Values are Subjective
By David Henderson
As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, at the start of every course I teach, I cover The Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom. I tell my students that the 3rd pillar tends to be the hardest one for people to grasp but that, once they grasp it, they find that it’s very powerful.
But the 7th pillar, “The value of a good or service is subjective,” turns out to be harder to grasp than I thought. I watched about 2.5 hours of the Republican candidates “debate” last night: the first 2 hours live and then, with a break to watch Jeopardy, the last half hour. On Facebook this morning, I saw that a political scientist friend, who has shown himself highly economically literate, wrote the following:
No, I did not watch the debate last night. I’m confused about why intelligent people do, since they all know it’s primarily for entertainment purposes, and has next-to-nothing to do with governing ability.
As is my policy with Facebook posts, I will not name him because I don’t have permission to do so.
He’s probably right that the debate “has next-to-nothing to do with governing ability.” I won’t challenge that statement.
But what caught my attention was the idea that intelligent people shouldn’t watch it because “it’s primarily for entertainment purposes.” I’m sure he’s right that many watchers watch it for entertainment purposes and maybe CNN, especially given some of the absurd questions asked, such as whose face should be on the $10 bill, does the event for entertainment purposes. But, and here’s where Pillar #7 comes in, each of us has his or her own purpose.
My purpose was not entertainment, although I got some of that. My purpose was to judge the candidates’ honesty and to know more about where they stood on issues. So, for example, when so many Republicans and neo-conservatives are trying to make people afraid of Obama’s agreement with Iran, would any of the candidates say anything positive about that agreement? One, Rand Paul, did. Another, John Kasich, didn’t go for the red-meat answer.
Or, to take another example, would any candidates say that because the leader of a government of another country does evil, he or she, as President, would not meet with that leader. And, if someone did say that, would any of the candidates remind the audience, while standing in front of Reagan’s Air Force One, that that’s exactly what Ronald Reagan did? Some candidates, Carly Fiorina being the fiercest one, did say that she wouldn’t meet with Putin. Rand Paul said he would and that talking is generally good.
Or take marijuana. Rand Paul has been a leader in pointing out that people like Jeb Bush can get away with smoking marijuana as a teenager or young man but that many others in society are not so lucky. Would Rand Paul speak up about that and, if he did, what would Jeb Bush say? I want to know. Why do I want to know? I just do. Values are subjective.
And I learned a lot on that issue. Rand Paul did raise the issue and point out the differential treatment accorded people like Jeb Bush. And Jeb Bush admitted that he had smoked marijuana, while still arguing for laws that would potentially put people in prison for doing what he did. Also, I found it interesting that the only fear that Bush expressed was his fear of his mother’s disapproval. I think a lot of people in America could handle fear of their mothers’ disapproval if they smoked marijuana but that the bigger fear for many is that they would be charged with a crime. I think Bush’s humor and the snickering in the audience showed really just how juvenile Jeb Bush and many of the audience were.
And I haven’t covered everything I learned last night.
Back to Pillar #7. It’s sometimes hard for people to grasp many of the implications of the pillar. If person A says he disapproves of person B’s taste, that does not necessarily show a failure to grasp the pillar. But if person A says that person C has said what a TV show is about and, therefore, why would person C ever want to watch it, that does show a failure to grasp an important implication of Pillar #7.