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A Review of Elizabeth Popp Berman’s “Thinking Like an Economist”

Here’s my just-released review, for EconLib, of Elizabeth Popp Berman’s Thinking Like an Economist. Here’s my conclusion:

Berman should be commended for treating those with whom she disagrees fairly and with respect. Unlike too many scholars today, she doesn’t put words in her adversaries’ mouths or accuse them of moral depravity. She writes as a true scholar. Nevertheless, my disagreements with her are many.

The most fundamental of these disagreements is that, while I agree with Berman that the decision to reject policies the costs of which exceed the benefits reflects a value judgment, I disagree that this value judgment is either dubious or at odds with basic liberal, democratic norms. Instead, this value judgment is one to which nearly everyone subscribes, if most people do so only unconsciously. Nearly everyone is led to do so by the inescapability of scarcity and the corresponding need to make trade-offs.

Legitimate debates rage over just what counts as costs and as benefits, as well as over how to weigh each of the entries in the cost-benefit ledger. But because a widespread commitment to pursuing certain benefits in disregard of the costs would leave too few resources available for the pursuit of other benefits—and do so without any weighing of the benefits gained versus the benefits foregone—the consequence of a complete casting aside of economic considerations would be a society immensely more poor, dangerous, and unjust than is even the dystopian America that exists today in the minds of many progressives. It’s the odd person whose system of values tolerates such an outcome.