Should-Read: Economist: Jean Tirole: Standing up for economists

Should-Read: Economist: Jean Tirole: Standing up for economists: “Review of Economics for the Common Good. By Jean Tirole. Translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton University Press; 576 pages; $29.95 and £24.95…

…Economics is perfectly capable of incorporating questions of morality, says Mr Tirole. It simply imposes structure on debate where otherwise indignation would rule. It might make sense to ban some markets, like dwarf-tossing, he says: its existence diminishes the dignity of an entire group. But a market in organs or blood, for example, should not be rejected on the basis of instinctive moral repugnance alone. Policymakers should consider whether payment would raise the supply of donated blood or kidneys, improving or even saving lives. (It might not, if the motivation of money makes generous people afraid of looking greedy.) Whatever the answer, policymakers should make decisions from “behind the veil of ignorance”: without knowing whether any one person, including the policymakers themselves, would be a winner or loser from a particular policy, which society would they choose?

Mr Tirole applies this type of reasoning to topics ranging from carbon taxes to industrial policy, from competition to the digital economy. He presents economists as detectives, sniffing out abuse of market power and identifying trade-offs where populists make empty promises. His analysis is laden with French examples of ill-advised attempts to defy the constraints that those in his discipline delight in pointing out. When in 1996 the French government blocked new large stores in an effort to restrain the power of supermarket chains, share prices of existing ones rose. The new laws inadvertently worsened the problem by restricting competition.

He also depicts economists as ill-equipped to deal with the dirty reality of politics. To those who might be catapulted into sudden stardom as he was, he warns that academic economists will be quickly put into political pigeonholes, and their arguments celebrated or dismissed according to whether the recipient favours that pigeonhole. Though populists revel in simplicity, his aim is to make economics context-specific and point out its complexities. This is his strength, but his discipline’s limitation. He is economists’ defender, but not their saviour.

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Brad DeLong
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