Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Morality without Romance

James Buchanan famously described the public choice project as "politics without romance." What he meant by this is that to correctly understand decision making in the absence of prices, the cautious analyst must apply the same logical rigor she uses to understand and explain the market to loosen the joints of non-market decisions. Upon hearing this for the first time, you might be tempted to make a rude gesture and say "duh", but I urge you to reconsider. Think for a moment that not only for much of the intersection of formalized, modern economics and policy recommendation has government been implicitly modeled as deus ex machina, a benevolent despot that can correct instances of market failure, but that this unreflective intuition still survives to this day in a fairly wide swath of the literature.

And unfortunately, in the popular opinion too.

I don't know if Mungo holds the same opinion, but I think of the EE project as an adjunct, an extension to the public choice programme, extending the same logic that works well to describe the exchange of goods and services to the exchange of ideas, of hunches, of morality. It's a project that reconsiders the maxim that de gustibus non est disputandum.

Why is this important? I think there's value in encouraging folks to pause and examine the hodge-podge collection of moral intuitions they've carried since early childhood. By drawing attention to commonly-held beliefs and reasoning from bedrock moral principles rather than just bedrock economic principles, I believe it might be easier to have a clear conversation about the intersection of politics, (pedestrian) philosophy, and economics. EE adds to the specimen box that we peer into with the microscope of economic analysis the blobulus that constitutes the smoky moral lens that ordinary folks use to peek out of the cave.

Is this overreaching? Do not these topics belong to other disciplines? Could be, but Buchanan didn't let that stop him. I'm no Buchanan, not by a country mile, but you have to first plow the field if you ever want your orchard to bear fruit.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?