The Humanity of the Economist
By Bryan Caplan
A sad, true story: One of my parents’ neighbors (allegedly) murdered a transvestite prostitute on Sunday.
NORTHRIDGE – A 50-year-old man who was living in his mother’s home in a quiet middle-class neighborhood killed a transvestite prostitute earlier this week with a garden hoe after bringing him back to the house, police said Tuesday.
John Freeman of Northridge had been arrested Sunday on suspicion of murder. Police said his mother was out of town when he picked up the 31-year-old transvestite prostitute Sunday morning and brought him to the house in the 19000 block of Kingsbury Street.
The police don’t think it was a hate crime, but it’s hard not to wonder.
Hearing about this murder immediately reminded me how Deirdre McCloskey‘s autobiography Crossing made me very proud to be an economist. By and large, McCloskey found that economists were open-minded and supportive of her choice to change her gender. Here’s what happened when McCloskey broke the news to her dean:
His response, after sitting for a moment in slack-jawed amazement, was a stand-up comic routine. “Oh, thank God! I thought you were going to confess to converting to socialism.” (Relieved laughter- he was going to react as a friend.) “This is great for our affirmative action program: one fewer man, one more woman” (more laughter). “And wait! I can cut your salary to two-thirds of the male level” (not so funny). And then seriously “That’s a strange thing to do. How can I help?” And he did.
I’m not surprised. McCloskey’s experience illustrates one of the main features of the economist’s ethos. Steve Landsburg nailed it in his essay “Why I Am Not an Environmentalist” from The Armchair Economist [1993, pp. 223-231]:
Economics in the narrowest sense is a science free of values. But economics is also a way of thinking, with an influence on its practitioners that transcends the demands of formal logic. With the diversity of human interests as its subject matter, the discipline of economics is fertile ground for the growth of values like tolerance and pluralism.
In my experience, economists are extraordinary in their openness to alternative preferences, life-styles, and opinions. Judgmental clichés like “the work ethic” and the “virtue of thrift” are utterly foreign to the vocabulary of economics. Our job is to understand human behavior, and understanding is not far distant from respect.
A lot of people think that a world of economists would be a Hobbesian nightmare. But the facts say otherwise: Relatively speaking, these prickly, insensitive economists turn out to be paragons of common decency.