Thursday 18 July 2013

Depraved economics

The University of Canterbury's truly excellent Economics & Finance Student Society has a semi-regular column in the University's student newspaper, Canta. For their themed issue on "depravity", Canta asked for a column on economics and depravity. EFSoc punted it to me; here's the column.

They edited out a couple of my favourite parts in the print edition, but the online version has the whole thing. A teaser:
In 1997’s “The Devil’s Advocate”, Al Pacino’s version of the Devil, John Milton, explained why economists really are best placed to understand depravity. Well, he didn’t exactly mean to. But when Pacino explained to Keanu Reeves just why Reeves ought to be taking the Devil’s side, a lot of economists would have been pretty sympathetic. At least I was cheering for Pacino when he explained:

“I cared about what he [mankind] wanted and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I’m a fan of man! I’m a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.”

Like Pacino’s Devil, economists take people as they are. We try to understand their decisions as they’re influenced by the costs and benefits they’d receive from various actions rather than trying to moralise about what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s part of the methodological foundation of our discipline: another Milton, this time Milton Friedman, insisted that we take individuals' preferences as given and explain changes in behaviour by looking to changes in prices and incomes. The standard guideline in welfare economics, the branch of economics that tries to explain whether we’re in a generally happy place, is the even-older Pareto criterion: something is good if it makes at least one person better off while hurting nobody else.

Because people differ in how they get their jollies, it’s tough for an economist, as an economist, to equate depraved with bad unless we define depraved in a very particular way: you’re doing something depraved and bad when you get joy from hurting others without their consent. Where the old Sunday School teachers talked about putting a thorn in Baby Jesus’s heart when you sin, I worry instead about putting thorns in Baby Pareto’s heart when you hurt someone else without their consent. And I’ll define hurt pretty broadly too: when you prevent two people from doing something that they enjoy and that doesn’t harm anyone else, because you disapprove of what they’re doing, that’s depraved. It has hurt them, without their consent, for your enjoyment. Getting joy from preventing the voluntary interactions of others is more properly considered depraved than whatever people get up to, consensually, behind closed doors.

So, if activities others consider depraved make you happy, and you’re not hurting anybody else at the same time, then the world’s a better place when you’re able to satisfy whatever freaky urges you have. Baby Pareto says so.
I then point to some of the empirics on sex, love, and economics. For my sins, I also owe Canta a follow-up column on the economics of self-control for the next issue.

Update: Enjoy! Slightly NSFW, Pacino's brilliant speech.


  1. It occurs to me that economists don't necessarily hold the monopoly on this opinion. It would seem also to be one of the basic tenets of the libertarian mindset. I'm certainly no economist, as I'm sure our conversations have proven time and again, but I definitely hold to the idea that folk should be left to do whatever they desire so long as it isn't negatively impacting on others. I think the world would be a much nicer place if we could all cease our moral judgements of others' private business.

  2. is hard being middle class and having only a few depravities but I suppose someone has to be like this

  3. And yet with Devil's advocacy hat on, those of a firmly religious persuasion are convinced that harm is occurring and their actions are not motivated by mere disapproval.