The Moral Heart of Economics
Beautifully-written essay on economics, liberty and the public welfare by Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser.
Economists often present a cold public persona, emphasizing dollars and sense over the rousing rhetoric of moral argument. But by appearing as technocrats who seem concerned only with the bottom line, we allow ourselves to be portrayed as people without a sense of right and wrong.
In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill asserted, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
In the last century, Milton Friedman offered “freedom is a rare and delicate flower” and “a society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.”
Economists’ fondness for freedom rarely implies any particular policy program. A fondness for freedom is perfectly compatible with favoring redistribution, which can be seen as increasing one person’s choices at the expense of the choices of another, or with Keynesianism and its emphasis on anticyclical public spending.
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The belief in freedom does, however, create a predilection for human interaction and trade. As Friedman wrote, “The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.” For many economists, defending free trade isn’t just about gross domestic product; it’s fighting for core values of freedom and human interdependence.