299. "The Mapping of Man," Wall Street Journal, (May 15, 1998), p. W 11.
"...One does not argue over tastes for the same reason one does not argue over the Rocky Mountains--both are there, will be there next year, too, and are the same for all men," write two Nobel Laureates in economics. Since its 1977 publication, George J. Stigler and Cary S. Becker's article, "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum" (Tastes are Indisputable), has been often cited, much disputed, and has deeply influenced the social science tastes of numerous scholars. There are more reasons to follow this rather arcane debate than to be reminded of how much a relief it is that you no longer have to hand in term papers. At issue are questions such as to what extent can we simplify the world to get a handle on it, without doing violence to it? (All men have the same tastes??). Most profoundly at question is how to best understand the ways we make choices, not merely in the marketplace but also when we choose friends, mates, even--when we fight addiction. Most profoundly, at issue is the extent to which people are creatures of history and culture as against being free to chart their own course.
Stigler and Becker's starting point is a position shared by other economists: people have fixed tastes. The extent to which people indulge their tastes depends on the level of their income and relative prices. Obviously, those more affluent are able to satisfy more of their taste for more things, from sports cars to designer clothes, than those less endowed. And, given the same level of income--economists argue--people buy more oranges and fewer apples not because they came to appreciate oranges more, not because their taste have changed, but because the relative prices changed.
Fair enough, respond sociologists, but how have these tastes been formed in the first place? Which factors account for significant differences in tastes among people of similar income and in the same marketplace? Are tastes not constantly reshaped under the influence of cultural trends, education, the media, even persuasive advertising?
Before the Stigler and Becker article reshaped the thinking of many economists, the discipline used to respond that the ways tastes are shaped is the province of other disciplines: sociology, history, maybe social psychology. The work of economics starts once tastes are in place. (Kenneth Boldwing, a non-conforming economist, joked that economists assume people are born at age 21 with their preferences in place.)
It is this division of the study of behavior into two worlds that Stigler and Becker challenge. Becker especially leads those who claim that all of behavior can be modeled by economists. He holds a professorship in the departments of both economics and sociology at the University of Chicago. He has written seminal, controversial essays that treat children like durable consumer goods and marriages as lasting as long as the benefits exceed the cost of divorce.
An army of economists has extended this line of thinking to argue that in all realms of social life people act in the same manner: to maximize their utility. Richard Posner has led the development of a whole new branch of the study of law that treats it as reflecting not society's notions of right and wrong, but economic considerations. Some economists have even correlated church attendance with the value attached to after-life. (Little wonder other social scientists have refer to this massive incursion of economics into their turf as "imperialism.") In the process, all human preferences are reduced to "utilities", drawing on a simplistic psychological model that assumes that all that motivates people is pleasure. It treats moral commitments as nothing more than one more source of psychic income, such as impressing one's neighbors or assuaging guilt).
But how to fit tastes into this emporium? By denying that they matter! Before us, Stigler and Becker write, when economists sought to explain differences in behavior and they noted differences in taste, this became the "terminus of the argument." Translated, they had to hand over the subject to others. Instead, Stigler and Becker suggest, "one never reaches this impasse: the economist continues to search for differences in prices or income to explain any differences or changes in behavior." To do so, Stigler and Becker engage in an intellectual high-wire acrobatics that is both breathtaking and dangerous.
To do justice to their act would require a lot more exercise room than I have here. But one can get a fair taste of their approach by following how they seek to explain the evolution of music appreciation. The facts are that the more people are exposed to classical music, the more they enjoy it, which would suggest to the uninitiated that people's "taste" for such music has changed. "Soft" social scientists may explain such developments by pointing to the influence of parents, educators, peer group, or culture.
In contrast, Stigler and Becker argue that the taste for classical music is fixed. What changes is that the more we invest in music by spending time on listening or on musical education, which is akin to investment in cumulative human capital, the more we enjoy future music exposure. (To put it a bit more technically, the marginal costs of producing future units of enjoyment is lower). It is as if people who invest in music appreciation calculated the size of future additional appreciation they would gain, and, decided it was worth the time and other outlays. For the same reason, older people spend less time on cultivating their music appreciation: they have a lower expectation of being able to benefit from this investment.
If all people have the same taste, how come they do not all invest the same in music appreciation? Well, concede Stigler and Becker at one point, there are some small random differences among individuals that will lead some to invest in music and others--in art and so on. But how can any one who ever got to meet real people assume that difference among their tastes are minor? Well, explains Edwin West, a scholar who came to Stigler and Becker defense, scholars may make outlandish assumptions to see where this will take us.
One can view such modeling as ingenious, others-- as the worst kind of scholasticism, a flat earth theory. But the stakes are much higher than the division of turf among competing academic disciplines. Ultimately at issue is our assumption about human nature. To buy Stigler and Becker's model is to ignore the enormous role of historical and cultural forces, education, and values, as the initial shapers of our preferences. To turn a blind eye to these factors is to overlook that powers beyond ourselves may provide us with launching pads, although we surely will seek to modify our course once we are launched; this is what good upbringing in a sound community provides us. Or, the same powers may hold us back from the onset, say when we grow up in a broken family, or a drug-infested, welfare-dependent environment, burdens from which we can break free and set a new course, but which we cannot ignore.
If our preferences (inclinations or tastes, broadly understood) are immutable, we are either blessed or lost from the onset. By recognizing the origins of our tastes, the external forces that help shape us, we enhance our capacity to examine our predispositions critically and to labor to change them. In this way we can fight dependencies, vie with prejudices, cultivate greater appreciation of books, music, and art. Trying to assume away the historical and social factors that influence our tastes leaves us with the image of a person who is freer than we actually are--and as a result renders us more captive of forces we do not understand and hence cannot learn to control. The idea which underlies psychoanalysis, is relevant here: only by understand the forces that shape us, can we hope to come to terms with our demons, exorcise them, and free ourselves from their grasp and discover our inner strength. This does not necessarily entail prostrating one's self on a couch for years on end. Intensive introspection and study of our personal and collective past, i.e. history, can also serve. Freedom is born out of struggle with our darker side and drawing on our better angels, rather than found merely by dipping deep into an humongous barrel of choices.
Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at The George Washington University and author of The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics (New York: Free Press, 1988).