NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Role of Economics and Ethics in Public Policy Debates

June 15, 1999

Public policy debates often ignore the fact that many issues have both an ethical and an economic dimension, says medical ethicist Merrill Matthews Jr. Policies that may be morally well- intentioned may have unintended economic consequences, and policies are often justified on the basis of economics, while ignoring the ethical issues involved.

The point at which ethics and economics converge in the public policy arena can be called "ethinomics," says Matthews. Take the following cases, for instance:

  • The National Bioethics Advisory Commission is applying a type of cost-benefit analysis when in says "the moral cost of destroying embryos in research is outweighed by the social good that could come from the work." But by what utilitarian calculus do they know that?
  • Proponents of managed care reform -- sometimes called "patient protection" legislation -- justify such action as protecting patients' access to needed care; but economists have shown such legislation also increases the cost of health insurance, leading to more uninsured.
  • President Clinton thinks competition between traditional public schools and charter schools should be encouraged -- but that competition between public schools and private schools shouldn't; is that an ethical judgment, or does it reflect the political support he receives from teachers unions?

Increasingly, concludes Matthews, economic issues and ethical issues are two sides of the same coin, and public policy debates need recognize that fact.

Source: Merrill Matthews Jr. (NCPA vice president of domestic policy), "Ethinomics: Where Ethics, Economics Converge," Investor's Business Daily, June 14, 1999.


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