The Cross the Weekly : Moral values are at the heart of our societal debates. When we read you, however, we would (too) rarely talk about the price we have to pay to defend these ideals, right?
David Thesmar : Indeed, defending a value means agreeing to pay the price. But that’s not how we see things; the domain of morality is considered that of “no matter what”† The observance of a moral good is in itself seen as right and good, regardless of its financial cost.
The fact that a moral good has an economic cost almost makes us uncomfortable. As if it gave off a scent of compromise… Wrongly. The question that arises for us is how to arbitrate between our moral values (defense of justice, freedom, etc.) on the one hand, and our personal interest (preservation of purchasing power) on the other.
For example ?
DT : For example, do we accept more taxes to make culture more accessible? Do we agree to subsidize small businesses in the inner city to maintain social ties? Do we want to take in more refugees at the risk of saturating social services and increasing compulsory taxes? There you are very concretely forced to arbitrate between costs and values. With these kinds of questions, you are no longer just polling for opinions – as polls do – but rather for preferences.
What difference do you make between the two?
DT : The opinion is binary (you are asked: “Are you for or against…? »† Preference, on the other hand, allows us to measure the price of our ideals. In our book, with my co-author, Augustin Landier (2), we propose a polling method that makes it possible to measure preferences in full size “economic-moral” citizens. The latter bring both our interests and our values into play and are therefore, in our view, more relevant to analyze than the simple declarative ambitions measured in the usual surveys.
What does this questionnaire (3) show?
DT : First of all, we notice a certain pragmatism among the respondents. Their ethical beliefs do not justify all sacrifices! Second lesson: their sensitivity to costs varies according to the themes. Respondents are relatively inflexible on identity issues (immigration, culture, sovereignty). To put it a bit caricatured, we can say that, on these subjects, their values are not for sale…
In other areas, on the other hand, respondents are much more sensitive to the economic cost. This is especially true for anything to do with competition (protectionism, job retention, etc.). On these less identity-based and more economic topics, they are more willing to compromise their values.
You also notice that if the right-left cleavage remains relevant given the answers obtained, another emerges that pits the individual against the community. Can you say more?
DT : Yes, we find a classic right-left opposition (with a sovereignty-authority-loyalty to the group axis on the one hand and an equality-compassion-social justice axis on the other). But another dichotomy appears, this time against the individual against society. For the former, everything starts with the individual: he does what is right for him – even if the state in the margin corrects this or that excess. For the others, the individual does not optimize alone and it is desirable that the group partly decides about his life. These are two very different ethos of life: the first is supported by the individual, who is in charge of himself, while the second, on the contrary, relies on the group, which can go against our individual interests. This new format, which unites audiences from both the left and the right, could eventually reconfigure the political spectrum.
You call on economists to broaden their focus by including our moral values in their models. Why ?
DT : In reality. If citizens tend to overestimate their moral disinterestedness, economists tend to overestimate the logic of importance alone here. We are not just actors who want to maximize our profits at all costs… We are also driven by a value system that partly explains our trade-offs. We see it every day: some of our ambitions are very different from maximizing our profits. The economy must also take this into account!