Economics and Ethics

Willard points to a blog post on the subject of the ethics of economists. It’s not very harsh on its subjects, perhaps because the author is a confessed economist. The punch line does make you sit up and take notice:

This viewpoint infuriates some critics of economics, to the extent that it earned the famous nickname of “the dismal science”. Too few people know the context in which Thomas Carlyle hurled that epithet: it was in a proslavery article, first published in 1849, a few years after slavery had been abolished in the British empire. Carlyle attacked the idea that “black men” might simply be induced to work for pay, according to what he sneeringly termed the “science of supply and demand”. Scorning the liberal views of economists, he believed Africans should be put to work by force.

It’s always fascinating to see the ethical dilemmas of the past in the light of ethical certainties of today. Perhaps we’ve made more progress than it would appear. Still, the point of the rumination on the tension among purely economic (denumerable, rationalizable) behavior, ethical behavior, asserted behavior, and actual behavior, is more than a little interesting.

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