The Dismal Science Could Not Be So Dismal

This weekend the Library of Economics and Liberty has a nice piece on why economics is often called the "dismal science." According to the post, the phrase originated not in a debate over economic growth, as is commonly believed, but in a debate over slavery. John Stuart Mill, one of economics's foundational thinkers, strongly supported emancipation because "economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty."

It's interesting to note the contrast between the strong morality in John Stuart Mill's economics and the flaccid morality of today's economics, which is restrained by its rejection of any comparison between two persons' outcomes (one exception might be todays' economists' broad support of open borders).

One way this bears itself out is the treatment of animals in modern economics. John Stuart Mill's intellectual forbears and descendants are notable for supporting basic equality for animals. The claim is different from the human slavery case because Mill's criticism of slavery invoked the equality of ability, whereas criticisms of animal husbandry rest more simply on the moral equality of animal suffering and human suffering. Nonetheless, the implication is strikingly similar: that viewing animals as property without any intrinsic value is untenable. Today's economics ignores this simple and just claim. Modern economic analysis regards a dog or a pig no differently from a sofa, with the scant literature on the subject determining their value entirely by the decisions of the consumer. It would be good to see economics reclaim its moral heritage and begin regarding animals' well-being as having a value in its own right, independent of humans'.

(It should go without saying that I do not wish to compare black slaves of the nineteenth century to nonhuman animals, especially given the potentially violent results of such comparisons. What I am saying is that there is a similarity in the desire to draw an arbitrary line of moral consideration, and that economics should reject this.)


  1. Hey Zach! I think this post is a bit too hard on "today's economics." I agree that economics overall emphasizes distribution less and Pareto equilibria more than I would. But I think it's an overgeneralization to say that "the flaccid morality of today's economics. . . is restrained by its rejection of any comparison between two persons' outcomes." I think this paints an overly "dismal" picture of the array of issues economists work on and neglects the work being done by your employer (as well as J-PAL and all the folks who work on US inequality and anti-poverty policy).

    I think lots of economists find diminishing marginal utility to be a valid reason to compare persons' outcomes and care about redistribution and I don't think we'd see all of the empirical work that exists on anti-poverty interventions (in the U.S. and abroad) and on inequality if today's economics really didn't leave space for interpersonal utility comparisons.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that there are many economists who do interpersonal utility comparisons, whether explicitly or implicitly. I don't think that this settles the question, though. For example, I believe it was Robert Frank who did a study of how students played a simple prisoner's dilemma game before and after introductory economics and found that students were far more likely to defect after taking a course in introductory economics. This does not strike me as a coincidence. Many (though not all) introductory and intermediate courses explicitly or implicitly teach the idea that egoism is rational and that interpersonal comparisons of utility are nonsensical. I think this contributes to overall problematic ethic in parts of the discipline that has led to fewer examples of economists taking stands on controversial issues of justice beyond economic policy.

    2. Yep. That study definitely is evidence that the discipline is having some negative effects along the lines your post suggests.

      That said, I think I still object to your characterization (or at least your framing). When folks write that "today's economics . . . reject[s] . . . any comparison between two persons' outcomes," it sets up an antagonistic framing with economics (and economists) on one side and folks who care about distribution on the other. I think this framing is a bit misleading as well as unstrategic.

      I'd prefer a framing that emphasizes and normalizes the fact that, although we might not know how to do them perfectly, interpersonal utility comparisons already are (and always have been) a part of economics. As you write, "there are many economists who do interpersonal utility comparisons, whether explicitly or implicitly." From Frederick M. Taylor, Oscar Lange, and Abba Lerner's discussions of market socialism to Hicks, Kaldor, and Harrod's engagement with the Lionel Robbins essay you link to, to Arthur Okun's Equality and Efficiency tradeoff, to Picketty and Saez's work today, there has never been a time when economics as a discipline shunned work whose relevance depended on making these comparisons. So, instead of saying that"today's economics" conflicts with our sense of morality, I think it'd be more accurate to say that certain views within economics have swept other prevalent views (which are equally compatible with the contemporary core of the discipline) under the rug.

      I think this framing is not only more accurate but also more strategic because I think economists are less likely to be attentive to distribution if we keep telling them that they need to choose between acknowledging its importance and abiding by the norms and methods of their discipline. The adversarial framing also plays into the stereotype that activists and left-wing types don't have much to learn from (or are ignorant of) economic analysis.

      Anyways - that's my two cents. Sorry to latch on to a bit of a side issue in your overall post.

      P.S. - this comment, as well as the one at 5:02, is by Howie.

    3. I thought it was you. :-) That is a good point. I will probably write (a lot) more on this subject in the future, and I agree with you, so I really value these comments. That's a good modification to the argument that I will make going forward.

    4. I guess my concern is sort of an intra-disciplinary factional one. I want the views swept under the rug to be the prevalent ones, because I think that the strict rejection of ICUs is philosophically ludicrous. To be clear, I do value ideological diversity greatly, but I think it would be better for libertarian and conservative views to be defended on more reasonable grounds, which would pose more of an intellectual challenge to left-leaning ones. You're right that this would be a better way to frame it.

    5. Agree with everything you said at 7:01.


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