Economics and morality

Of course, Oxycodone is legal with a prescription, but that’s a distinction without a difference, as it was illegal for my brother to buy, possess, and presumably sell from time to time. His addiction existed in a curious demimonde wherein the whole treatment and rehab and recovery cultures attempted–I emphasize, attempted–to ignore the plain fact that the disease they were treating, attempting to treat, was a crime, and although making it not a crime might lead to more use, it might also lead to more recovery; it might lead to more regular doses, less adulteration with other substances. It might have meant that my brother didn’t have to die in a cheap roadside motel room after a late-night visit to some dealer’s ramshackle house.


The benefits would outweigh the costs, but drugs are immoral.

UPDATE: People (rather than moral philosophers) don’t have internally consistent and complete belief systems with which they determine what is moral and what is not. Subtracting the costs from the benefits — even if you stick to the costs and benefits that are obvious to everyone, i.e. doing economic analysis, tells you what is right or wrong. Often times, disagreement about morality is just one side or the other ignoring an obvious, at least once its been pointed out, benefit or a cost. You’ll notice that pointing an obvious cost or benefit doesn’t usually end the disagreement. The next move, generally, is to criticize the size of the costs or benefits. In other words, then the argument is no longer over morals, but over empirics. This supports Bryan Caplan’s contention that you don’t need morals to have a normative debate.

3 thoughts on “Economics and morality”

  1. Seems that empirical arguments fail to convince because they don’t address the emotional core of morals. The challenge is to convince a moralist that what they feel is incorrect, and you’re going up against deep instincts like “Protect weak members of your tribe, fear the unknown, punish enemies…” Data and models aren’t always strong enough to overpower these feelings.

  2. Well, there’s always going to be the tendency to ignore the facts. OTOH, you can make a persuasive, moral story by just comparing the stack of benefits to the stack of costs. The stacking doesn’t require morality. e.g. drug policy:

    – $X billion dollars a year in paying cops; diverting budget away from rehabilitation
    – the militarization of police
    – increased price of drugs making costly production processes (i.e. violence) profitable (or is violence caused by rent seeking?); this also increases demand for workers in the drug industry making that career choice attractive

    – a piece of paper, a law that says a particular activity is illegal so its “wrong”; that feels good
    – Y bad guys go to jail
    – the price of drug use is increased, reducing drug use

    These stacks of costs and benefits invite people to talk about how tall the stacks are…

  3. Interestingly, drug use seems to be one of those funny areas where price isn’t tightly pegged to consumption.

    There’s a facile moralistic answer to your stacking solution, anyway: “You can’t put a price on doing the right thing.”

    You’re trying to play chess; your opponents are blowing bubbles.

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