The value of everything

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
5 April, 2019

Oscar Wilde once quipped that a cynic was “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

That saying has since migrated to refer to economists.

Allegedly, our depraved profession values only money. But for our widespread incompetence we would all be rich.

In fact, deep down economics is about value, not cash. Economists do not loaf around in universities and government agencies to get rich. We contribute to public policy debates because we want to do good.

Non-economists have a problem believing this. Look at a report published last December by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), an Auckland-based charity.

In Reform of the Resource Management System, the EDS claims: “An economic approach to environmental ethics tends to reduce the natural and physical world to monetary terms.”

That statement is stark and misleading. Economists study what people value. We study the choices and trade-offs that confront communities.

Imagine a small country with three problems: a polluted river, unsafe roads and high infant mortality. If you were Prime Minister, what would you do?

Voters will pressure you to fix all three problems, pronto. Clean up the river, make all roads safe and ensure that no baby dies.

But your Finance Minister tells you there is not enough money in the budget to do all three. You must choose. Of course, you will do so on the basis of relative values for the people in your community.

Being Prime Minister, you ask your advisers to assess the relative values. To do so they must use a common yardstick. The choice of yardstick should not make any difference to the ranking. You can tell who is tallest whether your measure is yards or metres.

Money values are a convenient yardstick. Money prices are a good start to assessing relative values in a community. Of course, money prices do not exist for many valuable things. Think of the value of a human life, clean air or an endangered species.

Economists have a toolkit that can help assess what value people put on such things at the margin. They will sacrifice something, but not everything. That might seem horrible and unethical, but it is what humans do. They make trade offs.

Economists study prices because they care about values. Only cynics do not.

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