Alex Tabarrok wirtes today, The Moral Inversion of Economic Thinking:
In a delightful, short article on Economics and Morality, Timothy Taylor asks why economics has a reputation for leading to corruption:
Political science, history, psychology, sociology, and literature are often concerned with aggression, obsessiveness, selfishness, and cruelty, not to mention lust, sloth, greed, envy, pride, wrath, and gluttony. But no one seems to fear that students in these other disciplines are on the fast track to becoming sociopaths. Why is economics supposed to be so uniquely corrupting? ...
Arnold Kling gives one answer:
I think that economics is singled out for opprobrium because of the way that it challenges the intention heuristic. The intention heuristic says that if the intentions of an act are selfless and well-meaning, then the act is good. If the intentions are self-interested, then it is not good. ...
Both articles offer some important insights but I think Tabarrok sums it up well:
... Standard morality, as Kling argues, often stops at intentions while economists are interested in consequences. Consequentialist philosophers also look at consequences but economists have the tools to trace interactions as they sort themselves into an equilibrium. Equilibrium outcomes may be very far from intentions. As a result, we find that economists often places themselves and their discipline in opposition to standard morality.
Two thoughts. First, many economists routinely make the assumption that growth and efficiency take priority in almost all circumstances. So it isn't always true that everything comes down to economists offering value-free analysis of any given topic.
Second, with the above caveat, this inattention to consequences is what is maddening with so many moralists. When an economist demonstrates that a good intention doesn't have the desired outcome, the economist is branded as immorral, or at least being guilty of economism. Theologians are fond of noting that the Bible says more about economic issues than any other topic, yet very few have ever studied any economics. Theologism is pervasive and for that reason the church finds itself ineffectual in shaping the culture.