Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Philosophy & Economics

I've recently become an audiobook nut. I work two blocks from the new Minneapolis Public Library, and it's just too easy to walk over there over lunch, grab an audiobook, maybe copy it to my iPod, and listen to it in the car during my commute.

It's a wonderfully scattered education. My choices are limited by what the library offers, so I can't really carve out a mini degree program. I can just pick whatever interests me at the time I happen to be there. So far I've done Tom Friedman's "The World Is Flat," "Freakonomics," the Ken Burns "History of Jazz," "The Story of Philosophy," "House of Bush, House of Saud," and now, "The Americanization of Ben Franklin."

It's not like I actually retain all or even most of what I hear. Especially when it comes to history, my mind is a sieve. I can't remember dates to save my life. But one of things that's struck me so far is the difference between philosophy and economics, and how my own outlook goes back and forth between the two of them.

My oversimplification is this: Philosophy is the study of how things should be; economics is the study of how things are. Plato thought that the state should be ruled by philosopher kings, and that the system of government should be so powerful that children should be taken from their parents immediately upon birth and made subjects of the state. His reasoning was that this is the only way society can properly assign individuals to their rightful place. It sounds absolutely absurd today. How could anyone be so arrogant as to think that mothers and fathers would hold such a strong intellectual belief in an overriding "system" that they would be willing to sacrifice the emotional attachment to their offspring? Surely, this is proof that societies can't completely ignore how people actually think and behave in setting their rules.

Which brings me to economics. Far from being the study of money, economics--at least the Stephen Leavitt version in "Freakonomics"--is really about studying what works and doesn't work based on studying the hard facts of actual behavior. Thus, we learn that swimming pools are more dangerous to children than guns. Putting more cops on the street really does lower crime. Greater access to abortion inadvertently lowered the U.S. crime rate. Chicago crack gangs had the same corporate structure as McDonald's. And real estate agents are motivated by selling as much as possible as quickly as possible... rather than selling your particular home for the highest price.

But should you really govern people solely based on how they already behave? Isn't this a recipe for stagnation? After all, pure idealism is what produced the most cherished American idea: "All men are created equal." It's that ideal (which we've never actually achieved) that has given credence to everything from women's suffrage to the end of the slave trade. An economist would say that all men are absolutely not created equal. (In fact, Plato would agree with that.) But isn't that ideal worth something? Shouldn't that ideal be the subtext of our laws? Without it, there is a feeling of hopelessness... that human beings can't really get anywhere. And it seems to me that if we are even capable of idealism--of imagining something better than what currently exists--that's a sign (whether from God or evolutionary science, it doesn't matter) that we as a species are supposed to go somewhere.

Either it's a spiritual quest, or a clue from science that we were given high-functioning brains because our survival as a species depends on our ability to think more, to know more, to discover more.

This actually plays into my opinions on which candidate I like most for president, but I'll leave that to another post.

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