… is from page 25 of the 1948 printing of the second edition (1935) of Lionel Robbins’s classic 1932 tract, An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science:
It follows, further, that the belief, prevalent among certain critics of Economic Science, that the preoccupation of the economist is with a peculiarly low type of conduct, depends on a misapprehension. The economist is not concerned with ends as such. He is concerned with the way in which the attainment of ends is limited. The ends may be noble or they may be base. They may be “material” or “immaterial” – if ends can be so described. But if the attainment of one set of ends involves the sacrifice of others, then it has an economic aspect.
DBx: This point, to a well-trained economist, is almost trite. I say “almost” because the misapprehension that Robbins accurately described nearly a century ago remains in place and troublesome today. People who do not like the cold analytical water thrown on their social-engineering schemes by economics often assert that the goals that they, the social engineers, wish to further are nobler or ‘higher’ than are the goals with which economics is concerned. It is then said to follow that economists’ criticisms of such schemes are inapposite.
An example are those pundits who describe their support for trade restrictions as being aimed at protecting jobs the value of which allegedly is non-economic – the value of which is ‘higher’ than are the mere material ends with which economics is concerned. But as Robbins correctly explains, this attitude rests on a misapprehension of the nature and significance of economics.
It might be the case that a worker who holds a particular job derives from holding that job some amount of satisfaction – some “utility” – beyond, or in addition to, the utility that he or she gets from the goods and services that he or she purchases with the monetary income earned at that job. Indeed, as society becomes wealthier, more and more jobs will have this feature. (As society becomes wealthier, people can better afford to sacrifice on-the-job monetary income for ‘non-monetary’ benefits of particular employments.) This reality, it will surprise critics of economics to learn, is absolutely unsurprising to economists. Nor are economists unaware of the reality that people who are gainfully employed experience, as a result of this employment, a sense of dignity. Yet these realities do nothing to render economics inapplicable to the case. Workers’ very real desires to consume non-pecuniary aspects of employment are no more outside of the purview of economics than are workers’ very real desires to consume bread, butter, beef, and beer. Non-pecuniary aspects of employment, including the dignity that being gainfully employed brings, are not free. These must be paid for – and, hence, economized on – no less than must goods available on Amazon, groceries available at Kroger, and gadgets available at Apple.