I Spend, Therefore I Am, by Philip Roscoe, Viking, RRP£16.99, 272 pages
Economists sometimes seem different from other human beings, and not in an edifying way. Where we see mass unemployment, they see necessary economic adjustment. Where we see charming tradition, they see inefficiency.
It is not just that economic theory suggests a jaundiced view of the world. It seems to make people act more selfishly too. Suppose a stranger stops you on the street and gives you £10. He wants nothing in return but there is a catch: you must offer me a share of the money (how big is up to you). If I accept your proposal, you can keep what is left; if I decline, the stranger will take the tenner back. How much will you offer?
The answer, it turns out, depends on whether you have studied economics. If not, you will probably do what any well-adjusted adult would and split the bounty down the middle. But standard economic teaching frowns on this kind of behaviour, advising you to offer as little as possible on the grounds that I would be a fool to turn it down. When economics students play this game they tend to take their teachers’ advice, asking for an outsize share of the spoils. When they, in turn, receive derisory offers from other economists, they seem less prone than the rest of us to fits of pique. Studying economics, it seems, chills the heart and resigns you to a wintry view of human life.
In I Spend, Therefore I Am, Philip Roscoe argues that we are all vulnerable to the dehumanising influence of economic theory, whether we are economists or not. Homo economicus, the narrowly self-interested creature of the economics textbooks, may once have been a parody of Homo sapiens with his capacity for loyalty, compassion, spontaneity and love. But, writes Roscoe, “as we internalise the rules and expectations of economic governance … we become the very creature on which economic theory is based”.
One reason is political. We have allowed economists to appoint themselves arbiters of public policy – to tell us not only how things are but how they ought to be. But Roscoe, a reader in management at St Andrews university, argues that the resulting prescriptions are suitable only for the crude automata of economists’ fantasies. For example, housing reforms such as Margaret Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” policy, which allowed council residents to buy their houses from the state at a discount, presume “that an individual can be persuaded to maintain a home only if there is the prospect of immediate financial gain”.
There is something in this. Politicians have an ugly habit of presenting decisions that are unpopular or obviously unjust as requirements of economic necessity. Too often, they are abetted by researchers in think-tanks or academia who are willing to play along. But this is hardly a criticism of economic analysis itself; we might as well denounce the whole of medical science because some doctors are shills of the pharmaceuticals industry. Economists are anyway not as influential as Roscoe thinks. “Right to Buy” was as much an electoral bribe as a serious attempt to reform the housing market.
The book claims that economics has another, more insidious influence: it leads us to see intimate personal relationships as just another kind of market trade. Roscoe digs out some grotesque things economists have written on topics such as suicide and marriage. But his more powerful argument is that we now approach sex and love in the way we might shop for a low-cost holiday on a price comparison website.
Even this is not very convincing. Roscoe devotes a chapter to dating websites that use statistical techniques to pair people up – demanding, he says, “that we treat falling in love as a moment of active and rational choice”. This is doubtful: lonely hearts might be looking for love but all they are deciding is whether to go on a date. When Roscoe turns his fire on “Punternet”, a website where men review prostitutes, he hits on something genuinely disturbing and perhaps indicative of a wider cultural malaise. But the connection to economic theory is tenuous.
It is true that we sometimes take economists too seriously, and that westerners may have lost something in their rush to replace community values with the individualistic ritual of market exchange. There is probably a connection between these shortcomings. But it is far-fetched to suppose that an academic discipline is the cause of such deep-rooted social ills.
Mark Vandevelde is the FT’s executive comment editor