Selfish, dishonest, mean … who are you calling an economist?

13th February, 2010

Nearly three decades ago, the Journal of Public Economics published a curious and mildly disturbing piece of research, revealing that postgraduate students of economics were more likely than others to “free ride” in a laboratory game, effectively exploiting other players for their own benefit. The discovery generated a little niche in the economics literature, exploring the question: does studying economics make you a bad person?

The prosecution has assembled quite a case. A recent survey by Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose, two economists from the University of Washington, explains that in experiments, economics students are less generous, more likely to choose an unco-operative approach and more likely to accept bribes.

There have been a couple of contrary pieces of evidence. For instance, a study of who paid their dues to professional bodies such as the American Economic Association found that economists were more honest than sociologists and political scientists. And perhaps the budding economists are not truly mean and selfish, but are simply showing that they have mastered their studies by producing the behaviour described in simple textbook models. Arguably, the students of economics are not doing anything sinister, any more than if they calculated the roots of a quadratic equation.

But neither this argument nor the stray pieces of contrary data are entirely reassuring. Bauman and Rose, and also Bruno Frey and Stephan Meier, have shown that students of economics are less likely to contribute to university-nominated charities when invited to do so as they register for new courses each semester. This is disturbing, since the data comes not from the laboratory but from studying real decisions.

Let me offer a defence of the morality of economics, based on nothing more than casual observation. Economists seem to me to be more interested than many in problems of poverty and development. They are internationalists, more likely to consider the welfare of foreigners when weighing up the pros and cons of trade or immigration. They have a touching faith in the idea that deep down, everyone is equal and everyone is a good judge of their own best interests. Economists may be less focused on racism and discrimination than some other social scientists, but largely because – with a few important exceptions – we find them almost too baffling to analyse. We forget that when Thomas Carlyle coined the epithet “the dismal science”, he was condemning not the gloomy Malthus but John Stuart Mill and his stubborn, infuriating opposition to slavery.

Economists are cautious about get-rich-quick schemes – they have seen too many bubbles – and yet optimists about the future of humanity. They habitually look for gains from trade rather than zero-sum squabbles. Above all, economists are interested in results rather than rhetoric.

Perhaps this is all a self-indulgent fantasy, and perhaps I have conflated the experience of learning economics with the experience of growing up. I can hardly point to much empirical evidence in support of my claims, as any good economist would want to. At least I mean well. Bauman, after demonstrating to his satisfaction the corrupting nature of economics, is trying to seduce students with a stand-up comedy routine and a cartoon introduction to the unsavoury subject. One panel opines: “The true miracle of the invisible hand is that in certain situations the world will look heavenly even if it’s full of selfish jerks!” Excusing selfish jerks is reckless – but would you really expect a social conscience from an economist?

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