We are us.

In the past week J.W. Mason and Marshall Steinbaum both published their reviews of Beth Popp Berman’s wonderful book, Thinking Like an Economist, and I have a few brief thoughts–not so much about the discussion of the book but about the broader themes raised in both essays.

Both Mason and Steinbaum urge a more direct analytical confrontation with the “economic style” that Popp Berman has set out in rich institutional and developmental detail. In one sense, the key point of both pieces is that when we confront the stream of thought that has so shaped law, policy, and administration in recent decades, we must not cede the territory of the pragmatist –the self-avowed domain of the economic style.

The pragmatist declares himself tasked with understanding the likely consequences of contemplated actions and then planning those actions with the common good in mind. Why, indeed, would we want to acquiesce in the idea that such pragmatism must be traded off against–and thus that it necessarily or even usually opposes–considerations such as democracy, dignity, equality, basic rights, or ecological concerns? Aren’t all of these things part of the common good? So shouldn’t we find and adopt a mode of pragmatism that incorporates them?

One of the characteristics of the “economic style” that is often rightly criticized is its predilection for selectively unearthing “unintended consequences” in order to undermine egalitarian or pro-democratic policies in particular. You want to raise the minimum wage? Better not; you’ll cause job loss. (Yet on the other hand, we must affirmatively undertake to cause job loss in order to stabilize prices.) Etc. But the main problem here is not that it’s bad to be concerned with consequences, but that these are really bad ways of understanding consequences and planning for them!

Similarly, the economist’s talk of “efficiency” evokes a common-sense concern with avoiding waste of resources. I used to live in Los Angeles, and had a mild obsession with taking the shortest route as the crow flies between any two locations. Yet as Josh points out in his piece, the appeal of this common sense idea of “efficiency” helps to get another, welfare-maximization sense of “efficiency” (one that we have no real way to operationalize) off the ground. In fact, the “economic style” as currently practiced in the policy sphere seems to trade between these senses of efficiency (and relatedly, between the common sense idea of economic rivalry and the totally fictional notion of perfect competition) in apparently selective ways, with hierarchy and power-perpetuation (almost) always winning out.

I think we should reclaim and refashion a sensible conception of efficiency, rather than ceding the very idea. We don’t want to waste our individual or collective resources, usually–but that doesn’t mean accepting the idea of “economies of scale” (often associated with the idea of productive efficiencies) as gospel. Instead we should be open to empirical evidence showing that smaller-scale and decentralized economic activity can actually promote productive efficiencies (aside from many other social benefits). And caring about efficiency certainly does not mean we ought to condemn democratic forms of economic coordination, whether between workers or small enterprise, as distorting price signals and thus leading to the mis-allocation of productive resources. (We may need to think about how to design modes of decision-making, however.)

So we don’t want to throw the baby of pragmatism out with the bathwater, but we also should notice the ways in which the economic style often relies on considerations that aren’t pragmatic at all. Often enough, the key disagreements about what kind of markets we are going to end up with revolve not around asserted consequences, but around bedrock assertions of rights. For instance, some of the objections to a potentially more robust regulatory stance toward corporate activity, including mergers and acquisitions, are based in part on the belief that “individuals and by extension firms have economic rights.” We see similar rhetoric suggesting that a corporate merger is akin to free association between natural persons, and a state actor stepping in is akin to kingly privilege. At least in the applied sphere of public and policy debate, the economic style seems to move between such assertions of (some) group rights on the one hand, and the tallying of intended and unintended consequences on the other.

Anyway, it can sometimes feel a bit odd making these sorts of points. One camp of people sees your points as obviously wrong, while another seems to see them as (too) obvious–perhaps even skating uncomfortably close to the economic style. At least in the realm of academic ideas, these camps have mostly not spoken to each very much; after all, they speak almost different languages. For those of us existing in this uncomfortable, not yet entirely defined middle, sometimes it seems unclear exactly which “camp” we belong in (even if our actual normative and methodological commitments are quite clear and unwavering).

“We are us” is what the young Hilda of Whitby (in a fictional account) said to her family members and other close associates in their early years in exile, when the social order of early medieval England and her position in it were both in chaotic flux. At least, that is how I remember the story.

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