Saturday, July 22, 2006

Labels and puzzles

Best quote from today's WSJ interview with Milton Friedman (reg. req.): "I have found over a long time, that some people are natural economists. They don't take a course, but they understand -- the principles seem obvious to them. Other people may have Ph.D.'s in economics, but they're not economists. They don't think like an economist. Strange, but true."

Everyone who teaches principles sees some students who quickly get it and many others (some quite smart) who have a much tougher time. Some people are not comfortable with a non-zero sum world. Others can never get over the fact that self-serving behavior is OK -- let alone that it can serve a greater good. Still others think in terms of "ecological footprints" and do not fathom substitutions and technological progress.

Who are the real utopians? Those who are romantics about changing human nature accept inhumane ways to get there. But many who accept the limits of human nature celebrate what real people can (have) accomplish(ed) when left free to do so. At a recent conference, my discussant referred to me as a utopian. I reject the label and it took me some time to figure out how my thinking so puzzled my critic.