Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Morality, positive economics and the price of music

As a tribute to Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times journalist who was killed in Homs today, her newspaper has made her final report freely available rather than keeping it behind the firewall. I think this is a fitting gesture.

When Whitney Houston was found dead her record company Sony immediately raised the price of her recordings. Though I have no strong opinion in the matter and this move was quickly reversed, it strikes me that this was rather a crass thing to do.

So there you are: two moral judgements about a private company's pricing decision. There is nothing very odd about them, is there?

But read on...

It happened that Liberal Democrat Voice had a weekend debate on this second case, asking "Should music be priced by morality?"

I joined in because the first contributor assumed that those who disagree with Sony's decision must be calling for government to regulate the music industry. Not so: they may just be voicing their disapproval of that decision. I was far more concerned about the importance of good ethical reasoning than I was about Whitney Houston.

That debate soon began to generate more heat than light, so I did not persevere with it. But it is notable that another contributors made the same assumption: that if you voice disapproval of something then you must want the state to take action. And a third took the related view that if something is not banned by the state then it must be fine morally.

I find this view mistaken and rather worrying. What defines a liberal society is precisely that there is a large and vital sphere of life beyond the confines of state action. In Moscow 50 years ago the state and civil society were one and all moral questions were settled by the state. That is how they live in Tehran today, but it is not how we want to live in Britain.

As I said in one of my contributions to that thread, I feel that the prevalence of such views even in a Liberal Party does something to support the views I expressed in my (slightly pretentiously named) Eight sceptical theses on moral rights - particularly no. 3:
The more rights we ascribe to people, the more we tend to make the government mighty. If there is, say, a right to work, who can have the duty to give employment but the state? This process tends to make the individual citizen a spectator in important moral questions.
I think what we are seeing here are the effects of that spectator status. Today's young liberals have grown up in a world where all moral questions have been settled and codified in legally bindings codes. If any disputes arise over them, they are settled by judges, not citizens or their elected representatives. All that remains is to ridicule those who are so stupid or so wicked as to disagree.

One other point I noted from the debate was that some thought that economics could tell us the morally right price to charge. iRadar has gone to much greater lengths on his own blog to try to prove that point - supply and demands curves and all.

But economics cannot tell us that there is a morally right price, because that is not what it is setting out to do. As the admirable, short Wikipedia entry for positive economics says:
Positive economics (as opposed to normative economics) is the branch of economics that concerns the description and explanation of economic phenomena. It focuses on facts and cause-and-effect behavioral relationships and includes the development and testing of economics theories...
Positive economics as science, concerns analysis of economic behavior. A standard theoretical statement of positive economics as operationally meaningful theorems is in Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947). Positive economics as such avoids economic value judgements. For example, a positive economic theory might describe how money supply growth affects inflation, but it does not provide any instruction on what policy ought to be followed.


Andrew Hickey said...

Couldn't agree more. There's been a similar argument among comics bloggers recently - DC Comics have announced the release of a set of prequels to the comic Watchmen, despite the fact that that comic's writer, Alan Moore, very strongly disapproves and feels he has been treated unethically by them (his contract for the comic, written in 1984, doesn't account for the fact that the whole comics industry completely changed its business model in 1985-6).

A lot of people have been arguing that it is absolutely find for DC to do this, and they can't seem to get it into their heads that someone can have the legal right to do something but not the moral right.

That sort of thinking seems especially prevalent among American self-styled Libertarians, who do not seem to understand that it is as far from a freedom-loving or -respecting position as one can get. Making the government the final and only arbiter of morality is closer to a fascist position than a liberal one, to my mind.

Tristan said...

I agree too.

To take the Sony case - it wasn't threat of regulation which caused them to backtrack it was public outrage and bad publicity.
Of course they are are legally able to raise prices, but the market (in a broad sense) signals were of outrage, threatening to harm their public image enough to cause them to backtrack (and try to lay the blame on an intern).

You'd have though free marketeers would celebrate this - its one of the key features of a freed market and of society.

Anti Money Laundering said...

Where there is politics or economics, there is no morality.