Archive for the 'Ethics' Category

Poverty of Ethics without Economics: Bangladesh

December 13, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

In a world where people’s ethical goals are intrinsic values we could easily argue, as did David Hume, that the values themselves are not subject to scientific analysis.  But, as things turn out, many of what people believe to be intrinsic values, and therefore ultimate goals, are not. They are intermediate ends to which the attainment of some more nearly ultimate goal is imputed. For example, if I believe that my happiness is an intrinsic moral good, and I think that the connection between my happiness and making more money is completely unproblematic, then I may legitimately believe that additional money-making is an ultimate moral goal. (How one intrinsic good should trade off against another is a separate issue.)

Some people think that policies that mandate good wages and safe working conditions are ultimate goals. Or at least they seem to believe that. Much of the discussion about the recent Bangladesh factory fire has this air about it. Much to my disadvantage in polite company, I argued that the advocates of “justice for the poor” were ignoring important factors.

Even if you do believe that better working conditions and higher wages for Bangladeshi garment makers are intrinsic values, what kinds of policies will achieve these values? Does it matter whether the policies will result in some workers improving their wages and working conditions, while other will see a decline in their wages and working conditions? Read the rest of this entry »

Let Wedding Cake Bakers Discriminate in Peace

December 8, 2013

By Mario Rizzo

“A Colorado judge says a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony must serve gay couples despite his religious beliefs, a ruling that a civil rights group hailed as a victory for gay rights.” Fox News 12/06/2013

Friedrich Hayek argues in his famous essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” that conservatives and socialists alike have no principled way of dealing with people whose moral views differ from theirs. Neither of them has absorbed the true lessons of toleration. Socialists (and I would add “progressives”) argue, in effect, for the imposition of their specific collective hierarchy of values including ideas about the allocation and distribution of resources in society. Conservatives often want to impose a hierarchy  of social values including restrictions on pornography, teaching of traditional values in the public schools (“creationism”), restrictions on entry into consensual social relations (“marriage is exclusively for one man and one woman”) and so forth.

The classical liberal insistence on a society that makes maximal room for a pluralism of values starts with the insight that markets permit individuals to make decisions according to their own hierarchies of values. Markets do not insist that we all share the same goals about the use of resources. And yet, subject to a few basic general rules, we can have coordination (not homogenization) of values through the price system. You can work , for example, for Amazon to help pay for your child’s clothing while the manager in your Amazon division is saving for a flat screen TV; the executive working for Amazon may be working for a vacation while the senior-citizen stockholder of Amazon is using the appreciation of stock-value to pay for copays on his medicine. And then there are all of the different goals of those working or investing in firms that deal with Amazon. And so forth as we spread our sights through the whole complex system of market interactions. Read the rest of this entry »

Economics Will Not Be Mocked

December 1, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

A few years ago I read and studied in great detail Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on globalization “Caritas in Veritate” or “Charity in Truth.” I posted a three-part analysis on the doubtful economics contained therein at ThinkMarkets. The first part is about the destructive influence of the encyclical. The second part is about globalization. The third part is about the attack on classical liberalism.

Shortly thereafter, I went to a conference that included discussion by economists of the encyclical. There were almost no defenders of the pope’s economics. In fact, I was told by one participant not to waste my time in a detailed examination of papal ideas relating to economics. No one in places of intellectual or policy influence much cares what the pope says. I was told that I care only because of my sixteen years of Catholic education. Perhaps this is all true; I do not know.  Nevertheless, the pope is worth listening to and reacting to because, in the modern world, there are few attempts by prominent public figures to address moral issues honestly.

The current statement of the “social gospel” by Pope Francis in “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel” is less authoritative than the previous encyclical by Benedict insofar as it is considered simply an “apostolic exhortation” or pastoral letter. However, the ideas expressed are in keeping with the recent Church teaching. (Nevertheless, one cannot help thinking that Pope John-Paul II’s economics in the encyclical “Centesimus Annus” was much better than that expressed by the two most recent popes.)

I will not go into the details of the current letter because I think my previous comments on Pope Benedict at ThinkMarkets effectively cover most of these. I want now simply to make a “meta-critique” of Pope Francis’s letter only insofar as it deals with issues that have economic content. Read the rest of this entry »

Questions for Free Market Moralists? Some Answers

October 22, 2013

By Mario Rizzo

A philosopher, Amia Srinivasan, fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, University of Oxford, writing in the New York Times Opinionator (online commentary) says that in order to be a consistent defender of Robert Nozick, the free market and classical liberalism, one must answer “yes” to all four questions below. And she believes that such consistent yes answers are not plausible. She is wrong that we are required to answer yes to all four and she is wrong that yes answers on any are implausible. She also misconceives the task of liberalism as a political philosophy.

Let us start with the last point. As Ludwig von Mises constantly reminded us, liberalism is not a philosophy of life. It does not deal with the ultimate questions of man’s place in the universe and the full range of choices human beings must make both in dealing with others and in guiding one’s own life. It is a philosophy about the role of the state in a world in which people differ in their life-philosophies or in the concrete application of a philosophy to different circumstances of time and place.

With this in mind we can briefly answer her questions: Read the rest of this entry »

Bangladeshi Garment Workers and the Perversion of Ethics

May 15, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

For the last few days the newspapers have been filled with stories about how western garment manufacturers will now insist on greater safety for the workers who make their clothes in Bangladesh. They will pay for renovations and reconstructions of the physical plants. What is more, the government in Bangladesh will raise the minimum wage and make unionization easier.

So now Pope Francis and the relatively rich in the developed world (many of whom were among the 900,000 names on a petition to improve things that has been circulated) will be pleased and the demands of their social conscience will be satisfied. Read the rest of this entry »

F.A. Hayek: His 114th Birthday

May 8, 2013

by Mario RizzoHayek as Street Art

Today is Hayek’s birthday. Much has been and will continue to written about him. When I look around at much of what passes for economics today, especially in the prestige circles, I cringe.  But reading his work always comforts me that something better is possible. And, in fact, there are many economists all over the world who take their inspiration from Hayek and his work. This is their day too!

Hayek, of course, was more than economist. He also had profound things to say about the mind, the rule of law, and ethics. Recently, I saw a stark example of the difference in ethical thinking between Hayek and more conventional moralists. This was in the case of the tragic fire in a Bangladeshi factory making clothes for western companies. The new Pope Francis condemned it as an example of corporations only caring about their bottom-line.

Now there are legitimate issues, from the point of view of the individuals working in this and other such factories. Can they rely on the attestations of a certain degree of safety in their working environment? Before people can voluntary assume the risks associated with certain kinds of work they must have at least a pretty good idea of what those risks are.

And yet there is a more fundamental issue.  Workplace safety is a matter of degrees. It is a working condition that is part of the cost of labor. There is an inevitable tradeoff between wages and level of employment, on the one hand, and workplace safety on the other hand. In rich countries workers can afford to sacrifice something for greater workplace safety. This is all part of increasing wealth.

Now major corporations are re-thinking their use of factory labor in Bangladesh.  They don’t want the images of large numbers of dead ruining their reputations. Ostensibly, they will argue that since they cannot trust Bangladeshi authorities to keep the factories safe they will not deal with them. Voila, the moral stance. Read the rest of this entry »

Ignorant Survey from Chicago-Booth?

February 28, 2013

By Mario Rizzo

The Chicago-Booth IMG Forum asks their favorite economists two questions. Let us examine them.

Question A:

Raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour would make it noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment.

Why was the word “noticeably” added to the question rather than some specific quantitative amount?  In other words, the question could have been phrased: “Would it increase unemployment among low-skilled works by approximately 5 percentage points or less?”  I realize that economists would get nervous about mentioning a specific number. But (1) That would reveal the true difficulties in economics of making quantitative predictions and hence tradeoffs; (2) It would take the subjectivity out of the word “noticeable.”  Noticeable for whom, and by what standard?  Noticeable to the public or to the policy maker or to the economist or to the low skilled workers or to union members?

Question B:

The distortionary costs of raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour and indexing it to inflation are sufficiently small compared with the benefits to low-skilled workers who can find employment that this would be a desirable policy.

There is a lot here. Let us first separate the raising of the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour from the indexing (one could favor the former but not the latter). Read the rest of this entry »

Raise Middle Class Taxes Now!

December 26, 2012

by Mario Rizzo

I now favor expiration of the Bush era tax rates for everyone.  Why? Because the only way to curb spending in the long run is to make as large a number of Americans as possible truly feel the consequences of the expenditures they appear to desire.

If Americans saw the cost of the gigantic welfare state in their paychecks, they would, I am confident, radically re-evaluate the expenditure side of the situation we are in. Then when someone comes up with a genius idea for spending, the people would think: Is it worth higher taxes? Might I not spend it better on my family, my church – or even – on… champagne? Read the rest of this entry »

Morality as Word Magic

February 12, 2012

by Mario Rizzo

I am disturbed by the Obama administration’s revised rule regarding the provision of birth-control products and service under the new health insurance system they have created.  The original rule required all employers, particularly for our purposes institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church, to provide insurance that covers birth control without copayment , coinsurance or deductible.  The Church hierarchy and others protested that they should not have to provide insurance that reimburses or pays for activities they regard as immoral. So then after a politically troublesome firestorm, President Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced a revised rule.

The revised rule requires all employers, particularly for our purposes institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church, to provide insurance that covers birth control without copayment, coinsurance or deductible. What a relief. Read the rest of this entry »

The Just Distribution of Income and Wealth

December 26, 2011

by Mario Rizzo

There has been a lot of talk this year, and especially during the holiday season, about the inequities in the distribution of wealth and income. But most of what has been written is quite simple-minded, if the writers mean to convey something more than their own personal preferences for a different distribution.

I have no objection to passive expressions of preference. But I do have objection when people attempt to bolster their case for intervention by the state under the banner of distributive justice, morality, religion or whatever is supposed to evoke some objectivity. Read the rest of this entry »

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