Jul 18, 2012

Economics and Greed

Luigi Zingales writes:
Oddly, most economists see their subject as divorced from morality. They liken themselves to physicists, who teach how atoms do behave, not how they should behave. But physicists do not teach to atoms, and atoms do not have free will. If they did, physicists would and should be concerned about how the atoms being instructed could change their behavior and affect the universe. Experimental evidence suggests that the teaching of economics does have an effect on students’ behavior: It makes them more selfish and less concerned about the common good. This is not intentional. Most teachers are not aware of what they are doing. 
My colleague Gary Becker pioneered the economic study of crime. Employing a basic utilitarian approach, he compared the benefits of a crime with the expected cost of punishment (that is, the cost of punishment times the probability of receiving that punishment). While very insightful, Becker’s model, which had no intention of telling people how they should behave, had some unintended consequences. A former student of Becker’s told me that he found many of his classmates to be remarkably amoral, a fact he took as a sign that they interpreted Becker’s descriptive model of crime as prescriptive. They perceived any failure to commit a high-benefit crime with a low expected cost as a failure to act rationally, almost a proof of stupidity. The student’s experience is consistent with the experimental findings I mentioned above.
Read more here. HT: Mostly Economics

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