Homo Economicus [4]: Enlightened Self-Interest

homo economicus

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest in a free market improves things for everyone. This belief powered Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” and finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”

What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of American capitalism in its current iteration. This is from a 2017 Atlantic article:

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”

Critics point out that there is no such thing as a free market or objectively rational self-interest, arguing instead that the market is inescapably skewed toward policy-makers’  beliefs and values — i.e., their particular interpretations of what “self-interested” behavior looks like.[1] As a result, economic policy always comes laden with ethical and moral beliefs about “good” vs. “bad” outcomes, which the not-so-free market then dutifully delivers:

“Milton Friedman argued that competition between big businesses suffices to safeguard the public interest, but in practice it is almost always insufficient, especially where there is collusion among the players to safeguard their market dominance – and their political influence.

“Free-market economists have an unwarranted faith in the capacity of price adjustments to produce technological changes in production and patterns of consumer demand. Their theories imply that the price system has infinite capacity to shape sustainable outcomes.

“But if the self-interested market behaviours continue to seek an unchanged goal – more personal incomes with which to purchase more material goods – ultimately they cannot be fulfilled.

 “Ultimately, the short-term self-interested economic arrangements are not sustainable anyway. As the US economist Kenneth Boulding once said: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.

“Economic inequalities also predictably widen where self-interested market behaviours dominate. Capital makes capital, while those without capital often remain consigned to poverty. Certainly, the very rich have become notably much wealthier during the last three decades while neoliberal ideologies and policies have been dominant. In the absence of strong unions and governments committed to some degree of egalitarian redistribution, the unequalising tendency is inexorable. The result is predictably unhappier societies that experience a higher incidence of social problems, as empirical research complied by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett clearly demonstrates.

“Something has to give. An economic system that rewards amoral self-interest creates economic instability, fractures economic insecurity, fosters concentrations of economic power, exacerbates economic inequality and violates ecological sustainability. So much for the self-regulating market economy!

“There is currently much talk of ‘social responsibility’ in business and of ‘triple bottom line accounting’ that emphasises the use of social and environmental criteria, as well as a financial criterion, in assessing business performance… Indeed, businesses developing reputations for responsible behaviours may reap benefits in the form of worker and customer loyalty. But unless and until ethical behaviours become integral to how markets function – by directly affecting ‘shareholder value’, for example – it is hard to see the overall effect as much more than window dressing for ‘business as usual’.”

Oh, The Morality: Why Ethics Matters In Economics, The Conversation (in partnership with the University of Sydney) (March 22, 2012)

More on ethics and economics next time.

[1] For more on whether the market is truly “free,” see this article and this one. Or if you prefer, here’s a short video and here’s a TEDX talk.

Homo Economicus [3]: Capitalism For Capitalists

homo economicus

Homo Economicus is alive and well where capitalism and capitalists are prospering  most:  in the USA. We know that because U.S. GDP is going up, and has been since the 2007-2008 financial crash, That’s the perspective of this Bloomberg piece:  Capitalism Is Working in the U.S.: From Warren Buffett to Jeff Bezos, today’s American capitalists are proving Adam Smith’s claim that free markets produce investment and growth (Nov., 2018)

“So where is capitalism succeeding in a world roiled by kleptocrats, simmering trade wars, and the xenophobia that inspired Brexit? That would be the U.S.

“American free enterprise is achieving the greatest growth in the developed world, posting annual gross domestic product gains since 2009. Within just eight years of the global financial crisis, the U.S. was the only non-emerging-market economy with record GDP. The nation’s growth has exceeded the Group of Eight leading industrial countries’ average every year since 2012, a trend that economists surveyed by Bloomberg forecast to continue through 2020.”

Bloomberg is bullish on American capitalism, but the Nobel prizewinning economist who created the concept of GDP had his reservations about its proper use:

“GDP’s inventor Simon Kuznets was adamant that his measure had nothing to do with wellbeing. But too often we confuse the two… If something has to be sacrificed to get GDP growth moving, whether it be clean air, public services, or equality of opportunity, then so be it.”

“GDP is how we rank countries and judge their performance. It is the denominator of choice. It determines how much a country can borrow and at what rate. But GDP is well past its sell-by date, as people are starting to realise. However brilliant the concept, a measure that was invented in the manufacturing age as a means of fighting the Depression is becoming less and less capable of imparting sensible signals about complex modern economies.

5 Ways GDP Gets It Totally Wrong As A Measure Of Our Success, World Economic Forum (Jan. 17, 2018)

The ideological clash between the two articles cited above couldn’t be more striking.

The Bloomberg’s article extols capitalism as a “moral force” to match the American Revolution:

“The founder of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the same year 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. It remains the most referenced guide to prosperity because of its moral force: Smith said the freest markets are led by an invisible hand benefiting everyone, not just the individuals and companies motivated by their own profit.”

The article then lauds the big capitalist growth winners — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Facebook, Amazon, Paypal, Apple, etc. — singling out Musk for special praise, saying “[Adam] Smith would relish the example of Musk,” who “might be the archetype of Smith’s capitalist,” despite his having to “give up his position as Tesla chairman and pay a $20 million fine to settle fraud charges.”

Finally, after a few paragraphs acknowledging there’s still work to be done, the article soars to a grand finale that quotes Abe Lincoln on upward mobility:

“Quoting Lincoln in her summer 2010 Marquette Law Review essay, Heather Cox Richardson wrote: “A healthy American society worked so that ‘[t]he prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.’ This was the idea behind free labor, ‘the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.’ ”

By contrast, the World Economic Forum article is having none of Bloomberg’s enthusiasm:

“GDP is a gross number. It is the sum total of everything we produce over a given period. It includes cars built, Beethoven symphonies played and broadband connections made. But it also counts plastic waste bobbing in the ocean, burglar alarms and petrol consumed while stuck in traffic.

“Kuznets was uneasy about a measure that treated all production equally. He wanted to subtract, rather than add, things he considered detrimental to human wellbeing, such as arms, financial speculation and advertising. You may disagree with his priorities. The point is that GDP makes no distinction. From the perspective of global GDP, Kim Jong-un’s nuclear warheads do just as well as hospital beds or apple pie.

“Pointing out the defects of GDP and even tentatively suggesting alternatives is no longer controversial. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a panel led by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel economist, to examine the issue. It was creating a dangerous ‘gulf of incomprehension,’ Sarkozy said, between experts sure of their knowledge and citizens ‘whose experience of life is completely out of sync with the story told by the data.’”

The two articles are talking past each other, which allows both to be correct:  (a) capitalism is in fact good for capitalists, and (b) obsessing over GDP ignores general societal wellbeing. Squeezed between the two is the philanthrocapitalist vision of better world. We looked at that previously; we’ll look again next time.