Economics: From the Dismal Science to the Moral Science: The Moral Economics of Kendall P. Cochran
Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and established the ethical foundation for The Wealth of Nations (1776) as well as the important role played by custom and fashion in shaping behaviors and outcomes. Kendall P. Cochran believed in Smith’s emphasis on value-driven analysis and seeking solutions to major problems of the day. Cochran believed that economists moved too far in the direction of analysis free of words like ought and should and devoted his career to establishing that economics is a moral science.
A recent study by two Harvard professors, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, Growth in a Time of Debt (2010), asserted that healthy economic growth and high levels of government debt are incompatible. These conclusions are associated with the austerity movement, which calls for policymakers to reduce government spending in order to reduce the government’s debt and improve long-term growth prospects. The austerity movement has been used to justify the sharp decline in public sector employment that has restrained job growth since the recession of 2007.
In 2013, a graduate student named Thomas Herndon discovered an error in the calculations of Reinhart and Rogoff, publishing his findings in a paper co-authored by his professors, called “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff.” These findings call the entire austerity movement into question, causing many to reconsider the current obsession with reducing the government debt during a time of economic stagnation. Cochran would have held a celebration to toast Herndon and his professors for their work, not only for the sake of technical accuracy, but also because the policy prescriptions associated with the austerity movement are misguided and harmful to the unemployed and underemployed during times of economic hardship.
Cochran’s articles are significant at this time because he is able to argue persuasively that economists have a moral obligation to provide policy recommendations that are consistent with a social agenda of fairness and opportunity. While many agree with Adam Smith that individuals are motivated by self-interest, it does not follow that any action or policy that promotes an individual’s self-interest is therefore worthwhile or beneficial from society’s perspective. If a person is handsomely rewarded for placing a bomb in the city center, does the potential gain for that individual justify the harm to society? Cochran makes an eloquent case that economists must identify instances in which government policy can and should be used to protect and promote society’s well-being.
KENDALL P. COCHRAN served as Chair and Professor of Economics at the University of North Texas. SUSAN L. McHARGUE DADRES is Senior Lecturer in Economics at University of North Texas. MONA S. HERSH-COCHRAN is Emerita Professor at Texas Woman’s University. DAVID J. MOLINA is Associate Professor of Economics at University of North Texas.
978-1-68040-000-7 paper $19.95
6×9. 266 pp.