Veronique de Rugy and I recently co-wrote an op-ed explaining why government action to increase paid leave is a bad idea. Our piece was promptly rejected by the editorial director of a prominent publication because we discussed the issue using what the editorial director called “economic abstractions.”
While our op-ed might well be chock-a-block with flaws any one of which justifies rejection, among those flaws is not our use of economic abstractions. The reason is that — contrary to careless thinking — what are taken to be economic abstractions are in fact flesh-and-blood individuals. These individuals only appear to be abstractions because, although their reality is highlighted by economists, they are invisible to those who ignore all but the most immediate consequences of government policies.
A Simple Experiment
Suppose that you observe Jones sitting alone in a small room in a university research facility. Jones, who is participating in a scientific experiment, holds in his hands a device featuring a big button. The researcher who persuaded Jones to volunteer for this experiment explains to you that whenever Jones presses the button, he gets an injection of dopamine which increases Jones’s felt happiness.
You observe Jones, smiling joyfully, pressing the button with abandon.
The researcher then explains that the dopamine that Jones injects into his body with each press of the button is extracted from Smith, who is strapped to a chair in a room immediately beneath where Jones sits. Unlike Jones, Smith did not volunteer to participate in this experiment; she was waylaid off the street and forced into the room, where researchers inserted into her body a tube used to transfer dopamine from her to Jones with each press of the button by Jones.
From your vantage point, you see and hear only Jones. You know of Smith only because the researcher informed you of Smith’s involuntary role in this experiment. “After all,” the researcher admits, “Jones’s extra doses of dopamine have to come from somewhere.”
Being a decent human being, you’re horrified at what you’ve learned. You turn in protest to the researcher, only to discover that he’s gone. Fortunately, a group of strangers has just walked up to where you stand; they’ve come to observe Jones experience his button-brought happiness.
“Isn’t it wonderful that this man is made happier merely by pressing a button!” you hear one stranger comment admiringly to another.
“No!” you interject loudly. The strangers, taking notice of you for the first time, eye you quizzically.
Calming your voice, you explain to the strangers that Jones’s observed happiness comes at the expense of Smith, who is imprisoned in a room one floor below. “We should take that button from Jones and free Smith,” you plead.
The strangers now eye you with suspicion. “I don’t see any Smith,” one stranger announces condescendingly. “Nor do I hear any Smith.” This stranger then, glaring at you with contempt, accuses you of cruelly wishing to make Jones worse off. “You, sir,” the stranger sneers as he gazes into your eyes, “should be ashamed of yourself for resorting to mere abstractions to justify your pitiless wish to make a fellow human being worse off.”
You try in vain to explain that Smith is no abstraction; she’s very real. The fact that Smith is unseen and unheard doesn’t in the least diminish her reality — or her moral worth.
Calling you “callous,” “uncaring,” “inhumane,” and “cold-blooded,” the strangers accuse you of elevating “abstract notions” above “real-world fellow human beings.”
Once again you point out that Smith is no abstract notion; she’s utterly concrete, and her suffering is quite real. “Smith no less than Jones is a fellow human being,” you cry to the strangers. “Why do you ignore Smith and consider only Jones?”
The strangers remain unmoved; they mock you for believing in airy abstractions. Because they believe in the reality of only that which is immediately before their eyes, they not only ignore Smith, they continue to assert that your stated wish to help Smith is really nothing but your attempt to academically justify your cruelty toward Jones.
The strangers warn everyone they encounter to ignore you and your silly abstractions.
Smith, of course, continues in darkness to suffer, unseen and uncared for.
To Be Unseen Is Not to Be Abstract
A large number of government policies feature real-world equivalents of Jones, of Smith, and of the strangers. Tariffs, minimum wage mandates, paid-leave requirements, you name it: it’s easy to find and observe individuals who gain from these interventions.
And in all such cases good economists can easily identify victims who are forced to pay the heavy price of the gains enjoyed by others. But unlike those who gain, these victims are not immediately visible.
Just as Smith is hidden by a thick and opaque floor from those who observed Jones, these victims are hidden by geographic distance and, often, by time from those who observe the gains enjoyed here and now by those who reap benefits from various interventions.
And just as the strangers refuse to hear from you of any unseen Smith, many people in reality refuse to hear from economists of the unseen workers who lose jobs because of tariffs or because of pay mandates. They turn deaf ears to descriptions of the unseen consumers who must spend more to feed and clothe their families. They reject claims of the reality of unseen future taxpayers who will be forced to foot the bill for benefits that some of us enjoy today.
Yes, compared to beneficiaries, the victims of government interventions are indeed typically more difficult to see — which is why good economists spend so much time and energy explaining the reality of these victims. Yet nothing could be further from the truth than to mistake explanations of the reality of these victims as being idle talk about “economic abstractions.” These so-called “abstractions” are real.