Monday, May 29, 2017

"The Most Unfeeling Thing I Know of is the Law of Gravitation:" Mill on Selfishness

One of the concerns sometimes raised about studying economics is that it tends to make you a more selfish person (for some discussion, see here and here). The great economist John Stuart Mill offered a memorable response to this concern in his "Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews," delivered on February 1, 1867, when he was appointed as Rector of the University (and available various places on the web like here and here, with the address starting on p. 643). I've broken the quotation into two paragraphs here, with most of the wallop arriving in the second paragraph. 
"Those branches of politics, or of the laws of social life, in which there exists a collection of facts or thoughts sufficiently sifted and methodized to form the beginning of a science, should be taught ex professo [that is, by an expert]. Among the chief of these is Political Economy; the sources and conditions of wealth and material prosperity for aggregate bodies of human beings. This study approaches nearer to the rank of a science, in the sense in which we apply that name to the physical sciences, than anything else connected with politics yet does. I need not enlarge on the important lessons which it affords for the guidance of life, and for the estimation of laws and institutions, or on the necessity of knowing all that it can teach in order to have true views of the course of human affairs, or form plans for their improvement which will stand actual trial. 
"The same persons who cry down Logic will generally warn you against Political Economy. It is unfeeling, they will tell you. It recognises unpleasant facts. For my part, the most unfeeling thing I know of is the law of gravitation: it breaks the neck of the best and most amiable person without scruple, if he forgets for a single moment to give heed to it. The winds and waves too are very unfeeling. Would you advise those who go to sea to deny the winds and waves—or to make use of them, and find the means of guarding against their dangers? My advice to you is to study the great writers on Political Economy, and hold firmly by whatever in them you find true; and depend upon it that if you are not selfish or hard-hearted already, Political Economy will not make you so."
An airline pilot who pays attention to the wind isn't "unfeeling," and neither is a boat captain who pays attention to the water.As economists are quick to note, recognizing the existence of scarcity, budget constraints, and incentives, and thinking about either how best to work within the available constraints or how best to relax those constraints, is not a matter of hard-heartedness.  It's a matter of caring enough about the actual problem at hand to face it honestly.