Hiring Women and the Moral Inversion of Economics

In my post on why economics is detested I quoted Arnold Kling:

The intention heuristic says that if the intentions of an act are selfless and well-meaning, then the act is good. If the intentions are self-interested, then it is not good.

In contrast, economics evaluates an act not by its intentions but by its consequences. Since “bad” intentions can lead to good consequences (“as if by an invisible hand”). It’s not surprising that economists often praise what others denounce. Here’s a case in point:

At a Sydney technology startup conference, Evan Thornley, an Australian multimillionaire and co-founder of online advertising company LookSmart (LOOK), gave a talk about why he likes to hire women. “The Australian labor market and world labor market just consistently and amazingly undervalues women in so many roles, particularly in our industry,” he said. When LookSmart went public on Nasdaq in 1999, he said, it was one of the few tech companies that had more women than men on its senior management team. “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.”

For his comments, Thornley’s was labelled a sexist and loudly denounced, especially so by furious women. Strange? Not according to the intention heuristic which judges self-interested actions as bad.

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.


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