The Self-Imposed Poverty of Economics

By Machan, Tibor R.; Brown, David M. | Ideas on Liberty, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Self-Imposed Poverty of Economics


Machan, Tibor R., Brown, David M., Ideas on Liberty


Life is more than a game, and human beings are more than rule-bound strategists. Moral values are possible. Authentic allegiance to such values is possible.

Too obvious a point to debate, you think? Maybe not. In The New Republic (June 5, 2000), the very bright and philosophically astute Professor Peter Berkowitz of George Mason University Law School reviewed Eric A. Posner's interesting book, Law and Social Norms (Harvard University Press, 2000). Posner's book is essentially a rendering into economic language of the ethical and political issues of human life. Posner sets out to show that, using the tools of scientific economics alone (or even more narrowly, of game theory), we can explain why people act as they do. Why, for example, do people sustain their commitments to others even despite opportunities to "advance" their interests "by means of what game theorists call 'defecting' or `opportunistic behavior,' and what ordinary people call lying, cheating, and stealing"?

The analysis by Berkowitz is insightful, largely setting forth, rather adeptly, oftenheard complaints against economic reductionism. He explains that there is really more to ethics and politics, at their best, than merely the working out and following of narrow strategies for realizing what one desires in life. "In so far as we are small," he concludes, "game theory may explain what we do; but we are not only small."

Economists, like other social scientists, are always seeking some comprehensive and unitary explanation of human behavior, one that mimics the natural sciences, especially physics. What they want is surefire predictability of regular phenomena, a basic motive or drive to explain why people do what they do; and that explanation, once arrived at, is expected to be exhaustive. Usually the favored motive is the desire to prosper, even though the content of prosperity may vary tremendously from person to person, age to age, and region to region around the world. Indeed, just to make sure he covers everything, the economist tends to define prosperity as the getting of what one desires to get. Every sought goal is thus ipso facto an economic goal.

Posner proposes that the explanatory scheme he draws from economics and game theory can make complete, comprehensive sense of ethics and politics. Ethics and politics may not seem equivalent to straightforward economic thinking and behavior, but in fact they are just differing expressions of the same motivation: people do the right thing because it will get them what they want, fulfill their concrete desires, whether over the short run or the long run. Laws and social norms are but common practices that help us get our way; they are strategies for living. Actions that seem to supply evidence of moral commitment are really, according to Posner, just "behavioral regularities" undertaken "to show that they are desirable partners in cooperative endeavors. Defection in cooperative endeavors is deterred by fear of reputational injury... People who care about future payoffs not only resist the temptation to cheat in a relationship; they signal their ability to resist the temptation to cheat by conforming to styles of dress, speech, conduct, and discrimination. The resulting behavioral regularities, which I describe as `social norms,' can vastly enhance or diminish social welfare."

Plausible-as far as it goes. Certainly human action is purposeful, at least; we do pursue ends and deploy means to achieve those ends. But as Berkowitz observes, Posner seems not only to be rather gratuitously translating the "wisdom of the ages" into the language of economic theory, but also to be claiming, "With Machiavelli, that it is more important to appear good than to be good." A corollary claim seems to be that morality is either a mirage or, in Berkowitz's words, "at least a discourse that is reducible to something more fundamental and thoroughly nonmoral."

With deep moral commitment banned from the picture, so are its obvious incarnations; thus Posner, Berkowitz writes, can perform "the remarkable feat of writing an entire chapter on marriage and the family without ever mentioning love. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Self-Imposed Poverty of Economics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.