A Review of In Justice: Women and Global Economics by Ann-Cathrin Jarl

[1] If judged on the basis of its ambition, In Justice is a commendable book. In it, Ann-Cathrin Jarl purports to investigate “feminist critiques of neoclassical economics and what feminist liberation ethics might contribute to strengthening the assumptions of justice in feminist economics.”1 Note that such an effort would require (1) a review of neoclassical economics; (2) a review of feminist critiques of the neoclassical economic model; (3) a review of feminist liberation ethics; and finally (4) the application of feminist liberation ethics to the feminist critique of the neoclassical model. That such an undertaking might prove valuable I would not dispute. However, Jarl’s brief, 132-page manuscript is not up to the task. The brevity of the work relative to the magnitude of the task it attempts to accomplish creates an essay that is unfortunately shallow. To support its central assertion – that feminist liberation ethics has something to contribute to the discipline of economics – Jarl develops a shorthand of villains and victims cast from stereotypes rather than from rigorous, impartial analysis. Neoclassical economics is bad because it doesn’t consider what is good and just, and also because it has been dominated by men. Women are good because they are poor and lack power. Power is bad, unless it is wielded by women. Justice is whatever empowers the poor and the powerless, that is, women.

[2] Unfortunately, not only is the work prone to substitute stereotypes and shibboleths for analysis, it has as its basis a popular misconception that confuses economics with the economy. Economics is a behavioral science that attempts to understand and predict how humans organize to produce, distribute and consume goods and services. The economy is the object of its scrutiny. The economy exists independent of economists and economics, even as ecosystems exist independently of ecologists and ecology. Just as it would be unfair to blame ecologists and the science of ecology for the rampant degradation of the earth’s biological systems, so is it unfair to blame economists and the science of economics for the poverty that continues to plague millions of the earth’s women, men and children or the discrimination meted out in labor markets around the world. Yet, Jarl insists that economics is to blame. Thus she writes that, “Hard ethical questions must be asked of the economic sciences in response to massive poverty on earth.”2 One might as well ask hard ethical questions of the biological sciences in response to the ubiquity of death among mortals.

[3] By insisting on blaming the discipline for the faults perceived in the object of its attention, Jarl reveals a critical lack of understanding of the discipline she attempts to critique. She doesn’t seem to understand, for example, how economic theory is used by Barbara Bergmann in a contrapositive proof of the existence of labor market discrimination.3 That is, it is precisely because economic theory predicts that lower wages to women and minorities could not be observed over the long-run in a freely functioning market that their persistence provides Bergmann with strong evidence that the market is not freely functioning and must be impeded by some form of labor market discrimination. While Jarl uses Bergmann’s study to conclude that economic theory is “inadequate to account for actual economic behavior,”4 she misses the point that economic theory is indeed adequate to document and even measure the extent to which women and minorities are penalized in the labor market. Economic theory does not predict discrimination – even though it might document it in the real world — because discrimination is deemed irrational, and clearly not in one’s best interest. There is germ of an ethical norm there, and one that Jarl might have been sympathetic to had she been willing to give the discipline a more balanced treatment.

[4] Jarl commits another critical error by confusing economic theory with economic norms throughout her text. Jarl avoids taking on the economic norm of efficiency, which by elevating a particular distribution of goods and services (the Pareto efficient distribution) to normative status, creates a sort of moral philosophy for some economists. By arguing against redistribution, against taxes, and in favor of privatization of every good consumed by humankind, efficiency would have been a worthy target for an ethicist. Indeed, the critique levied against neoclassical economics by feminist economists is largely focused on the inadequacy of the Pareto efficient distribution as an ethical norm. But rather than address the neoclassical norm, Jarl takes on neoclassical economic theory, a mostly positivist tool used to predict what would be observed if the world were populated by rational people free to act in their own self interest with perfect information, clear property rights, and competitive markets. As a positivist science, economic theory cannot properly be improved by appending to it any ethical norm, regardless of how laudable that norm might be. In response to Jarl’s reaction against the neoclassical model, we must ask, “Which model gives us a better idea of how actors will behave in this increasingly globalized economy? Which better predicts a Bhopal disaster, or a world in which orphaned children are sold from hospitals where they are recovering from the recent tsunami, the neo-classical model of Hobbesian atomistic, selfish behavior, or Jarl’s dualist model of cooperation and altruism set against a culture of patriarchy? Which better predicts that, absent regulation, pollution havens will pop up in developing countries across the globe in response to increasingly mobile capital?” None of us likes pollution havens, none of us wants to see another Bhopal, and none of us applauds at reports of evildoers victimizing victims, but that is the reflection that appears when we look in our mirror. And that reflection is predicted by a neoclassical economic model. If we want to institute policies that proactively address these and a host of other problems, we can’t afford to trade in that mirror for one that gives us a more attractive appearance, or appeals to our own sense of victimization and marginalization. The stakes are simply too high.

[5] Economics and economists could benefit from greater familiarity with ethics and ethicists. But the conversation needs to start with mutual respect, and an appreciation for what the other can offer for the betterment of humankind. Jarl’s book not only dismisses the possible contributions of economic theory to our understanding of critical world problems, she also blames those problems on economic theory. This is not a good way to begin a potentially important dialogue.

In Justice: Women and Global Economics, by Ann-Cathrin Jarl is available online from Augsburg Fortress, Publishers.

End Notes

1 Jarl, p. 115

2 Jarl, p. 65

3 Jarl, p. 27

4 Jarl, p. 27