Monday, June 13, 2005

Becker and off-hand assertions of sweeping propositions

Becker notes as follows:

I have always believed that economists have to consider nonmaterial aspects of life like character, love, and the like. Economics can deal in a useful way with these traits.

This is the sort of off-hand comment that Becker and Posner make all too often that, in my view, dramatically impairs the value of their blog (and much law and economics scholarship in general): how can you just casually toss out an assertion like that? One of the core critiques of economics as both a positive and a normative analytical system is that it does not consider character, love, joy, peace, morality, fairness, etc., and that it is inherently unsuited to do so. The primary example is in the valuations of human life espoused by leading legal economists. Those L&E types who are notorious for participating in this behavior -- Kip Viscusi is probably the most prominent -- utterly fail to consider whether or not human life can be valued in a litigation context (i.e. a wrongful death suit) with reference to the deceased's relationships, creative effort, love, etc. etc.: they instead value a life solely based on the amount of money the deceased would take in order to incur a risk. See e.g. this article. and this one and (sigh) this one and this one etc.

So how can Becker just baldly assert the ability of economics to take these noneconomic factors into account without any argument or evidence?

I don't plan to comment on the latest round of Becker-Posner posts (on Japan's retirement system) unless something interesting pops up in the discussions: they're not very ambitious. Maybe Leisure Theory wants to do so.