In praise of egalitarian economics

Eric Crampton points to a study that finds male economists exhibit no gender bias in hiring.

Contrary to prevailing assumptions, men and women faculty members from all four fields preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles (single, married, divorced), with the exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference.

The blindness of economics to gender and other differences (race, sexuality, etc) is inspiring.

It’s probably one of the main reasons I’m still an economist: in our theories we genuinely don’t care about individual markers of difference. We assume they exist, we sometimes try to measure their effects on income or productivity or whatever, but we’d never judge anyone for being different – their difference just isn’t relevant to what we find interesting.

This attitude is probably most fully realised in our treatment of individual preferences, which we tie ourselves in knots trying to account for without taking any interest at all in where they come from. In certain disciplines of economics there’s a chance that blindness could help to perpetuate injustice – labour economics springs to mind as one area where a consistent theory of workers’ differences might be more helpful to policy than a general assumption that workers differ in unspecified ways. Even there, though, economics just works with what society provides. If society is racist, economic theory could come up with racist conclusions, but it’s impossible for economics to be independently racist.

What we find interesting is an individual’s capacity to improve their own and others’ lives through their unique human gifts of time and skills. While there are definite issues with how we sometimes measure those concepts – monetary income, GDP and hours spent at work aren’t great analogues of the concepts we’re trying to get at – it’s difficult to fault the broad aim of trying to understand how people improve their wellbeing in terms of what they themselves like and value.

I don’t know why female economists didn’t show the same gender blindness as males in the study cited above. Maybe women generally are somehow more sensitive to whatever conditions make faculty members prefer female employees on average, and the unbiasedness of economics isn’t enough to offset that.

See also: how racial blindness led to economics being called “The Dismal Science”.

… political economy was characterized as “dismal” because Carlyle, Ruskin, and Dickens were horrified at the idea that systems of slavery were being replaced by systems in which individuals were allowed to choose their own path in life. At a minimum, they argued, “we” white people ought to be directing the lives of “them,” people of color. Economists of the time, on the other hand, argued that people of color were to be protected by the rule of law-hence the moniker “the dismal science.”