives at replacement cost than we currently do, because, “If one life disappears and another is added, the new life does make up for some of the value lost, at least in utility terms.” (p.86, italics original) He draws an analogy with houses: just as we should not pay 1 million dollars to fix a house that could be rebuilt for $500,000, so too we should not spend $4 million to save a human being, when we could get a new one for $10,000. I found this to be the least persuasive section of the book.

Tyler relates a job interview in 1986, in which he was stumped by the question, “Why should we not value human lives at replacement cost?” (SA, p.85) He reports continuing to puzzle over this conundrum, to the point where the absence of an answer has moved him in the argumentative direction sketched above. That question does not stump me. I offer the following answer: we should value houses at replacement cost, because one house can replace another, but we should not value human beings at replacement cost, because one human being cannot replace another.

It is simply not true that the value of a new life “makes up for” any of the value lost in the old one. To be fair to Tyler, he didn’t quite claim that. He claimed that lives make up for one another in utility terms. But that just shows that those are the wrong terms. The kind of value a human being has—in Kantian language: “a dignity, rather than a price”—rules substitutability out. This fact about human beings is what underwrites not only the commitment to human rights, but even, I think, the value of utility itself. Human beings are inviolable—it is wrong to torture one to please many—because they are the sorts of things with intrinsic worth. Likewise, their fulfillment, enjoyment, pain and suffering is significant because, in the first instance, they are significant. Or so I believe, following (what I take to be) a precept of common sense ethical and religious thought. Arguably, the dignity of human life simply is the core of common sense morality.

But what of Tyler’s argument that “losing an irreplaceable civilization is a much greater tragedy than losing a civilization in a way which allows for the birth of a new and different one in its place. Replaceability therefore seems to count for something, even if we do not agree for how much”? (p.86) The inference here (“therefore”) is fallacious. One can grant that it is good if another civilization (or human being) comes to be after one passes away, better than if one does not, without thinking that the second constitutes any kind of replacement for the first. A new child in no sense at all substitutes for a recently dead loved one. Marginalism is out of its depth here, because not all value concepts are hospitable to the idea of trade or substitution or replacement. The most fundamental principles of human life lie outside the scope of economic thought, and are instead situated in philosophy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.