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Economics and Value Freedom

January 26, 2014
3824791020_dc042b8cf6_bMises and Rothbard taught that economics is a value-free science. Propositions of economics, such as the law of diminishing marginal utility, neither state nor imply any judgments about what is good or bad, right or wrong. Robert Grant, an Irish philosopher who teaches at Trinity College, Dublin, disagrees. In an article that appeared January 23 on the Irish news website thejournal.ie ,  Grant claimed that “the view of economics as value-free is, at best, illusory and, at worst, dangerous.” Economics is not value-free, according to him; and the myth that it is helps nefarious supporters of the free market occlude the truth that the free market helps the rich, not the poor. Grant’s argument against value-freedom in economics is not very good. He points out that economists choose to investigate certain topics rather than others, Their choices reflect the values they hold. “The very decision about what aspect of the world to examine is an expression of what is important to us, ie, an expression of our values. . ., economists can choose to aim their analysis at the private financial markets and the banking system, or they could focus on public issues such as welfare economics, or how to make healthcare affordable. Each analysis may display incredible intellectual and mathematical sophistication, yet the choice is a normative one. It means that you deem some particular issue to be more worth your time and effort than the myriad of other issues you could investigate. Values are inescapable.” Grant has fallen into an elementary confusion. Of course he is right that your choice to study something expresses your values. It hardly follows from this, though, the results of your investigation are, in whole or in part, value judgments. When it is claimed that economics is value-free, the claim is about the propositions of economics, not the reasons economists have for studying these propositions. According to Grant, the false doctrine of value-freedom in economics has horrendous results: “We are told the ‘free’ market is an efficient processer of information, and that if left to its own devices, it will naturally produce efficient results that are better for everyone. But this is simply not the case. The market expresses the values of those who control it. It is no coincidence that our current market structure works better for some rather than others.” Grant is again confused. Grant disagrees with those who contend the free market is better for everyone. But surely someone who says the free market is better for everyone would realize that he is expressing a value judgment. What then is the relevance of Grant’s claims about value-freedom to this disagreement? Grant has lost control of his own argument. Maybe he means that the free market economists use a notion of “efficient” which they wrongly take to be value-free. If this is what he means, Grant has failed to make his case. He doesn’t show that judging whether an economy is efficient involves value judgments. In any event, Grant’s counter to the free market supporters misses the point. He wishes to argue against the assertion that the free market works better for everyone. To point out that the market works better for some than others is not a counterexample to the thesis he wishes to refute. Photo Credit: Wandering Magpie

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