Monday, July 20, 2015
Economic Concepts And Normative Entanglement
Don't you think it's kind of weird from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less"?
I feel like economics should have nothing to say on the subject. And in one sense, I'd say economics agrees with me: as a study of what causes what, as a set of theories or models about what happens when you do X or Y, economics just sits there. It can't have any particular normative content -- that is, it can't, by itself, say that one thing is better than another or that we should or ought to do something rather than something else.
In this way of seeing things, economic theory itself is neutral: it doesn't recommend any particular course of action. It's not until policy makers articulate goals that you can then put the theory to use in figuring out how to achieve those goals.
Theoretically, I think this is correct, but I'm often struck by how tangled up things get in practice and how difficult it is to keep the descriptive and the normative apart. It's a complex matter, but I think at least one important part of it has to do with concepts like "rational" and "efficient." Yes, in a sense you could use these concepts merely as descriptive terms, as devoid of evaluative or value-laden content. But it's not easy. How is calling something "rational" or "effiicent" not a way of recommending it? Or, even more strikingly, how is calling something "irrational" or "inefficient" not a way of criticizing it?
One reason it's very difficult, in practice, to use those concepts in the neutral descriptive way is that they are actually ordinary language concepts with deep connections to our lives. If a physicist says that the table is made of atoms, that doesn't give me any feelings about tables, particularly. I mean, it's interesting and maybe useful but I don't have any deep historical personal relation to the concepts involved. But if my mortgage broker tells me that preferring a fixed-rate mortgage is "irrational" -- how can I possibly interpret that as a neutral statement?
Some neutrality defenders I've spoken to have pointed out that each of these terms has a technical definition in economics which means they're not the same concepts as the loaded, normative ones we use when we're arguing with each other about whether it makes sense to eat cake or go to the gym or whatever.
I get that -- and theoretically, I think it's correct. But the problem is this: if the technical concepts aren't in some way connected to the ordinary concepts -- if they're really formal technical definitions like "atom" that have nothing to do with our lives, then how can we use the conclusions? There has to be some way of explaining how the formal definitions are related to things we want to do, like bringing about prosperity and justice and liberty through rational and efficient methods -- where these concepts are the ordinary concepts, not the technical ones.
So one thing I think happens -- and this happens not at the site of economic theory but out in the world where we're all just talking and thinking about what to do -- is that instead of thinking through the possibly fraught and complex relationships between the technical concepts and the ordinary ones, we just substitute in as if they're the same.
And that's where the strange things happen. If you think economic efficiency is good, and economic activity tends to produce it, you look at weight loss and you see immediately that, other things being equal, exercise tends to increase economic activity while eating less tends to decrease it.
Exercise often means gym memberships, special shoes, etc etc., while eating less tends to mean not buying extra cupcakes at the store. Weirdly, even following food guidelines for healthy eating seems to mean feeding yourself with less economic activity -- since you're eating less processed food and eating at home.
So, yes, in a sense, from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less." Given that there seems to be converging agreement that eating less might actually be a more successful strategy, it might be the case that what is good from the economic point of view might be opposed to our own individual good.
This is, of course, but the tiniest example, but I think similar mechanisms are at work in the large ones as well. Efficiency measures how things are overall and says nothing about individual rights or justice or whether the status quo is itself acceptable. If you take a society of rich people and poor people, and you just make the rich people better off, you have, in a sense, increased "efficiency."
Sure -- theoretically, you can use the term "efficient" in the technical sense in which it's a formal, value-neutral, concept and to say that something increases efficiency isn't a way of recommending it, and then you could go on to have a whole discussion about whether increasing overall efficiency by increasing the well-being of the well-off is a good thing to do in the given case or whether other things should happen.
But, for all kinds of reasons, that's often not how it goes in reality.