Phi Beta Cons

Politics & Policy

A Professor Who Misunderstands What Economics is About

A huge number of people have watched the rap video that GMU economics professor Russ Roberts created several years ago to popularize the intellectual debate between Austrian School economists and Keynesians on the big issue of the effects of government intervention. Now, a professor at Roosevelt University has done a new take on the dispute. Inside Higher Ed has the story here.

The Roosevelt professor, Stephen Ziliak, thinks that the Roberts video is bad because it supposedly slights “social justice” concerns. Here’s the problem: economics (no matter what school) is not about philosophy, which is the field where justice (even that chimera “social” justice) belongs. Economics, as Ludwig von Mises often said, is value-free. Economists don’t (at least shouldn’t) declare what is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. They should explain how various policies will affect human conduct. For instance, economics does not say whether minimum wage laws are good or bad, but only that if you enact such laws, you must expect certain consequences.

Because many economists (and, I’d venture to say, every one in the GMU economics department) concludes that such laws create serious problems in the labor market, people like Ziliak often think that they’re “against social justice.” What they actually saying is that if you believe that mandating a higher price for labor will improve the lives of most poorer people, you are mistaken. Their argument is not with the notion of social justice, but that most of the measures that social justice advocates think are helpful are actually counterproductive.

Hayek, writing as a philosopher, did however take issue with the concept of “social justice” in his book The Mirage of Social Justice. In short, he argued that social justice is a meaningless phrase because justice or injustice is an attribute of individual conduct. Society is merely an abstraction, cannot act, and thus can be neither just nor unjust. Would Professor Ziliak have his students read and discuss it in addition to his video?

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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