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Homo Economicus Slouches Toward Retirement

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?  Swedish writer Katrine Marçal casts a suspicious eye on the “story about the meaning of human existence” told by free-market economists and on that story’s hero, the self-interested rational actor: Economic Man. The resulting book, translated into English by Saskia Vogel, thoughtfully challenges conventional assumptions about work, productivity, and value.

The narrative proceeds from a feminist analysis of Adam Smith’s famous observation that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their own interest,” which, as Marçal notes, overlooks something fundamental. In the words of economist Nancy Folbre in her 2001 book The Invisible Heart, “Just a minute. It is not usually the butcher, the brewer, or the baker who fixes dinner, but his wife or mother. Does she act out of self-interest, too?”

Marçal answers her titular question early on: Adam Smith’s mother, Margaret Douglas, not only cooked his dinner but lived with him for most of his life. Marçal argues that the absence of such people from Smith’s vision of the market has created a fundamental flaw in economic thinking. That is, our conceptualization of the economy generally excludes the unpaid work most often performed by women, such as cleaning, cooking, child-rearing, and caring for the sick and elderly.

This is not a novel argument, as the above quotation from Folbre’s book demonstrates. Feminists have long focused on the hidden value of female labor. For instance, Charlotte Perkins Gilman observed in her 1898 book Women and Economics that “for a certain percentage of persons to serve other persons, in order that the ones so served may produce more, is a contribution not to be overlooked.” In more recent decades, the work of feminist economists has enriched the discipline, and Marçal draws on research by scholars in this tradition, such as Marilyn Waring. Nevertheless, the importance and productivity of “women’s work” is well worth restating and exploring. Giving the example of a young Zimbabwean woman performing unpaid work for her family, Marçal notes that notwithstanding the woman’s seventeen-hour day, “according to economic models, she’s unproductive, not working, economically inactive.”

The version of humanity that appears in Econ 101 textbooks has previously been subject to challenge; for instance, considerable empirical evidence has been marshalled to demonstrate that we generally do not make decisions on a purely “rational” basis. The much-critiqued specter of homo economicus risks becoming something of a straw man. Indeed, citing the work of behavioral economists in particular, Marçal acknowledges that there “have always been economists who have vocally and meticulously criticized economic man.” However, this book differs in focus. For Marçal, Economic Man is not simply a concept that fails to square with reality, but “a gendered theory of the world based on our collective fear of the ‘female.'” The version of humanity embraced by economics—calculating, reasonable, self-interested, dispassionate—represents a distillation of stereotypically masculine traits. Femininity, by contrast, has traditionally been identified by reference to emotion, dependency, and altruism: characteristics that are difficult to fit into economic models.

There are other aspects of humanity that Economic Man lacks, and what is particularly valuable about this book is its emphasis on the essential reality created by the human body, which is born frail, remains vulnerable to harm, and weakens with age. Marçal posits that a “society organized around the shared needs of human bodies would be a very different society than the one we know now.” To the well-worn cliché that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, the author briskly counters that “there is no such thing as free care.”

Marçal asserts that “feminism has always been about economics,” observing that “Virginia Woolf wanted a room of her own, and that costs money.” This characterization of the multifaceted women’s liberation movement is somewhat reductive. However, the book’s focus on material issues such as money, inequality, power, and time makes for a refreshing perspective in a contemporary conversation often limited to terms like having it all, or a vaguely defined empowerment. Marçal argues compellingly that sex “matters in a world where 20 percent of all women live below the international poverty line . . . have lower wages, worse working conditions and perform most of the unpaid work.” Solidarity can be complicated, though, and Marçal does not shy away from the profound gulf that exists between women of different classes, observing that “if a cleaner’s hourly wage doesn’t continue to be markedly less than the hourly wage of the person who would otherwise be doing the cleaning . . . then it won’t be economical to hire domestic help.”

This book is not for policy wonks and prefers the broad brush to fine-grained detail. It states, for instance, that “Neoliberalism . . . was brought in and put at the centre of the projects of [Thatcher] and Reagan”: readers seeking more information will need to look elsewhere. The book’s epigrammatic style will also not be to all tastes, and its staccato pronouncements can feel repetitive: at one point the reader is informed twice within the space of seven pages that Economic Man’s singular characteristic is “that he is not a woman.” It is, however, an enjoyable read, and dryly witty; Marçal notes of homo economicus that “no baby has ever vomited on him . . . no baby ever will.”

Marçal concludes that we need to retire Economic Man from service and “build an economy and a society with room for a greater spectrum of what it means to be human.” It’s unclear what this world would look like, but it would be rather unfair to fault this book for failing to sketch out a detailed plan for building the good society—it’s a polemic rather than a set of policy prescriptions. Ultimately, the challenge that Marçal issues is both deceptively simple and vast in scope: to look at our economy and society with new eyes.