Thursday, April 24, 2008

Be careful what you learn?

The result of an interesting, possibly unintended experiment at Yale Law School (Forbes):

All students are required to take courses in contracts and in torts, and they're randomly assigned to an instructor for each class. Some of these teachers have Ph.D.s in economics, some in philosophy and other humanities, and some have no strong disciplinary allegiances at all. Professors are encouraged to design their courses as they see fit. Instructors from economics may emphasize the role of contracts in making possible the efficiency gains of the marketplace, while philosophers may emphasize equal outcomes for contracting parties. So economists teach about efficiency and philosophers teach about equality.

It turns out that exposure to economics makes a big difference in how students split the pie, in terms of both efficiency and outright selfishness. Students assigned to classes taught by economists were more likely to give a lot when it was cheap to do so. But they were also much more likely to take the whole pie for themselves.
Greg Mankiw baits: "Does economics make you selfish?". A few thoughts: first, I wonder what happens for those who have a background in both philosophy and economics. The fact though that these are courses towards law degrees would suggest that most people have taken some form of philosophy... (law tends to attract those social justice folks who eventually become ambulance chasers of one type or another) so wouldn't the better question to ask then be 'does economics make you more rational?'. Of course this may also say something about the Finns who Ray Fisman, the author, point out value equality over efficiency.

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