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The Compassionate Science

Here’s Steve Landsburg at his best.  Some slices:

I’ve said this before and will say it again: Part of the reason I love economics is that economics is the compassionate science. It’s the discipline that requires us to think hard and to care about how policies affect everyone, not just the people who happen to be standing in front of us.

The response to the government shutdown has been as good an example of this as any. Nothing but a garguntuan failure of empathy can explain the chorus of voices insisting that the shutdown is a bad thing because government employees might lose their paychecks. It takes a mighty powerful set of moral blinders to care so much about the recipients of those checks and so little about the taxpayers who fund them….

The single biggest lesson that economists have to teach is that it’s important to care about everyone, not just about the people who happen to cross your path.

It’s way too easy – and way too common – to stare at the flesh-and-blood person in front of you, find something about his or her life that is imperfect, feel your humanity swell within your breast as you are overcome with a self-satisfying altruistic urge to help that person, and then set about (trying) to correct the imperfection marring that person’s life by taking resources or freedom from unseen, faceless others.  It’s easy even to forget that you are in fact taking resources from others when the taking is called “taxation” and is carried out by an organization that, you’ve convinced yourself, is the institutional manifestation of the great “Us” – “We” – “Our” (as if this collective has a will and soul and mind of its own).

Steve is correct: economics when done well is a crown-jewel of human compassion.  It refuses to let the forgotten man be forgotten and the invisible victims remain invisible.  Yet people who know no economics, or only faulty economics, mistakenly think economists to be, not compassionate, but cruel.  These economically uninformed people have this mistaken opinion because they see only the individual standing before them, and so care only about that individual’s welfare.  They do not see what the good economist sees: the multitudes of unseen people, spread across space and time, who are inevitably affected by whatever policies are done for or against the person standing well-lit and loudly in your face.