Economists are known and criticized for emphasizing, even encouraging, human selfishness. This weekend, George Mason University’s Tyler Cowen had a provocative piece in the New York Times making the case for another side of economics: its egalitarian tradition. Here is a tidbit:
Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.
At least since the 19th century, the interest of economists in personal liberty can be easily documented. In 1829, all 15 economists who held seats in the British Parliament voted to allow Roman Catholics as members. In 1858, the 13 economists in Parliament voted unanimously to extend full civil rights to Jews. (While both measures were approved, they were controversial among many non-economist members.) For many years leading up to the various abolitions of slavery, economists were generally critics of slavery and advocates of people’s natural equality, as documented by David M. Levy, professor of economics at George Mason University, and Sandra J. Peart, dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, in “The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher’: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics.”
Professors Levy and Peart coined the phrase “analytical egalitarianism” to describe the underpinnings of this tradition. For example, Adam Smith cited birth and fortune, as opposed to intrinsically different capabilities, as the primary reasons for differences in social rank. And the classical economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill promoted equal legal and institutional rights for women long before such views were fashionable. Their utilitarian moral theories placed individuals on a par in the social calculus by asking about the greatest good for the greatest number.
He argues that this explains why economists generally have what might be called a cosmopolitan view of immigration. The whole thing is here.
The piece triggered a response from another economist at George Mason University, Bryan Caplan. Caplan is delighted about Cowen’s free immigration position but disagrees with the ”analytical egalitarianism” doctrine. I’m looking forward to more debate on this issue.