Here’s a comment from Lant Pritchett in an interview last June. He was asked: “What is the role of an economist?” He answered:
The thing I like most about the field of economics is that it is still mostly people who are open to empirically grounded discussions of problems in which you’ll acknowledge what the facts are and alternative approaches to modalities of making the facts different.
Then the other thing … I don’t really teach undergraduates very often, but I was invited to give the opening lecture to a development economics course of undergraduates. My take was that economics is the social science of love. It’s the truly loving social science, and what I meant—and they were, of course, like, “What? Economics and love? That’s crazy.” But think about what economists do. We take individuals—objective functions are objective functions. We don’t start with any premise about what would be good for society or good for X or good for Y.
But I think economists, when they’re doing it right, they start from, what is it that people want to accomplish with their lives? Okay. Let’s think about what the actual outcomes are. Let’s think about modalities at the society, political, market level that would facilitate individuals achieving their objectives more or less. And what could be a better description of love than “I’m going to take—what you want is what I want for you, and I’m going to help you achieve that.” Economics is the loving social science, is my take on what economists do best.
I speak from personal experience when I say that perhaps the professional advantage of economists is not greatest in discussions and definitions of love. But what I like about Pritchett’s comment is that so many noneconomists I meet think about the subject in terms of topics like how to make money in the stock market or how to run a profitable business. Pritchett’s definition has its limitations. But at least it captures the idea of economics as subject that focuses on what people want for themselves, and thus on the importance of people having freedom to make choices about work, skill acquisition, and types of consumption.
For those who would like a little more love-talk from economists, in a post some years back about “Is Altruism a Scarce Resource that Needs Conserving?“, I discuss the line of argument among some economists that by allowing a substantial portion of the world’s material needs to be met by the actions of self-interested producers and consumers, we can save our scarce resources of love and altruism for where they are needed.