Two Dimensions of Virtue

What is virtue? A big question, to be sure, which can be answered lots of ways. Plato came up with the four cardinal virtues of temperance, justice, wisdom, and courage. Aquinas adds the three theological virtues of Faith (pistis), Hope, and Charity (caritas, agape, love). First, let us think about the concept itself. It means Goodness, the desirable characteristic of something. A knife’s virtues lie in its sharpness and flexibility. What is a man’s virtue? Or a human’s? Or a woman’s?

Donald McCloskey was very perceptive about we economists in
“He’s Smart. And He’s a Nice Guy, Too,” Eastern Economic Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter, 1995), pp. 109-112, which is probably his second-best article. (And I mean that; it’s a great article, though published in a low-ranked journal, and he has written lots of other good stuff too. His best article is “Economical Writing,”
Economic Inquiry, 23 (2): 187-222 [1985].).

Share $100 if you say the magic word, a word American economists use every day to describe an economist they approve of. “Well informed about the economy*? Get serious. “Wise about the place of economics in the conversation of humanity”? Give me a break. “Imaginative, energetic, empirically soand or scientifically reliable!” …
The word is: “smart,” as in “He’s very smart” or “Boy, is he smart.” The economist being evaluated has never met a farmer or worker or businessperson. He doesn’t have a clue what American national income was last year. He makes up “stylized facts” about history as he goes along. He has no idea how economic advice works out in practice. He couldn’t convince a freshman about the good of markets on a bet. He’s never read The Wealth of Nations, not to speak of The Theory of Monopolistic Competition or The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. But, I’m telling you, he’s smart. He’s not scholarly, scientific, learned, curious, thorough, patient, serious, imaginative, broad-minded, humane, involved. He doesn’t read books. He doesn’t talk to sociologists. He’s never thought in depth about the society he’s in. But he’s smart.
Then the American economists will add, oddly, a one-word judgment on the guy’s character. (In these capsule evaluations it’s a guy, not a gal. The vocabulary for describing women economists is underdeveloped, and doesn’t allow two dimensions.) Share another $100 if you say the magic word. “Possessing integrity? Don’t be absurd. “Exhibiting courage, prudence, temperance, and justice? Don’t make me laugh. “Faith, hope, and charity?9 What planet do you live on?
The magic word is “nice.” If the judgment is favorable by the relaxed standard of America in the late 20th century, they’ll say, “And he’s a nice guy, too.”… The evaluative vocabulary of economic science in America consists of two adjectives, “smart” and “nice,” plus the adverb “not very.”
The words are genuinely American and genuinely economics. The nice-guy talk would not get you very far in Paris. In Japan it appears that being nice is conforming rigidly to a social role in a strict hierarchy, which is not what makes Bob Solow the classic nice guy in American economics. Bob is “smart,” too, lo these forty years. In Britain “smart” means “well dressed,” which is not obviously relevant to economic science. The corresponding British word is “clever,” and is usually deprecating, as in “too clever by half.” In Dutch economics the smart young people are called “whiz kids” (called so using the English phrase: you know about the Dutch and foreign languages), with just that degree of doubt in the voice. Among historians to call someone “smart,” even in America, would simply be puzzling. Smart, schmart. What books has he written? Among biologists being “smart” doesn’t sound like it would win NSF money, if not combined with care in running the experiments. Among real political scientists being “bright” entails reading more hard books at a younger age than a “smart” economist would believe humanly possible, at any rate among the political scientists who have not become second-rate economists. Even mathematicians don’t usually talk about how smart a person is in the economist’s sense. I suspect that the only other field in which being “smart” has the same valence it has in economics is theoretical physics, which from popular accounts (chiefly Feynman, I admit) appears to consist of smarty-pants undergraduates who prefer drinking and practical jokes to studying. But, boy, are they smart.

It’s odd that McCloskey doesn’t mention Mathematicians. They are like Economists in making Smart the ultimate accolade. My impression is that they differ, though, in putting zero value on Nice: the Mathematician’s moral universe is one-dimensional, though they scoff at you if you do your professional work on the real line. See Christopher Connell and Eric B. Rasmusen, “Concavifying the Quasi-Concave,” The Journal of Convex Analysis, 24(4): 1239-1262 (December 2017). The really hard stuff is all there in functions of a one-dimensional space, f(x): R -> R; the interesting stuff starts there and continues on with new insights from f(x,y): R^2 -> R; after that it’s just linear algebra. I couldn’t do it myself, but for my mathematician co-author it’s straightforward to extend our result to any geodesic metric space, proper or non-proper— infinite dimensions, fractal pathologies, “graphs” in the tehcnical math meaning, function spaces, etc. So he told me that while our paper is “good enough for economics”, it would be of mild but only mild interest for mathematicians— and I have to agree. Why do I bring this up? Partly because it’s fun, and partly because economists who read this will be very impressed with my virtue, because I’ve published in The Journal of Convex Analysis and they haven’t. Just to grind it in, I’ll show you my favorite graph from the paper.

Of course, doing that may cost me that second dimension of Niceness. But the preference ordering is not lexicographic—where Smart comes first and Nice is only used for breaking ties, like Azimuth coming before Bathtub in the dictionary—we Economists are willing to give up an awful lot of Nice in exchange for a little smidgeon of Smart when it comes to overall Virtue ranking.

Unbounded Variation Killing Quasiconcavity
Unbounded Variation Killing Quasiconcavity

So “smart” won’t do for grownups in science.

Likewise with “nice.” It celebrates moral qualities that reach a maximum around age 20. Everyone is “nice” at 20, because all 20-year-olds want to be popular and none has a position of authority to abuse. You learn whether someone is a mensch despite surface brusqueness, the way Harry Johnson was, or on the other hand, a momzer despite surface grace, the way George Stigler was, only when the people are Johnsons or Stiglers and have the mature opportunity to screw people on a large scale.

Some of George Stigler’s followers are always telling me that he was in fact a Good Guy, contrary to my daily experience in twelve years as his colleague. For sure, he was funny, very, very funny and very, very, smart. But he was cruel, arrogant, dogmatic, and willfully ignorant beyond even the local standard in such matters at Chicago. At a seminar over in the Law School he once made a grown man weep. Yet Stigler was just about the Best Economist I’ve ever known. It makes me want to join the man in weeping.

I liked Stigler a lot, though I know McCloskey detested him and I got the impression that Stigler despised McCloskey even before his sex-change operation (McCloskey’s not Stigler’s, though I would never have imagined either of them having one). I deny “cruel, arrogant, dogmatic” but grant the “willfully ignorant”. Stigler invited me to spend a year at Chicago to cure me of my MITish game-theory ways, I think (I should have asked him; he’d have answered forthrightly) and he liked my company because no tenure-track juniors dared argue with him, unlike me, but also because I was a respectful young man. I’d argue until I knew I had him convinced, but I let him pretend he wasn’t and had won the argument. (For more on the topic of disagreeableness, see Disagreeing Agreeably.)

McCloskey goes on to discuss his own Virtue schema for scholars.

My notion of the Good Economist/Good Person cell would include: Robert Fogel, Theodore Schultz, Otto Eckstein, Milton Friedman, Robert Solow, Clopper Almon, Margaret Reid, Gordon Tullock, Armen Alchian. By “good,” you see, I don’t mean just “smart” or “nice.” Good has more to it.

I give McCloskey full credit for good writing and clear thinking here. He knows that both require naming names. I agree with him on Robert Fogel, Theodore Schultz, Robert Solow, Gordon Tullock, and Armen Alchian, though I never met the others. They are good examples because although Nobel laureate Robert Solow is the quintessential Nice Guy of economics, Gordon Tullock and Armen Alchian were curmudgeons, delighting in trading insults with you in a friendly but incisive way— though I have to admit, I haven’t heard of them being as brutally frank to second-raters are Stigler was (including, very likely, about me!). Tullock really ought to have gotten the Nobel with his less-talented co-author James Buchanan, and the obvious explanation is that Tullock was a wild man who might well have used his Nobel speech to do something like make fun of Scandinavians as reversions to Neanderthal stock or the inventors of the pornographic movie or something like that.

But enough of talking about me. Let’s talk about my enemies and my allies.
Liberals, like economists, have two virtues. One is Intelligence. The other is Piety, where by Piety I mean respect for liberal principles. Note that you do not actually have to follow liberal principles; you just have to show respect. You can send your children to private schools so long as you are willing to say that everybody should go to public schools. You can date only Jews, so long as you are willing to say that race and ethnicity doesn’t matter in romance. You can cheat on your taxes so long as you are willing to support increases in tax rates. Hillary Clinton is the great example of a pious liberal.

A liberal is going to be far more ashamed of being thought unintelligent than of being thought impious. It is better to be Hitler than the village idiot, or even than someone who went to a community college because they weren’t smart enough for a four-year-college.

Conservatives have two virtues also. The first is Morality, which means good behavior— not stealing, not being mean, giving to charity— but does not include piety or fear of God. The second is Ability, which includes Intelligence but also includes Athleticism, Musicianship, Drive, Creativity, and so forth. For conservatives, I think these two virtues are pretty evenly balanced. The conservative is equally ashamed of being thought Immoral and of being thought Low-Ability.

Neither of these is right, of course. I am just being descriptive about what different groups of people value. Virtue should start with Fear of God, descend next to Morality, and descend considerably further down to Ability. We are all pitiful in Ability, relative to God, and it is not what God values in us. He can always make more of it.

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