Economic moral inversion

Alex Tabarrok with a thought-provoking post on the stark difference in evaluating actions based on intention versus outcome. The real world example: Evan Thornley, founder of LookSmart, admitted he hired more women because of the market inefficiency for their talents.

“Call me opportunistic; I thought I could get better people with less competition because we were willing to understand the skills and capabilities that many of these woman had,” Thornley said.

Thornley went on to say that by hiring women, he got better-qualified employees to whom he was able to give more responsibility. “And [they were] still often relatively cheap compared to what we would’ve had to pay someone less good of a different gender,” he concluded. To illustrate his point he showed a slide that said: “Women: Like Men, Only Cheaper.”

As you might expect, his comments were met with outrage. Tabarrok believes the outrage comes from judging Thornley on an intention-based heuristic. Looked at from an economist's consequentialist perspective, Tabarrok feels Thornley was judged too harshly.

If we judge actions by consequences, however, Thornley should be encouraged, perhaps even praised. Accepting for the sake of argument the truth of the story, it’s Thornley who has overcome prejudice (his or his society’s), recognized the truth of equality and taken entrepreneurial action to do well while doing good. It’s Thornley who is broadcasting the fact of equality to the world and encouraging others to do likewise. Most importantly, the consequence of Thornley’s actions are to increase the demand for women executives thereby increasing their wages.

Women’s wages aren’t pushed down by employers who hire women but by employers who don’t hire women. So why does Thornley get the blame? Instead of denouncing Thornley, whose actions push up the wages of women he hires and the wages of the women he does not hire, why not ask, How can we encourage employers not to overlook talented women and minorities?

For those wanting to break the bonds of discrimination whether they be women, blacks or Dalits, lower wages and a competitive market aren’t the cost of discrimination but the cure. It’s the lower wages that give employers an incentive to overcome prejudice, seek out talent, and experiment with new ways of doing business. And it is the self-interested pursuit of profit that is the surest means to increase the wages of the unjustly ignored and overlooked.

I'm sympathetic to both sides. On the one hand, a free market economy can be a natural corrective to many forms of discrimination when the discrimination happens to be economically inefficient.

On the other hand, let's not fit Thornley for a saint's cap. In this day and age, especially in the U.S., I don't perceive a huge societal retaliation threat for paying women equal pay for equal work. It's not as if Thornley was coming out against slavery in the Deep South when slavery was at its height. He clearly states that he believed the women were doing not just equal work but better work. So why not do the right thing and just pay them commensurate to their value as he saw it? I'm hesitant to laud someone for just being a smart business person, a rational economic actor.