©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

A Review of The Economics of Sin: Rational Choice or No Choice at All? by Samuel Cameron. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2002.

by Deirdre McCloskey
Times Higher Education Supplement, January 2004.
Filed under articles [ethics, bourgeois virtues, and economics] [reviews] and academic interests [bourgeois virtues]

The dismal science is uneasy about sin. In one sense economics is the very science of sin, the original sin which made for scarcity, loss of Eden, and all our woe. Economics is the science of prudence. But unalloyed is sinful. The single-minded "maximization of utility" that so fascinates the modern economist, a maximizing heedless of love or justice or temperance, is properly called avarice or lust or gluttony among the seven deadly sins, depending on what field of excess you fancy.

As Samuel Cameron observes the modern economist has turned away from the virtues except prudence, and denied that there are any sins. "'Absolute concepts' (such as morality or justice)," he notes, "tend to become redefined out of existence," and we are left with merely "an objective cost-benefit analysis" of our impulses. We wish to consume pizza, heroin, Range Rovers, prostitution, church weddings, and adultery, that is all. The engine of "rational choice" ("rational" in a restricted sense) names all these as "goods." The consumer is sovereign. If she wants Barbara-Cartland romances on holiday or three pints of bitter at luncheon, that's an end of it. The only sin is inefficiency in getting them. "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book," said Oscar Wilde at the beginning of the laissez-faire attitude towards behavior: "Books are well written, or badly written." There is no such thing as a moral or immoral act of consumption, says the modern economist: acts of consumption are either efficiently consummated, or inefficiently.

The economist flees any judgment, he claims, except for the cost-benefit analysis of prudence. Actually he conceals his judgment, half-aware and uncriticized, in his premises. The distinguished professor of American law and high-court judge Richard Posner, for example, argued in the 4th edition of his textbook Economic Analysis of Law that "some rapists derive extra pleasure from the fact that the woman has not consented. For these rapists, there is no market substitute. . . and it could be argued therefore [under the utilitarian premises Judge Posner adopts throughout] that . . . they . . . should not be punished if the sum of satisfaction to the rapist . . . exceeds the victim's pain" (1992, p. 218). There's no such thing, judges the judge, as a backward-looking virtue of Justice; no right to say No. Forward-looking Prudence rules. Maximize utility. Cost and benefit of rape. The page (and a good many more early and late in a distinguished career) will keep Posner off the American Supreme Court. A good thing: a judge who sees no point in justice or temperance or any virtue but the economist's Prudence Unalloyed is not to be encouraged.

"Economics and its metaphors of the market," Cameron avers, "are a vital part of the depersonalizing, responsibility-removing process" that has left moderns without a sense of virtue or of sin. That seems right, and important to note, though one might add that other and non-economic themes in modern culture have also removed responsibility. The Stalinist submitting to the imperatives of the Revolution or the fascist to the imperatives of the Nation were able to shoot their rifles on both sides of besieged Barcelona with no sense of sin. The fall of religion did not make people better, always. The nature of man under socialism turned out to be worse than under capitalism. Seventy years of actually existing socialism---all right: state capitalism masquerading as socialism---was not better morally than a priest-ridden tsardom or a robber-baron capitalism.

So economics should think about sin. Cameron's book unhappily is not a very good start. Cameron, who is a reader in economics at the University of Bradford, has read a great deal, sometimes beyond economics, and is anyway something of an expert on the "sin industries"---cigarettes, prostitution, drinking, crime. Since the 1970s the "mainstream" of "neoclassical" economics (fighting words, all of those) has followed the University of Chicago's great Gary Becker in applying maximizing utility to activities other than buying and selling pizza and Range Rovers. I just attended a little conference for example on the economics of religion in which Harvard's Robert Barro told us that belief in hell was good for economic growth, but going to church was bad for it. Next month I attend another, larger one, where I fear I will get similar "results" from econometrics applied mindlessly to materials the applying economist has no understanding of. The economic industry of studying unconventional industries has become conventional.

A book answering the question of the subtitle---is sin merely to be merged blamelessly into "rational choice" or is it to be viewed as an illness of the soul?---would be useful. But the book answers none of the questions it poses, and poses very few. We have the unedited notes for a book, though partial notes, undisciplined by a theme. It is hard for anyone, least of all Cameron, to state the point of the book. I certainly can't, though I searched and searched on your behalf. We arrive for example at the end of the long Introduction mystified: we are to be told what economics "has to do with" sin (a vague enough theme, that); after twelve pages of backing and filling, mentioning and referring, we are no wiser. Likewise the next 195 page, to the end.

Cameron's book is addressed to economists. I am an economist. I know the economic ideas of which he speaks. Yet for dozens of pages at a time I have no idea what the point is, and it adds up to nothing. Now I admit that such an experience is not rare in the modern literature of economics. Fiercely professional "work" by my colleagues---such as most of what passes for "theory" in economics practiced at the University of Cambridge---can rarely answer the question So What. This is not because the maths are too hard for simpletons like me, as shown by Cameron's book, which has no maths. The lack of point in modern economics is much more serious than a mere lack of clarity.

Not that Cameron's book is clear. The writing indulges all the sins of academic prose: aimless "delving into" this or that side issue, excessive anticipations ("this chapter begins with") and summarizations ("in this chapter we have looked at"), even overuse of "this," "the process of," and the barbarism "and/or." Further, Cameron writes about sin with a tiresome smirk. But I repeat: style and tone would cause no troubles if one ever could see what exactly was the point.

I am unhappy to be so negative. I'm still more unhappy to indulge the worst reviewing sin, that is, suggesting what the book should have been. But the temptation in the present case is irresistible. The book should have set economics in a system of sin---and therefore a system of the virtues, because without an account of virtues there is no doctrine of sin. It should have discussed the reborn tradition of "virtue ethics," begun in Aristotle and perfected in Aquinas, but buried since the late 18th century under tons and tons of Kant and Bentham. The system of the virtues has in the past thirty years been reborn of woman---female philosophers such as Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, Murdoch, Nussbaum, Hursthouse, Wolf, Baier, Tronto, Noddings (a few men--- Williams and MacIntyre, for example---have assisted ably in the delivery). The women place prudence---as indeed the sainted Adam Smith did before Bentham fouled the nest---in the midst of other virtues.

That's how to evaluate consumption, and to decide whether reading Cartland novels while drinking a nice chilled Riesling on the beach is a sin: does it contribute to human flourishing? I myself am of the opinion that it does, if done with hope, faith, love, courage, justice, temperance, and a modicum of prudence.