Economics and Values
In a semi-recent post by fellow Gentleman JamesK, commenter Creon Critic gave an ineresting comment that bears a reply
Take the issue of trade liberalization discussed in this thread. Competing values include preserving a way of life and expressing disapproval at exploitative working conditions in developing countries. Specific values issues that might come up: What cultural value does agricultural work provide for the broader society? What do quotas on English language films insulate a less dominant language from? What does it mean to ask someone to shift from one job to another? To what extent should poor working conditions in the developing world impact how we consume a particular product?
At first blush, there does seem to be a problem here. Economists may be overstating their case. However, we cannot be so quick.
I have been recently reading Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation by Guido Pincione and Fernando Teson* and they brought up an interesting argument that often goes unexamined: values and posturing
Why should we care about whether someone may lose a job? Why do we care about working conditions in developing nations? We do so because we care about the poor! However, if we cared about the poor, we should take seriously the notion that sweatshops is their way out of poverty. Expressing a value in a way which is counterproductive to the fulfillment of said values is merely posturing. if you care about reducing global poverty, you should fight for globalisation, not against. If you care about the well-being of the worst off in society, you should fight to abolish the minimum wage!
Of course, not all values are problematic in this way. Some values would be things like preseving a way of life, or whether our farmers are our heroes etc. Economic liberalisation may indeed threaten such ways of life. The short answer is that while such things may be important to people who posses such a conception of the good, but the state ought not force it on everyone. the reason for this can be a bit abstract, but I will try to outline it here.
A free-standing conception of justice is a conception of justice that does not assume any particular conception of the good. i.e. simply by being free-standing, it has independent claim on our allegiance. However, as principles of justice, they are regulative of the conceptions of he good. i.e. the principles of justice limit what claims people may make on each other during the pursuit of their own conceptions of the good, not the other way around. Below, I will not deduce the principles, but merely state them. Their full derivation is here and here and here.
The free-standing principles of justice are
- Each person is entitled to a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties subject to everyone else possessing the same scheme of liberties.
- Income and Wealth are to be distributed in a system where positions are open to all in a scheme of fair equality of opportunity and where the lifetime prospects follow (roughly) a leximin distribution.
- Political institutions are to be arranged in such a way as to satisfy the first two principles
i.e. we should care about maximising the lifetime prospects of the worst off. The only considerations that could trump this are fair equality of opportunity, and equal basic liberties. The value of agriculture as a way of life just does not figure into it (as far as the most fundamental social institutions are concerned)
To be sure, I am not saying that economists do not sneak in normative premises. What I am saying is that even if they do, we cannot simply say aha! Value Judgements! and then hide behind relativism.