Whither Homo Economicus?

by Lindy Davies

You walk up to a food counter in a train station. You have five minutes to grab a bite before you have to board your morning train. A grumbling young woman, who exudes contempt for you and for every other customer in the line, charges you a premium price for a leathery, slapped-together breakfast sandwich which, nevertheless, takes another three minutes to get to you. She and her colleagues are distracted; each of them likely has a long list of personal problems — but all you know for sure is that she has made your breakfast transaction thoroughly unpleasant. You have encountered Homo Economicus.

eatit“Economic man” is a key template for economic analysis. It assumes that we respond to the problem of scarcity with profit-maximizing behavior— or in other words, we try to secure material gain in the hardest-nosed, most self-interested way. Many people are uncomfortable with this idea: is it a simplifying assumption — or is it simply nonsense? People bristle at the notion of self-interested maximization. What about fun? Family? Spiritual Life? Cat videos?

And, anyway, we are often observed choosing to do things that aren’t “economical.” Someone drives into a convenience store twelve days in a row and buys a soft drink. The buyer could make a single trip to a supermarket and buy a twelve-pack of same beverage for 40¢ less per bottle. Who knows what constitutes economic behavior? Perhaps the soda-drinker had a crush on the cashier. Perhaps he liked to thumb through the magazines on sale there. And, anyway, the soda has zero nutritional value, so it’s really hard to say what’s going on in any sort of practical terms, but, well — he keeps buying those sodas.

“Economic Man” in Economic History

This issue isn’t new; it was recognized by the classical economists. John Stuart Mill was the first to refer to “economic man.” He made it clear that he saw Homo Economicus not as the whole person, but only that part of the person which concerns the science of political economy,

…an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.

Henry George added the clarifying insight that the desires we seek to satisfy are entirely subjective. Contra Adam Smith, George pointed out that our desires aren’t necessarily selfish; they might be spiritual, or altruistic. Whatever our desires are, anyway, we try to satisfy them with the least “irksome toil” (and, what constitutes “irksome toil” is also subjective: one person’s hard labor might be another’s best fun).

When we undertake irksome toil, unwilling to do so without compensation, seeking to do as little of it as we can — our behavior falls under the definition of Homo Economicus. Obviously, we want to spend as little time as possible in that state. We want to get mere profit-maximization out of the way so that we can enjoy our free time.

Despite the tremendous progress of labor-saving technology, there is still work that people have to do. People are still called upon to pick up garbage, change diapers, unclog drainpipes, guard convicts, seize territory, do laundry, teach children, serve all-night customers, patrol streets… and, even, write books. Will there ever be enough labor-saving inventions to get the Homo Economicus out of human lives? In Sacred Cows and Other Edibles, Nikki Giovanni offered an interesting point of view on this question:

I like my profession. I hope the telephone operators, the hamburger turner at McDonald’s, the pressure checker at Kentucky Fried who see to it that those spices and herbs get really deep in the chicken are proud, too.

colonelAt first, I thought Nikki Giovanni (whose poetry I like very much) was being facetious. She had the talent, drive and good fortune to enjoy a career as a poet. That didn’t necessarily make her life easy, but I think she’d choose it over frying chicken for Colonel Sanders. Eventually, though, I realized that her point is unassailable: if the chicken fryer doesn’t care about her work, everyone suffers. True, she is underpaid; most workers are. But, jobs are scarce: more personable and diligent workers are eager to take her place. Giovanni is telling us that, despite the manifest injustice of our society, one can still choose to be a person. Remember that young woman at the breakfast counter? She was resigned to being Homo Economicus — and you’re not going back to that breakfast counter, if you can possibly avoid it.

You might point out that it is in a worker’s economic interest to be more pleasant, so she can hold onto her job. But, I suspect that she cares very little for this job; she considers herself to be a worker, (impersonally, insultingly) hired to do a (dull, underpaid) job; perhaps her situation is a notch above abject slavery, but it’s not far above it. She is, in a word, alienated.

Is Social Progress Linear?

“Alienation” is something that Marxist theory has a lot to say about; indeed, it is said to be the basic condition of workers under the capitalist more of production. Marx saw workers as suffering from a four-fold alienation: from the things they made, from the process of making them, from their own selfhood, and from other workers. This cubicle of alienation in which workers (inevitably) find themselves is a big part of the reason why Marxist theory sees revolution inevitable, and capitalism doomed.

Others, however — such as Henry George — see the possibility of fundamental reforms that would make a market economy work for everyone. If we all seek to reduce the amount of irksome toil we have to to perform, it follows that a progressive society would be able to reduce the net amount of time that its people spend behaving as Homo Economicus. This would imply a continuum of social progress. At the bottom is slavery: a slave, compelled to perform “irksome toil” to survive and avoid punishment, is pure Homo Economicus. At the top, we might find an artist: getting paid for for work that was done for the sheer joy of doing it.

Then there is the joyous, painful endeavor of raising children — where does that come in on the scale?

Let’s consider a few examples:

Autoworker Aaron works for $17/hr in a nonunion Toyota plant, and has to make a decision about whether to join a union. He decides against it, because $17/hr is better than any alternative that’s available to him, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize his job.

Autoworker Betty is a member of the Communist party working at the Totota plant, and works behind the scenes to organize coworkers. Her activism is frowned on by her supervisors, who stick her with unpleasant tasks and don’t recommend her for promotion.

Dad Charlie chooses to forgo his career and stay home with the kids. His wife makes good money, but has a stressful, long-hours, fast-track career. Charlie’s role as a home support person makes it all work.

Mom Diane chooses to forgo her career and stay home with the kids. They’ve moved to a low-rent area and her husband is working part-time. They don’t have much money, but they have plenty of time together as a family.

Mom Ellen and dad Frank both work full-time. The kids are in pre-school, and after-school activities. They need to do this to keep up with their mortgage and all the other payments, and try to put some money away for the kids’ college educations.

Dad Greg and mom Harriet would both be working full time, if they could both find jobs. As it is, they work as they can, often on conflicting schedules. They’ve had to get help from friends and family to get by, and finding responsible supervision for the kids is a constant challenge.

diyNeighbor Ian worked overtime to save up enough to hire a contractor to build an addition to his house. Neighbor Jim made sure to have a flexible work schedule (at a lower pay scale) and built his home addition himself.

Can you divide the Homo Economicus behavior from the “for my own good reasons” personal behavior? Which of those examples do you admire? Which do you feel pity for? The further we rise, economically, above abject servitude, the more ambiguous this question gets. It gets harder to separate the time we spend making a living from the time time we spend pursuing personal satisfaction — each blends into the other.

The question is by no means simple. A progressive society, as we’ve seen, is one that succeeds in reducing the net amount if time its people spend as Homo Economicus. But, if we cannot clearly separate out the portion of our labor time we spend that way, then how can we make that distinction? How can we tell (in the aggregate) whether we are gaining or losing?

On the other hand, “gaining,” in the sense of moving along the line on which society is advancing (or retreating) might not be the only option, or the best way to look at things. Marxist theory sees human society as moving along a time-line from feudalism, through capitalism, on the way to socialism and the Workers’ Paradise. Henry George’s conception of social development also sees society as moving along a line, either forward toward a progressive society that maximizes both association and equality, or regressing, failing the promise of civilization, declining into a new dark age. Marx, I suppose, would transform Homo Economicus into Homo Comunismus, a fit and happy team player. Henry George would reduce Homo Economicus to a vestige, no more onerous or stressful than brushing one’s teeth. (Some versions of Marxist utopia, as well, have technological development enabling workers to sample many jobs and switch them at will.) These outcomes are, at best, a long way off. In the meantime, is self-interested maximixation all we have to look forward to? (Or as Nikki Giovanni put it, “Spam, Used Cars, and More of the Same”?)

When was Homo Economicus Born?

It may be, however, that in terms of economic behavior, society does not move in a line. There may also be a recursive process at work. Another possible starting point for social/economic development is the traditional society. There are various kinds of traditional societies, of course, but compared to the paradigm we’d call modern, industrial or developed, there are things they have in common. I think it would be accurate to say that the behavior we’ve been calling Homo Economicus was rarely, if ever, exhibited in traditional societies. True, there were fights over land and resources, and there was even slavery. There was drudgery and hardship; winters were long; lifespans were short. Nevertheless, in no indigenous culture was it the norm for people to spend substantial portions of their time performing meaningless tasks in exchange for things. We take this behavior for granted; our ancestors didn’t.

likitIn an earlier stage of industrial development the “labor time” model made perfect sense. It didn’t matter that the work might be meaningless, because the efficiency of industrial production made it possible for everyone to be better off. As productivity continued to increase, workers could organize to collectively bargain for better wages. In the United States this process reached its peak in the industrial golden age of the 1950s and 60s. While not everyone was happy (African Americans, for example, were effectively excluded from the general prosperity), millions of US workers were quite happy to get paid $25 an hour, with pensions, health plans and paid vacations, for being Homo Economicus.

It seemed like such a good plan: you get a decent job, put in the hours, get raises, buy a house (a comfortably appreciating asset), raise kids, send them to college, and then get rewarded for your career of homo economizing by settling into a well-provisioned retirement. But then “our jobs” started getting sent overseas, real wages stagnated or fell, and things started getting confusing. Raising a family started to require two full-time salaries. In the prevailing myth, June Cleaver and her friends had happily done the cooking and the childcare as their part of the family bargain. Now, suddenly, they were too busy, and these “household” tasks increasingly became part of the economy. Should June have received Homo Economicus wages for handling all those poopy diapers?

Such a question would never have come up among the unassimilated Sioux, or Inuit, or Australian Aborigines, the Kalahari Bushmen, or the artists of Lascaux or Mesa Verde. Such societies had their problems, to be sure, but alienation, in the sense that Karl Marx described, was not one of them. The Georgist economist Fred Foldvary put it this way:

Human beings did not start out poor, hungry, needing development. Primal man had natural wealth from the bounty of nature. Only after humanity turned to agriculture and conquerors took the land did the brave hunter become a lowly peasant working for a wage pittance from dawn to dusk while the lord dined on wine and game hens under chandeliers. Only after the descent to serfdom does development beckon with the promise of increasing productivity.

It has long struck me that the economic analysis of Henry George, dealing as it does with the pervasive, unavoidable role of land in society, offers a key theoretical bridge between traditional and modern ways of seeing the economy. When indigenous people admonish European colonists that “The land does not belong to us; we belong to the land,” they are not being romantic. They are making an entirely reasonable and true statement that arises from a worldview in which there is no Homo Economicus. That statement only seems quaint from the point of view of industrial society, which is predicated on owning the land and controlling its resources.

digitBut: industrial society has reached a turning point. We can no longer afford to reckon “economic growth” without factoring in its effect on the natural world. And we live in a dysfunctional society in which, in James Baldwin’s words, “not even the most spectacular recipients of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits; they can neither understand them, nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them.” (Soccer moms cannot escape this dilemma in their SUVs.)

I think we need to return — without turning away from the benefits of science and technology, for there can be nothing evil in science and technology per se, only in the self-serving uses to which we put them — to a life in which we are part of where we live, in which we are nurtured and informed by our place and our community. By doing so, we may be able to develop a sustainable understanding of “economic growth.” And then we can finally put Homo Economicus to rest. Not because there will no longer be work to do — but because the challenges of devising a sustainable future will leave us no time for the “irksome toil” that industrial development so usefully, efficiently, imposed on us. What we have to do will be too important not to care about. We will have to keep it real.

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