I live in Alabama, where college football is the major religion. The two major denominations are the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn University Tigers. They have fought a storied and ludicrously overwrought rivalry since 1893, except for the four-decade gap between 1907 and 1948 when they didn’t play one another because the two schools hated each other so much. Suffice it so say Alabama fans (like me) don’t go out of their way to shop for Auburn merchandise and vice versa.

Unless, of course, there is money to be made. 

In his classic study The Economics of Discrimination, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker introduced the term “taste for discrimination” to describe someone’s preference for avoiding people based on arbitrary characteristics like race and gender. I’d like to explore the concept in a less morally and emotionally charged setting: eBay. Since around mid-February, I’ve been selling things on eBay for fun, (accounting) profit, and inspiration. Markets push me to overcome my morally innocuous prejudices, and this is a case study of how markets push us to overcome our morally serious prejudices.

The pursuit of fun, profit, and a few economics lessons curbs my “taste for discrimination” against people who don’t like the things and teams I like. I notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, and I help people I might not otherwise consider. Until a few weeks ago, I had bought exactly one Auburn shirt in my life, when I visited to present some research in 2008. I have several Auburn shirts, jerseys, and hats in my garage now awaiting the right buyer. My taste for discrimination against the Auburn faithful–or at least my indifference to their wants–is curbed by my even stronger taste for a few extra dollars and some classroom examples.

But what does the morally trivial discrimination of something trivial like college sports fandom have to do with morally serious discrimination like racism? Morally, I don’t think they’re comparable. Sports rivalries are all in good fun, most of the time. Racism is wicked. Logically, however, the economics of discrimination against people with the wrong diplomas on their wall resemble the economics of discrimination on the basis of skin color, and just as I don’t discriminate against Auburn fans as much when it is costly, racists don’t discriminate as much when it is costly.

Will the profit motive change racists’ hearts? Not directly, though it encourages a kind of “exposure therapy” that likely erodes it. Does it excuse or justify racist discrimination? No, but efforts to change hearts and minds by passing laws and pointing guns have ended poorly. Maybe profit-seeking is a base and vulgar motive, and making a few dollars won’t restore a corrupted soul. Profit-seeking free enterprise, however, mutes the darker angels of our nature by making it more costly to act on prejudice.


Art Carden is Professor of Economics & Medical Properties Trust Fellow at Samford University, and he is by his own admission as Koched up as they come: he has an award named for Charles G. Koch in his office, he does a lot of work for and is affiliated with an array of Koch-related organizations, and he has applied for and received money from the Charles Koch Foundation to host on-campus events.