Chris Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation offended many people on his show Sunday morning when he said he was “uncomfortable” using the word hero to describe soldiers who sacrificed their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Hayes acknowledged that he is a pacifist; all four of his guests seem to believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were either immoral or misguided, and had no particular insights about duty, honor, or heroism.  Consequently it was both irritating and pointless to listen to their discussion of whether soldiers who sacrificed their lives in these wars should be called heroic.  Once the discussion between Hayes and his guests hit the internet a torrent of anti-Hayes tweets ensued.  (What is the point of hate tweets?  If you don’t like Hayes show join the many millions of Americans who haven’t watched it and never will.)  On Monday Hayes issued an apology for, among other things, not showing the appropriate respect and empathy for the families of soldiers who sacrificed their lives.

The anti-Hayes tweets brought responses from defenders and prompted Josh Barro, a policy wonk at Forbes, to tweet:

All jobs have risk/reward characteristics, and some people freely choose risky jobs to gain other benefits.

Similarly, lots of jobs are essential. Without the military we wouldn’t be free, but without farmers, we’d starve to death.

We never talk about the heroes who catch our tuna, though commercial fishing is crazy dangerous, more than military service.

I actually think conscripted service is more heroic than volunteer service.

I think the lionization of military service both is unwarranted and encourages extra use of the military, which is bad.

Barro implies that we can gain insights about heroism from labor economics models of self-selection.  We can’t.  There is no economic model that suggests that someone being paid for their work is less dedicated to their job, their country, or their fellow citizens than someone who is conscripted into service.  There is no economic reason why the same act of bravery should be considered more heroic if performed by someone forced into service rather than by someone who enlisted in the military.

Barro’s ramblings seem to suggest that people who contribute their time and money to charitable organizations may not really be charitable.  A donation to a charity is, after all, a voluntary exchange.  Could it be that conscripted contributions (i.e. taxes) are a better indication of charitable behavior than voluntary contributions?

No economist worth his/her salt should presume to guess an individual’s motives based only on his/her actions.  In a free market system even selfish people will engage in socially beneficial activities because they can earn profits (and yes, create jobs) from providing goods and services to customers.  The fact that our system works well even when people are motivated only by self-interest does not mean that everyone is completely selfish.  We do not want to rely on a system that only works if everyone behaves altruistically, but when individuals display acts of charity, honor, courage, or heroism they should be recognized.  It is absurd to assume that because a person chooses a career in the military, police, or as a firefighter that all of their subsequent actions are based solely on self-interest and that acts of honor and heroism are precluded.

It also makes sense for society to value groups of workers by more than just their earnings.  In a free market system the wage represents the marginal value of an individual’s contribution to output.  Some jobs pay less because there is an abundance of labor willing and able to perform those tasks.  In many of these cases society’s total value of labor services received far exceeds wages paid.  We, as a society, enjoy tremendous surplus from workers who perform jobs for less than our maximum willingness to pay for the task.  It is only the marginal worker for whom the value of services provided just equals the wage.*  The value of the contributions of soldiers, teachers, or tuna fisherman, as a group, exceeds the wages paid to them.  Soldiers provide far more value to the U.S. than the wages and benefits they receive.  For this we should all be thankful.

I am humbled by the men and women who responded to the call of duty and sacrificed their lives to defend freedom, liberty and our national interests.  This essay by Ralph Kinney Bennett describes how many of us feel on Memorial Day as we try to express our profound appreciation to these fallen heroes and their families.

*Students of Economics 101 learn about the water-diamond paradox; the price of diamonds is much higher than the price of water even though we couldn’t survive without water.  At the margin, a gallon bottle of water costs much less than one filled with diamonds because diamonds are scarce.  We are fortunate that water is abundant and its price is low; this generates tremendous surplus for our society.  We would grossly underestimate water’s total value if we merely multiplied the price of water times the amount of water consumed.  In this sense soldiers are like water and Kim Kardashian is like a diamond.  Kim earns much more than a soldier but we could survive without reality TV stars.  The issue is complicated by the fact that national defense is a public good and there is no private market for soldiers, making it more difficult to quantify even their marginal value to society.


  1. Phil Gandini says:

    Excellent commentary from a thoughtful economist. Economists form a highly heterogeneous group, just as those who join the military (whether voluntarily or not.) Not all economists think alike, and not all come to the same conclusions. Steve’s thoughtful reflection on some of the economic arguments proposed in the Heroes debate reveal him to be much more than an economist. Thanks.

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