Monday, February 2, 2015

How does economic freedom promote tolerance?

The headline of Tyler Cowen’s recent article in the NYT is: “Economic Freedom Does Not Necessarily Lead to Greater Tolerance”. Tyler has acknowledged on his blog that the headline “doesn’t exactly capture” the message his article that economic freedom does tend to lead to greater tolerance. The headline seems to me to be almost as bizarre as suggesting that sunshine doesn’t necessarily cause plants to grow.

Tyler Cowen’s article provides a good summary of research findings by Niclas Berggren and Therese Nilsson, particularly their paper “Does Economic Freedom Foster Tolerance?” I urge people to read Tyler’s article, so I will just provide the briefest possible summary of his summary.

The main points are:
  • Societies characterized by economic freedom tend to exhibit greater tolerance toward gay people. There is a similar but weaker relationship between economic freedom and racial tolerance.
  • This greater tolerance is strongly associated with certain features of economic freedom i.e. secure property rights and low inflation.
  • Economic freedom has a closer association with tolerance in societies which exhibit high levels of social trust.

Niclas Berggren and Therese Nilsson suggest that economic freedom promotes tolerance through two main mechanisms: market institutions protecting private property offer a framework in which it becomes less risky to engage in transactions with unknown members of other groups; and market processes involving interaction between members of different groups lead to greater understanding and recognition that intolerance comes at a cost (e.g. loss of profit from failure to employ the best person for the job).

The authors suggest that these positive impacts are reinforced by social trust. Social trust can be expected to have a direct positive impact on tolerance – if you trust people you don’t know, you are more likely to be open and generous in your attitudes to people who are different. Social trust can also be expected to enhance the impact of economic freedom on tolerance – for example, because trust reinforces the expectation that the legal system will treat people equally and in accordance with the rule of law.

So, what do the authors say about the influence of economic development on tolerance? Per capita GDP is included as a control variable in their regression analysis, but the results seem to imply that economic development has no impact on tolerance.

At first sight those findings appear to conflict with other empirical analyses, which I have supported, which suggest that the widespread economic opportunity that tends to accompany economic growth also tends to foster emancipative values, including greater tolerance.

I think economic freedom shows up as being more important than per capita income levels because tolerance is more likely to be sustained if economic opportunities are growing - and because economic freedom fosters economic growth. It is reasonable to expect tolerance levels to be lower in high income countries where economic opportunities are contracting (e.g. where there is high unemployment) than in high income countries where economic opportunities are expanding. That was one of the points that Benjamin Friedman made in his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which I discussed on this blog a few years ago.

The point I am coming to is that it still seems reasonable to expect that one of the mechanisms by which economic freedom promotes tolerance is by promoting widespread economic opportunities. When opportunities are expanding, people are more likely to perceive the potential for mutually beneficial economic interactions with others and are more likely to be open and generous in their attitudes toward people who are different. 

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