By James Kwak
Funny thing, Twitter. My most-viewed tweet ever is the following:
“A survey of 131 economists found that their answers to moral questions predicted their answers to empirical ones.” https://t.co/sPmCZx9S4A
— James Kwak (@JamesYKwak) May 14, 2016
That’s a retweet of this, from Neel Kashkari:
When All Economics Is Political https://t.co/rL5hTo9syF
— Neel Kashkari (@neelkashkari) May 14, 2016
The quotation about the survey is from the WSJ article about Russ Roberts that Kashkari originally tweeted.
Most of the comments on my tweet were some version of “duh.” But then there were a bunch who said some version of “correlation doesn’t imply causality” (which is an excuse to link to my favorite XKCD cartoon).
The thing is, it’s quite plausible that there is causality from empirical beliefs (how the world works) to policy preferences (what one should do). But I don’t see why there would be causality from empirical beliefs to moral beliefs. For example, let’s say you think that same-sex marriage is morally wrong, perhaps because the Bible says so (in your interpretation, at least). You should be able to concede any number of empirical points—that gay couples are perfectly good at raising children, that the existence of gay married couples does not weaken straight marriages around them, that the incidence of gay married couples does not cause an increase in crime, etc.—while still holding to your belief that same-sex marriage is morally wrong. That’s the thing about morality. Conceding these points might decrease your resistance to gay marriage as a public policy—that’s causality from empirics to policy—but it shouldn’t change your moral beliefs.
So what is this “survey of 131 economists” really about? The preliminary findings are in “The Moral Narratives of Economists” by Anthony Randazzo and Jonathan Haidt. They surveyed a bunch of economists and asked them two sets of questions: one economic (e.g., is austerity good or bad for economic growth) and one moral (e.g., which is more fair, equal outcomes or outcomes that are proportional to contributions). They found, to take a couple of examples:
- “Economists that tended to favor fiscal austerity during a recession defined fairness in proportional terms” and more generally “tended to show a moral judgment profile similar to what you would find among political conservatives.”
- Economists who opposed austerity during a recession “tended to have moral worldviews similar to political progressives, such as defining fairness in terms of equality.”
The obvious (“duh”) reading is that moral beliefs (conservative, liberal) shape people’s opinions about what should be empirical questions (effects of austerity).
The reverse-causality argument is the following: Imagine some macroeconomist who starts off with an egalitarian moral worldview. She studies fiscal policy in recessions and concludes that fiscal austerity tends to increase economic growth. Because of this research finding, she adopts conservative moral views—that is, she starts thinking that fairness should be thought of in terms of just deserts rather than equal outcomes. To me, that just doesn’t make sense. I don’t see the mechanism that leads from a judgment about policy effectiveness to a belief about what is fair.
But here’s the broader question that Randazzo and Haidt bring up. Take two big questions about the role of government in the economy: (a) whether there should be a robust welfare state to protect people from the risks of capitalism; and (b) whether should be a robust regulatory state to ensure that corporate profit-seeking is channeled toward socially beneficial ends. These are two very different issues, and the empirical questions on which they depend are also very different. The first depends a lot on whether you think that the incentive costs of welfare programs are balanced by the benefits they provide to recipients; the second depends a lot on whether you think that the cost of regulation exceeds the social costs generated by corporate externalities in the first place. It should be possible for a careful economist to conclude that the welfare state is good and the regulatory state is bad, or vice versa.
So why is it, as Randazzo and Haidt observe, that “there seem to be no U.S. economists who take diverging views on the welfare state and the regulatory state?” Their hypothesis is that people, including economists, have morally coherent, narrative beliefs about the world—stories—and their beliefs about specific, empirical questions have to be consistent with those stories. To anyone who is at all self-aware, this seems obvious. Duh.