Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.

At least since the 19th century, the interest of economists in personal liberty can be easily documented. In 1829, all 15 economists who held seats in the British Parliament voted to allow Roman Catholics as members. In 1858, the 13 economists in Parliament voted unanimously to extend full civil rights to Jews. (While both measures were approved, they were controversial among many non-economist members.) For many years leading up to the various abolitions of slavery, economists were generally critics of slavery and advocates of people’s natural equality, as documented by David M. Levy, professor of economics at George Mason University, and Sandra J. Peart, dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, in “The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher’: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics.”

This is from Tyler Cowen, “A Profession With an Egalitarian Core,” New York Times, March 16, 2013. It was one of the shorter readings for a colloquium I attended on free trade this past weekend.

I remember reading the NYT piece when it came out and immediately, at the time, going to where Tyler probably wanted readers to go: his discussion of immigration near the end.

But what caught my eye this time, which I had forgotten, were the first 3 sentences of the second paragraph above. That is really quite striking and it speaks well of 19th century British economists. The last sentence is quite striking too–the views of economists on slavery–but I had remembered that.