Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ethicists as Fanatical 'Men of System'

In ‘canadianeconoview’ blog, 21 October, 'Note to Ethicists - supply curve slope up': (bookmark it!)

A piece by ‘BSF’ linking a fall in the number of donors of human sperm and eggs following an Act prohibiting anybody doing this for ‘reward’, except receipted transport expenses.

The consequences were predictable and if the intentions behind the Act were to end egg and sperm donations it has worked as elementary supply and demand economics suggests it would.
There is still a demand for such donations and, clearly, if an Act of government requires to be invoked to prevent payment for donations, as clearly, it is a case of an economic good involved, because there is evidence of excess demand at zero price.

“BSF” quotes and comments:

“The number of Canadian men and women donating sperm and eggs is dwindling to near zero because of a federal law restricting donor compensation, a new study shows. The act criminalizes the practice of paying for donations. Under the law, only expenses with receipts -- for example, taxi and parking chits -- will be reimbursed.”

BSF asks, with barely repressed irony: “So, drive the price to zero and, by golly, the quantity supplied also falls to zero. Who'd have believed it?”

BSF then takes the argument to something written by Adam Smith and rails against the authors of the legislation with a very large sledgehammer against their fanaticism (such is politics):

"Look, guys, like it or not supply curves slope up. The people who put together pieces of legislation like this one are perfect examples of what Adam Smith, in Chapter II of Section II of Part VI of the Theory of Moral Sentiments termed "The man of system":

"The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily andharmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder."

According to Smith, this type can be identified by possession of a distinct tendency:

It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and that his fellow-citizens should accommodate themselves to him and not he to them."

Comment: Well said. I agree with BSF and Adam Smith. I suspect the motives of the politicians behind this legislation.

[Incidentally, and only for ease of references for less well known passages, I would prefer to use the citation details as: TMS VI.ii.2.17: pp. 233-4, in line with the standard references to the Oxford edition of “The Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith”.]


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