Saturday, December 02, 2006

Normative Assertions and Analytic Frameworks

I've recently started working my way through the second edition of Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy. So far its very good, especially for a book with such a dry-sounding title. Messrs. Hausman and McPherson are correct in asserting that economics is not a bloodless, amoral practice, but I believe that they're making stronger arguments about its inherent normativity than are actually warranted. In particular, they seem to be blurring the distinction between making a positive normative assertion and merely describing behavior. This tendency is most clearly demonstrated in their discussion of Lawrence Summers' 1992 memo to his colleagues at the world bank (p.14):
2. Summers assumes that there is a single framework for economic evaluation, which he takes for granted. He never states it explicitly, and he never argues for it. Though he wouldn't put things this way, Summers is relying on an ethical foundation that he believes his readers share.
I disagree with their assertion that in choosing to analyze a problem using a particular framework Summers is inherently relying on an ethical foundation of sort. In order to talk intelligibly about the problem he must choose some framework; ethical preference could certainly enter into this process, but its not apparent that it necessarily does. By way of analogy let's consider the plight of the theoretical physicist. In describing a particular physics problem ey1 can choose to use Newtonian mechanics or some post-Newtonian framework. The choice of which framework to use is based upon the suitability the framework to the problem being solved; you use Newtonian mechanics to study billiard balls and relativistic mechanics to study tiny things moving very fast. Does the physicist introduce ethical framework in choosing to use one or the other? I would think not. This critique can be extended to their discussion of rational choice. They maintain that the very notion of rationality is inherently normative and that, by assuming that agents behave rationally, economists are making a normative assertion. But can't it also be argued that economists are merely trying to model "behavior in the wild"? Rather than asserting an ought they are just describing an is; whether this description is accurate or not is beside the point. Economists are not saying that people should behave rationally but rather that people generally do behave rationally. Again, ethics can be implicated in choosing to use an economic framework which assumes rational agents, but this is not necessarily so.
1 I recently became aware of Spivak pronouns; I think they're an elegant solution to the problem and intend to do my part to promulgate their use.

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