In Policy Debates, Can Economics Trump Ethics?

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In Policy Debates, Can Economics Trump Ethics?

October 8, 2015

To support free markets is to invite criticism on virtually every policy issue. Whether it’s the minimum wage, gun control, or a hundred other topics, markets are constantly under attack, and the burden of proof always seems to fall on advocates of free choice to show that it’s superior to coercion.

This can be exasperating; after all, a passing acquaintance with economics or history is enough to show that the body of theory and evidence—sometimes going back millennia—is on the side of peaceful cooperation and markets. So what gives? Why are the institutions of a free society constantly on the defensive?

There are many reasons, but I want to mention a specific strategic problem that’s common in public policy. That is, when defending markets, we’re often denied the chance to make an economic case against government restrictions, regulations, and privileges. Instead, the opponents of free choice manage to frame arguments to their own advantage, usually by excluding economics altogether.

This happens in several ways, but one that’s increasingly troublesome is the rhetorical trick of defining policy debates only in terms of ethical questions, especially questions of rights.

Take gun control, for example. Its proponents market it as a way to make society safer from violent crime. Further, according to these advocates, the case against gun control is based on claims about individual property rights (for instance, the rights supposedly enshrined in the Second Amendment). Debating gun control therefore consists in weighing these rights against the need for a safer society, and to oppose gun control is to believe that increased gun violence is a regrettable but necessary evil. In other words, increased violence is the price we pay for the right to own firearms.

Admiral Ackbar would immediately recognize this kind of argument for what it is: a trap.

One problem is that framing arguments in terms of rights alone makes it easier to claim that any disagreement is between heartless, individualist devotion to abstract principles on one side, and compassionate, practical care for humanity on the other.

However, there’s also a hidden assumption behind the framing device: gun control must be about rights and nothing else, because there are simply no other grounds for opposing it. Taking rights as a necessary starting point makes it easy to forget a vital economic question, namely, whether such laws actually have their intended effects to begin with. If it turns out that gun control laws fail to reduce criminal violence, or if they actually contribute to increasing it, there’s not much reason to support them. Economic due diligence is therefore a key part of any debate on gun policy.

Yet if we allow criticism of gun control to be couched only in terms of rights, we give up a lot of what economics has to offer. Even worse, most people’s ideas about rights tend to be personal and vague. As a result, arguments wind up being squabbles over basic terminology and first principles, which often crowd out economic ideas instead of complementing them. Furthermore, criticism is dispersed over competing explanations of rights and obligations, rather than focused on economic insights, for instance, that attempts to reduce the criminal use of firearms by restricting their legal sale are doomed from the start, and may even increase the risk of crime.

Economics is absolutely vital in policy discussions. As Mises observed, the effects of government “solutions” are often worse than the initial problems, even from the point of view of policymakers (assuming, for the sake of argument, that policymakers are well-intentioned). If we can effectively explain this point to the public, we’ll be a long way toward undermining support for poor policies.

Importantly, while I use the example of gun control, the above discussion applies to virtually all policy disputes. For instance, although it’s an entrepreneur’s right to choose which workers to hire and how much to pay them, minimum wage laws are about more than these rights, and focusing on them too much can obscure the fact that they hurt those they are supposed to help.

Of course, I’m not claiming rights are unimportant: quite the contrary. After all, without adequate notions of ethics and justice, it’s difficult to make the case for any kind of ideal society. Good economics alone does not a good society make, and even Mises has been criticized for relying too much on his economic approach. All I’m suggesting is that excessive emphasis on rights can divert attention from fundamental economic issues that make questions of rights irrelevant. Taking ethics as the starting point for policy debates will sometimes be an ineffective strategy, especially if it cedes economic ground to the opponents of free choice.

Speaking about rights rather than the flawed economic logic of public policy opens the door to the strawman that free-market arguments are about blindly preserving an ideology rather than preserving human life and welfare. It’s more vital than ever then that we equip ourselves with a thorough understanding of economics, which is an indispensable tool in any policy debate.

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