Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lifeboat Economics?

At Concurring Opinions (here), Maxine Eichner offers a nuanced critique of Michael Sandel's new book, What Money Can't Buy (see my own recent, but less nuanced, discussion of that same book here). Toward the end of her critique, she raises the question of whether the rise of the rational self-interest model of neoclassical economic theory has led to the erosion of previously important social norms. As an example, she points to John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912), one of America's richest and most influential men, who went down on the Titanic. After placing his pregnant wife onto a lifeboat, Astor helped two immigrant children get aboard with her before he stepped back onto the Titanic. Many other men did the same, giving up their spaces on lifeboats so that women and children might be saved.

Putting gender-based issues aside, Eichner wonders whether such other-regarding behavior remains conceivable in the current climate of self-interest above all else. I'm not sure of the answer, but I can easily picture in my mind a political cartoon, in which a ship named "The Economy," is sinking after striking an iceberg labelled "Financial Markets." As the passengers scramble and panic, Republican politicians dressed as crewmen run among them yelling, "Women and children back. Job-creators first!"

Something like this (only less amateurish):

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