Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Harvard Crimson on Michael Sandel on economists

One of the clearest reviews of Michael Sandel's thoughts on economics and economists appears in the Harvard Crimson (the student newspaper), written by Jonathan Zhou, and undergraduate, and titled Luddite of the Mind. (As is often the case, the url is more entertaining than the headline: )

Zhou writes, in part:

"Professor Sandel criticizes economists for applying efficiency arguments to buying and selling kidneys without thinking about its moral consequence. If Sandel cares to talk to any economist at the Harvard Faculty Club, he will find that his colleagues not only think about such moral complexities, but have also devised solutions. Instead of cash incentives, the “kidney exchange” will use an algorithm to swap donated kidneys, so that people who cannot receive donated kidneys from a loved one can still get a donated kidney from a stranger. This can improve efficiency of kidney donation based on the economic principle of coincidence of wants, but not in a morally contentious way. The study of markets without financial incentives became such an important subfield of economics that its intellectual godfather, Harvard economist Alvin E. Roth, received the Nobel Prize in Economics last year for this contribution. It is intriguing that in Sandel’s book about economists’ fixation with monetary markets, he forgets to include such alternative markets offered by mainstream economists.
More broadly speaking, economists are no strangers to difficult discussions about civic life. The great economists Kenneth J. Arrow and Amartya Sen founded the field of social choice theory, a mathematical formalism for making collective decisions with consideration of fairness, rights, liberties, and human folly. Of course, such ideas would not be included in Professor Sandel’s hypothetical textbook, because he dismisses the “rigor of natural sciences” in economics as deviant from the discipline’s origin as moral philosophy."


Highgamma said...

I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately. There's more than just an efficiency argument here. Sandel's argument can be thought of as a denial of property rights. While property rights can be used to oppress, in the case of kidney exchanges, the recognition of property rights affords those in need the fundamental dignity of being able to decide what to do with what they own (including their own bodies). Free markets can lead to a freer society.

Moral codes have a long history of being instruments of oppression, much more than property rights have ever been. Sandel wants to impose his will upon others and seems to line up in a long list of philosophers who have used moral codes as tools of oppression. (Dying due to the lack of a kidney donor when there are fair allocation mechanisms available is the ultimate form of oppression.)

Anonymous said...

A good response. It's distressing to see snake oil salesmen like Sandel take advantage of the economic climate to sell books bashing straw economists.