Donald J. Boudreaux: Economists' insights can be mundane & surprising
At first glance, the core insights of economics seem mundane. As something's cost rises, consumers buy less of it. Producing more clothing requires transferring more resources to textile factories and, hence, away from other uses. When Jen buys a pear from Al for a dollar, she does so because she values the pear more than whatever she otherwise would have purchased with that dollar — and Al values what he will buy with that dollar more than he values the pear.
Pretty straightforward. But what economists do with such “obvious” observations is often mind-blowing.
An important counterintuitive insight was vividly conveyed long ago by my late colleague Gordon Tullock. Asked in the 1960s what government should do to maximize reduction in traffic fatalities, he replied, “Mandate that the steering column of each car be mounted with a steel dagger pointed directly at each driver's heart.” Initially, that sounds crazy. Yet when you think about it, you realize such daggers would cause drivers to dramatically increase the care they exercise behind the wheel.
Instead of really wanting government to mandate mounted daggers, Gordon was warning government against going too far in mandating safety features such as airbags, seat belts and collapsible steering columns. Just as mandated daggers would lead to more-careful driving, mandated safety features lead to less -careful driving. Safety features truly might reduce highway deaths, but keep in mind the possibility that mandated safety features might have surprising opposite effects.
David Friedman explains another counterintuitive insight: “Economists are often accused of believing that everything — health, happiness, life itself — can be measured in money. What we actually believe is even odder. We believe that everything can be measured in anything.”
What Friedman means is that each of us routinely makes trade-offs among things that seemingly can't be compared. Consider your enjoyment from going to a concert. Getting there conveniently requires driving. Yet by doing that instead of staying home, you raise your chance of being killed in an auto accident. If you nevertheless drive there, you conclude that the added enjoyment you expect from the concert is worth more than the added safety you'd experience by staying home. That is, you compare the experience of a concert to the risks of driving. Obviously, if the risk of being killed while driving there were high enough, you'd decide to stay home.
Another example: You buy a jacket, telling friends it “cost” you $100. But your statement is inaccurate. When you gave, say, five $20 bills to the clerk, what you really gave up wasn't five pieces of paper engraved with Andrew Jackson's portrait. What you really gave up is whatever you otherwise would have bought with those five pieces of paper.
Suppose that, had you not bought the jacket, you would have bought a meal at a nice restaurant for you and a friend. In this case, you compared a jacket to that restaurant meal.
We humans constantly compare apples to oranges — and choose sensibly between them.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.