Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Who Is Economic (Wo)Man?

The short answer is that she is homo economicus, a dull, calculating, boring creature who is obsessed with money. But that grotesquely misunderstands the economist's view of human nature.

Economic man is someone who knows what he wants and will do anything to get it: he will break laws, create institutions, invent excuses, cheat, invent new processes, innovate...Economic man is infinitely creative in achieving his ends*, and thus always surprising and original, whatever institutional or cultural barrriers are placed in his way. Thus, a rather dynamic and interesting creature, and not dull at all.

Taking this view seriously (which I held, in some form, prior to studying economics), means that you have a hard time becoming outraged by, well, much in the world.

All that libertarian outrage about "liberty" being crushed? Economic man is too hardy to have his soul crushed by some laws banning free speech or even an authoritarian regime: economic man is resourceful and will find a way to get the things he wants out of life; there will be underground artistic movements, subterfuge and etc., all of which will make life enjoyable for those involved.

All that liberal concern for the poor? The poor are also economic men and women, they are resourceful, they manage to get pleasures and fun out of life regardless of material circumstance.

If you take this view seriously (which I only do sometimes) then much of political and public policy debate seems trivial or pointless: who cares? people will get by in some form regardless of what we do. Even if what we do changes what they do, they'll take it in stride and make the best of the situation -- and not dwell too much on what could have been.

Perhaps the point is that public policy isn't quite as important as we (I) like to think it is, that human experience and ability is richer than we imagine, and that people will manage** regardless of what we do.

*Now how those are determined...
**My favorite French verb: se debrouiller, to manage.


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