Soundbite: Taking Economics Personally

Steven E. Landsburg, giving economic principles human scale.


In The Armchair Economist (1993) and his "Everyday Economics" column in Slate, University of Rochester professor Steven E. Landsburg translates abstract economic theory into concrete insights that often undermine the moral and utilitarian righteousness of all sorts of do-gooder intrusions into daily life. REASON Assistant Editor Brian Doherty recently spoke with Landsburg by phone about his new book, Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life.

Q: You point out that adults accept government policies–such as progressive taxation–whose moral principles they would rebel against if applied to their children's playground. Why the double standard?

A: Most people are not terribly interested in thinking hard about abstract moral questions. When you go into a voting booth, your chances of affecting the outcome are essentially zero. There's just no real reason for most people to give a lot of thought to moral issues in a public context. People think harder about right and wrong when raising their own children, where they have more of a stake and influence.

Q: You often reach counterintuitive conclusions that many people find hard to swallow, such as the idea that more people on the planet are generally a boon. Why do people have a hard time grasping your points?

A: The bottom line on all of this is: Most people don't find it in their interest to think very hard! That particular wrong conclusion has its root in people's tendency to take things like technology for granted and not to think through the extent to which we rely on other people for improvements in living standards, technologies, and the quality and quantity of goods available to us. People take for granted the interactions they have with others. When they imagine cutting population, it's always all those people they don't care about who they imagine disappearing. But of course those they care about and depend on would be among those who went.

Q: You discuss how a colleague's mathematical equations made you think hard about your view that progressive taxation is a bad thing. Can math trump moral positions?

A: When I found the calculations working against my value position, I felt an obligation to think much harder about exactly what moral assumptions went into my colleague's calculations. One must not be fooled into thinking something is more objective than it is just because it's expressed as an equation. But it's easy to make arguments in English that sound consistent and are still inconsistent in subtle ways. The only ways to avoid that pitfall are translation into math and the scrutiny of critical colleagues, and every argument in Fair Play has been submitted to lots of both.