Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I like my economics crunchy 

This post might not work, but it's an attempt to tie a few scattered thoughts together.

This was triggered by a scathing review of Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons by Jeff Tucker at the Mises Blog. I haven't read the book yet, but I heard Dreher interviewed on NARN by the Fraters (I thought there might be a podcast of this, but I don't think John was there), and after the interview as I walked into the studio past Chad the Elder, he noted that I looked like a crunchy con.

I suppose I do. I am wearing my Birkenstocks right now, in fact. I am a longtime vegetarian who shops at a co-op that is most definitely anti-free market. I eat free-range eggs and organic vegetables frequently, though that choice may be more Mrs. S's than mine. My music choices are seldom part of mainstream culture. (Here's my favorite Internet radio station; I await JB Doubtless' ire.)

But the choices I make are because there are free markets. It is exactly because I am free that I can choose to shop in a co-op or a WalMart. When David and Margaret put on their blog "Live Like a Liberal, Vote Like a Conservative", it is because they are free to do so. And free to go between the two spaces. I eschew WalMart not because it's evil but because I usually want the service I get from the corner Ace Hardware or the local nursery. I support local businesses and pay more because those local connections are valuable to me.

Thus I am not at all disturbed by Dreher's hypothesis that we should adopt certain cultural values. Those provide him with satisfaction. I like sandals and organic leafy greens. If Tucker wants to shop at the big box, I will not use force to stop him. But using persuasion to ask for the support of more bucolic or 'crunchy' values bothers me not a bit. We cannot presume to tell others what's best for them, so that saying these are the best of times doesn't cut it with Dreher, nor with this editorial last week by Charles Morriss. So we get lovely things like happiness research , which might in turn lead Dreher and Morriss to become officers in the happiness police. I'd rather live without them than without my Birkenstocks. It is unnerving to find someone doing happiness research and then saying that the research helps make public policy choices. That's what worries Tucker, and it should.

We know that some things matter more than others in making us happier. The desparate purchases of the recently divorced tells us, without resort to surveys or much else, that a good marriage makes us much happier than doubling our salary. Observing people as they age reveals they get happier as they understand the limits of their abilities to produce and consume; as they become more comfortable with who they are and what is possible. We also know that the "distributivism" that Dreher is said to support (by Tucker) only helps to make the poor a little happier, and only for awhile.

We don't always act to maximize wealth. We act to maximize satisfaction. This is what is taught in your standard neoclassical principles of micro course, and it's right.

Is satisfaction the same as happiness? I don't think so, but that's another post.