ECONOMICS is sometimes associated with the study and defense of selfishness and material inequality, but it has an egalitarian and civil libertarian core that should be celebrated.
At least since the 19th century, the interest of economists in personal liberty can be easily documented. In 1829, all 15 economists who held seats in the British Parliament voted to allow Roman Catholics as members. In 1858, the 13 economists in Parliament voted unanimously to extend full civil rights to Jews. (While both measures were approved, they were controversial among many non-economist members.) For many years leading up to the various abolitions of slavery, economists were generally critics of slavery and advocates of people’s natural equality
I see it as partly being a rationalist.
For example, Adam Smith cited birth and fortune, as opposed to intrinsically different capabilities, as the primary reasons for differences in social rank. And the classical economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill promoted equal legal and institutional rights for women long before such views were fashionable.
Equality of opportunity!
More recently, a tradition from University of Chicago economists asserts that deep down, all human beings have the same desires, even though they may face different circumstances and incentives. Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate who is one of the founders of this approach, used the economic method to lay bare the selfish motives behind racial and ethnic discrimination.
Discrimination tends to be a very selfish act.
Often, economists spend their energies squabbling with one another, but arguably the more important contrast is between our broadly liberal economic worldview and the various alternatives — common around the globe — that postulate natural hierarchies of religion, ethnicity, caste and gender, often enforced by law and strict custom.
A nice contrast.
Economics evolved as a more moral and more egalitarian approach to policy than prevailed in its surrounding milieu. Let’s cherish and extend that heritage. The real contributions of economics to human welfare might turn out to be very different from what most people — even most economists — expect.
Cowen is of course one of my favourite economists.