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No, Professor Krugman, Economics Is a Morality Play

Mark D. White

I usually try to ignore Paul Krugman, but sometimes I can't. (Sorry.) Thanks to Steve Horwitz (here and here), I lit upon Krugman's September 28 New York Times blog post, "Economics Is Not a Morality Play," in which he writes:

The market economy is a system for organizing activity — a pretty good system most of the time, though not always — with no special moral significance.

But as I've argued elsewhere, the (pure) market economy preserves individual choice and values and thereby embodies respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons. And this has tremendous moral significance, at least if you care about such things as autonomy and dignity.

What Professor Krugman does not seem to understand is that when he approves of something "working" ("Cuba doesn’t work; Sweden works pretty well"), he is making a moral judgment based on promoting the goal of "working" (whatever he means by that). Whether he adheres to some version of utilitarianism (promoting some measure of well-being) or a squishy undefined pragmatism ("whatever works"), his system is just as ethically loaded, and depends on just as many controversial moral presuppositions, as deontology or virtue ethics, which presumably is what he is referring to as "a morality play."

Economics cannot escape ethics, and people like Paul Krugman ignore that fact as their own peril--and, proportionate to their influence, ours as well.


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Bravo! Well said, Mark.

I am a regular reader of Krugman and find his posts often thought-provoking. Krugman's post referred to here displays a serious blind side. Sadly, Krugman's view is ubiquitous in the profession--that science (positive) and ethics (normative) can be separate spheres of analysis, and that one doesn't need to understand ethics to understand behavior in markets.

Thanks for the post.

Thanks, Jonathan!

I don't hear Krugman saying what you seem to think he is saying. He seems fully aware of the normative aspects of how income, goods, etc are allocated. I interpret what he is saying to mean that we can't rely on markets (free or otherwise) to automatically (as though led by an invisible hand) to arrive at a moral optimum. They may (under very restrictive conditions) maximize national output and in the right mix, but we still cannot be certain that the optimum will satisfy moral criteria (utilitarian or otherwise). My take is that he is making the point that if we want virtue or a morally preferred allocation, it will require govt intervention and the type of intervention matters (hence the Cuba-Sweden example). At any rate, I think he's pretty much agreeing with what I think is your own position. At least that's how it looks to me...but maybe I misunderstood what he or you were saying. :-)

Thanks, Maxine--I agree that that may be what he's saying (whether he knows it or not). He clearly has a preferred goal for the economy in mind, and favors whatever policies, involving whatever degree of government intervention necessary, to get us there. I just wonder whether he recognizes that as an inescapably and inherently moral problem; I suspect not.

My own point is that the market is morally just, regardless of what consequences it leads to, simply because it respects agents' choices and interests within a system of coordination based on voluntary exchange, without government intervention. The bit I quoted from Krugman's blog post, I think, speaks directly against that.

"(whether he knows it or not)... I suspect not."

Naturally, he must be speaking from ignorance, else how could he come to a different conclusion than you?

You would do yourself, your readers, and your intellectual sparring partners a service to assume the best of them, to argue against the strongest possible meanings or intentions, instead of the worst.

God, I miss Maxine Udall. Losing her voice in these discussions has been a real tragedy.

I still maintain, Andrew, that I did take Mr. Krugman at his word, without reading anything into what he wrote. And if I implied ignorance on his part, it was similarly based on what he wrote, not on the fact that we disagree.

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