Contra Mankiw on political philosophy

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, someone I greatly respect, wrote an article for The New York Times a few years ago on the political philosophy of economists. The thesis of his piece is two-fold.

First, he says that any economist making a normative judgment—much like any normative judgment made by anyone else—is also assuming a particular political philosophy. Often, they look at what maximizes “social welfare,” measured in utilitarian terms. That’s a value judgment about political philosophy and not an assumption that can be taken for granted.

Second, he offers an alternate political philosophy which he calls a “do-no-harm principle” that is entailed, according to him, by epistemic humility. In his own words:

So, what is the alternative? At the very least, a large dose of humility is in order. When evaluating policies, our elected leaders are wise to seek advice from economists. But if an economist is always confident in his judgments, or if he demonizes those who reach opposite conclusions, you know that he is not to be trusted.

In some ways, economics is like medicine two centuries ago. If you were ill at the beginning of the 19th century, a physician was your best bet, but his knowledge was so rudimentary that his remedies could easily make things worse rather than better. And so it is with economics today. That is why we economists should be sure to apply the principle “first, do no harm.”

This principle suggests that when people have voluntarily agreed upon an economic arrangement to their mutual benefit, that arrangement should be respected. (The main exception is when there are adverse effects on third parties — what economists call “negative externalities.”) As a result, when a policy is complex, hard to evaluate and disruptive of private transactions, there is good reason to be skeptical of it.

He then proceeds to apply this principle to the Affordable Care Act and the minimum wage:

As I see it, the minimum wage and the Affordable Care Act are cases in point. Noble as they are in aspiration, they fail the do-no-harm test. An increase in the minimum wage would disrupt some deals that workers and employers have made voluntarily. The Affordable Care Act has disrupted many insurance arrangements that were acceptable to both the insurance company and the insured; these policies were canceled because they deviated from lawmakers’ notion of the ideal.

I agree with him that anyone making normative judgments is assuming a certain political philosophy. Notice that his “do-no-harm” principle is also a political philosophy—and not one that’s somehow less controversial than utilitarianism. For one, it isn’t prima facie clear to me that people should be allowed to make decisions that hurt themselves. In fact, whether the state should legislate to prevent self harm is a key source of debate among political philosophers.

For another, the fact that a contract exists and was signed by both parties does not necessarily make it truly voluntary. For a truly free choice to exist, I would argue that certain conditions must be met.

First, I think that, for a choice to be truly free, people should be given access to full information. If there’s a significant information asymmetry, then a person is making a choice without knowing what options exist and what the implications of their choice are. That sounds, intuitively to me, like a coerced choice. And there are good reasons to believe that the market for health insurance. In fact, Professor Mankiw made this argument about health insurance himself:

Consumers often don’t know what they need. In most markets, consumers can judge whether they are happy with the products they buy. But when people get sick, they often do not know what they need and sometimes are not in a position to make good decisions. They rely on a physician’s advice, which even with hindsight is hard to evaluate.

And consumers are often unaware of the possibility that they might get sick. In fact, people are empirically really poor at making long-term calculations. Here’s some research to prove it. And here’s a meta-analysis of the literature. And often, information about the likelihood of getting specific illnesses—and the question of whether those illnesses are covered by insurance—exists with insurers but not with consumers. That’s an Econ 101 case of asymmetric information that renders free choice not truly free.

Second, people should have access to many options—or at least, more than a few bad options, at least if this is possible or if government intervention can cause this to occur. If they don’t have options, then them choosing the only option they have available is certainly not ideal—the state should seek to expand the options they have. The labor market is a good example for this. A person chooses to work a low-wage job because that’s the only option they have available—they’d rather a higher wage job. A minimum wage opens this option up to them and doesn’t force them to rely on a $3/hour wage.

Now, Professor Mankiw would likely object to this in two ways. First, he could say that both the suppliers and the demanders should have their choices maximized—a minimum wage removes the freedom of employers. The problem with this is that it potentially doesn’t take into account imbalances in power. Minimum wages often exist in industries where the demanders—employers—have substantial market power. Here, trades between workers and employers aren’t as free as they could be, and minimum wages can help make them free in that context. Second, he could say that minimum wages reduce the options available as firms simply reduce the number of workers available. I agree that that’s a possibility—but now that becomes an empirical question, and not one of political philosophy. My point is simply that a “do-no-harm principle” doesn’t necessarily entail the abolition of the minimum wage.     

In short, I don’t think Professor Mankiw’s proposed political philosophy is any more obvious than utilitarianism, and doesn’t necessarily entail opposition to Obamacare or the minimum wage. Economists do use political philosophy in making normative judgments—I think that’s true and is entailed by the definition of a “normative judgment”—and I agree that we need to be more cautious about assuming the truth of utilitarianism. So I agree with the thrust of Professor Mankiw’s point. What I disagree with is his proposed alternative, which seems (at least to me)—and I may very well be wrong here—to run into the very same problems he critiques in his op-ed: assuming a debatable political philosophy without much justification.

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