Can a Good Economist Be Compassionate?


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It’s difficult to be a good economist and simultaneously be perceived as compassionate. To be a good economist, one has to deal with reality. To appear compassionate, often one has to avoid unpleasant questions, use “caring” terminology and view reality as optional.

Affordable housing and health care costs are terms with considerable emotional appeal that politicians exploit but have absolutely no useful meaning or analytical worth. For example, can anyone tell me in actual dollars and cents the price of an affordable car, house or myomectomy? It’s probably more pleasant to pretend that there is universal agreement about what is or is not affordable.

If you think my criticism of affordability is unpleasant, you’ll hate my vision of harm. A good economist recognizes that harm is not a one-way street; it’s reciprocal. For example, if I own a lot and erect a house in front of your house and block your view of a beautiful scene, I’ve harmed you; however, if I am prevented from building my house in front of yours, I’m harmed. Whose harm is more important? You say, “Williams, you can’t tell.” You can stop me from harming you by persuading some government thugs to stop me from building. It’s the same thing with smoking. If I smoke a cigarette, you’re harmed — or at least bothered. If I’m prevented from smoking a cigarette, I’m harmed by reduced pleasure. Whose harm is more important? Again, you can’t tell. But as in the building example, the person who is harmed can use government thugs to have things his way.

How many times have we heard that “if it will save just one human life, it’s worth it” or that “human life is priceless”? Both are nonsense statements. If either statement were true, we’d see lower speed limits, bans on auto racing and fewer airplanes in the sky. We can always be safer than we are. For example, cars could be produced such that occupants could survive unscathed in a 50-mph head-on collision, but how many of us could buy such a car? Don’t get me wrong; I might think my life is priceless, but I don’t view yours in the same light.

I admire Greta Garbo’s objectivity about her life. She said, “I’m a completely worthless woman, and no man should risk his life for me.”

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  • truebearing

    Humanity shrinks from the truth. A good economist is like a good prophet, and just as unpopular. Choosing to tell the truth is a risky proposition in this realm.

  • clarespark

    We can't tell the hard truth, so resort to irrational appeals in both parties. Our presidential candidates must prove their bona fides by being "in touch" with "the middle class" (once known as the working class). I wrote about the pervasiveness of the compassion narrative here: http://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-m…. Economists, are, professionally rootless cosmopolitans and empiricists. Not cool.

  • Western Spirit

    The truth is always unpopular because it seldom flatters, serves agendas or any other purposes that lies serve, yet its absolutely necessary for freedom to ring.

  • Goebbels

    Looks like you have confused a "good economist" with your particular political ideology. I think its possible to find "good" economist on either end of the political spectrum because their studies say something useful, usually statistically, about sectors some part of how the economic systems work. This is exactly the opposite of "bad economists" of either stripe who simply repeat platitudes with out any data or new insight. I am fairly sure no one is asking you any of the rhetorical question you ask yourself in the article as it is extremely unlikely that any but the true believers consider you an economist, let alone a good one.

    • truebearing

      You missed his point about objectivity and are projecting, and rather incoherently at that.

  • H&R_ Barack

    WALTER E. ROCKS!!!

    Walter E ax's: "Can a Good Economist Be Compassionate?"

    "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn,"

    To the GOV''MENT – Keep your cotton pickin' fingars outta my pockets!

  • http://RussP.us Russ P.

    I basically agree with Walter Williams, but I would put it a bit differently. There may be nothing the government can do to improve the economy, but there's plenty it can undo. In the legislative realm, undoing is doing. You can't repeal a law or regulation without taking positive legislative action.