Today’s New York Times Arts section has an article on repugnance, titled Economists Dissect the ‘Yuck’ Factor. Yuck is my ThemeWord for 2008, so — although I find conservative economics repulsive and offensive in the extreme — I was drawn to the article.
[Alvin] Roth spoke at a recent panel on the economics of repugnance at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization in Washington. For conservatives the issue can be particularly pointed. Economic conservatives tend to favor eliminating as many hindrances on the market as possible, while social conservatives believe some practices are so â€œrepugnantâ€ â€” because they violate traditional values or religious and moral prohibitions â€” that they should be banned from the marketplace altogether.
I have an almost childish fascination with the horrible, the vile, the disgusting. One finds a certain cloying sweetness in the mercantilist maunderings at the Hayek informed conservative think tanks, almost like eating an overripe banana. There is something seductive about Herr Professor Hayek’s rank and rotting, dark and filthy subornation of human values with his bizarre monetary tokenism. It’s like smelling a particularly ripe cheese. One salivates, but then one may also vomit. There is something deeply ironic about Hayek’s appointment as Professor of Social and Moral Science at the University of Chicago, his membership (with Leo Strauss) on the Committee on Social Thought.
“Polite society” doesn’t often provide moments for biting into that black banana, for sampling that Austrian cheese. When Americans buy little girl babies in China, we usually turn our head, make of it something positive, humanitarian. Perhaps it is. When the wretched twenty percent of christian Americans who actually are leading the retreat to serfdom express their repugnance over same sex marriage or stem cell research, it is outfits like the American Enterprise Institute that legitimize their eccentricities by agreeing that indeed there is an odor about these matters that many find repellent. So on the one hand, people are willing to endure a whiff of the yucky if money can be used to transmute the yuckiness — whether it’s buying a Chinese baby or paying a donor for his/her sperm or egg — while moral incorruptibility rules when it comes to suppressing gay marriage or the extension of knowledge through stem cell research. (It doesn’t take an economist to understand that the barriers to stem cell research will fall to profitability long before the barriers to gay marriage, because who can make a buck from that?)
It has been suggested that we eschew yuckiness, that we find our happy place and go there when we smell the stench from charnel houses of unexamined capitalism. “Polite society” agrees about what is yucky and what is not. One of the most important community values in almost any community dictates that you go along to get along. Paul Bloom, at that same American Enterprise Institute convocation on yuckiness, observed this about athletes’ steroid use:
He conducted a two-year study to try to get at why people consider athletes who take steroids to be cheating, but not those who take vitamins or use personal trainers. He and his team offered different possibilities: What if steroids were completely natural? Or were not at all harmful? Or were only effective if the athlete had to work harder than before?
The only change that caused the interviewed subjects to alter their objections to steroids was when they were told that everyone else thought it was all right. â€œPeople have moral intuitions,â€ Mr. Bloom said. When it comes to accepting or changing the status quo in these situations, he said, they tended to â€œdefer to experts or the community.â€
Well, yucky or repugnant as I find the manipulation of community values for power and profit to be, there is something funny about it all. Paul Bloom went on to say,
[Economists] assume that â€œeverything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise. The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, itâ€™s that theyâ€™re evil people. They work in a different moral universe.”
I imagine the gathered economists got a few yucks out of that.