Are liberals confused by economics?

I’m saddened to see this Buturovic and Klein survey treated credulously on a philosophy blog. The survey has problems that should worry anyone who has thought about the difference between facts and values.

The basic idea: Buturovic and Klein asked a bunch of people to classify as true or false a list of propositions considered true by a broad range of economists. Liberals were much more likely than conservatives to label propositions false, thereby contradicting the consensus view of economists. The upshot, according to Klein, is that conservatives are better informed about economics.

But the questions in the survey are terrible. They are loaded with words that invite value judgments in their colloquial usage. Many of these words, though normative in colloquial usage, have technical meaning in the context of economics– technical meanings that strip out the normative content. Thus, it’s perfectly possible to agree with economists– even conservative economists– about the facts, and still class some of these propositions as false.

Take proposition number 4: “Third World workers working for American companies overseas are not exploited.”

“Exploitation” is a normative concept. You can’t weigh in on this proposition without taking a stand on the standards of living that people in developing countries deserve when they’re working for American corporations. It’s generally the case that people working for American corporations in developing countries are better off than many of their peers. That’s why economists agree that these workers aren’t exploited. But it’s entirely consistent to think that someone making $2/day is 1) better off than her peers and 2) nevertheless treated poorly (exploited) by a corporation that could easily afford to pay her much more.

Normative content is packed into all these propositions, even when it isn’t as obvious as #4. Consider:

1. “Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.” Yes, of course, if by “price” you mean the money exchanged for the service. But if you understand “price” to mean “cost,” the question looks different. If I go to an unlicensed surgeon to have my appendix removed, my bill will be smaller, but it’s likely that the cost to me– death!– will be much higher. The question is: what understanding of “price” ought we to use?


3. “Rent control leads to housing shortages.” Yes, of course, if by “shortage” you mean “a situation in which a good or service can’t be purchased at any price.” But there are the same number of apartments in Manhattan whether or not there’s rent control. Rent control means tenants compete for apartments based on something other than ability to pay higher prices. The question is what ought to govern the distribution of rental properties?

If you use words like “cost,” “shortage,” and “exploitation” in a colloquial way that respects their normative aspects, it makes sense that people would give normatively loaded (and ideologically coded) answers to questions the survey pretends are purely factual.  In short, this survey is lousy, and philosophers should be well positioned to understand why.

Related articles:

‘Naturalism’ and ‘Skepticism’ in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature
By Sean Greenberg, UC Irvine (May 2008)
Philosophy Compass

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