How do you get your dinner? That is the basic question of economics. It might seem easy, but it is actually very complicated.
When Adam Smith proclaimed that all our actions were motivated by self-interest and the world turned because of financial gain he laid the foundations for 'economic man'. Selfish and cynical, 'economic man' has dominated our thinking ever since, the ugly rational heart of modern day capitalism. But every night Adam Smith's mother served him his dinner, not out of self-interest, but out of love.
Even today, the unpaid work of mothering, caring, cleaning and cooking is not part of our economic models. All over the world, there are economists who believe that if women are paid less, then that's because their labour is worth less.
In this engaging, popular look at the mess we're in, Katrine Marçal charts the myth of 'economic man', from its origins at Adam Smith's dinner table to its adaptation by the Chicago School and finally its disastrous role in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
If you are wondering what the answer to the title’s question, it was his mother. Adam Smith never married and was cared for by his mother and a female cousin. Without whom he would never have had the time to write The Wealth of Nations.
Very appropriately, this book was penned by a young Swedish woman. She is properly outraged by the assumptions of the field of economics that women and many of the tasks that they undertake really don’t count. She points out that the world gets split in two—male/female, logic/emotion, spirit/body, etc. and the female/emotional/physical gets short shrift in economic theory. Which is silly when you truly consider it, as we are all emotional and physical beings and we are all far from completely logical. Its this kind of deliberate omitting of important things that leads to environmental destruction (assuming it to be without cost) and the difficulty of getting food and medical care to those that need it around the world (because feeding & caring are “female” responsibilities, so they should be done for free and shouldn’t be a factor in economic systems or a worry of politicians).
Self-interest exists, we all have it. But we also have people that we care about and for whom we do things that don’t make sense logically. We also do nice things for people we don’t even know—give directions, hand over spare change, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It doesn’t make sense to run the financial world as though none of this exists or to act as though it only exists outside the financial world. While we are working to make the world a more equal place, maybe we can renovate economics to acknowledge reality?