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The Economics of Caring

December 12, 2012

Deirdre McCloskey in The European:

barry_schwartzThere’s something deeply flawed about an economic system that measures utility but not the attachments we feel to another person, or to one’s homeland.

So-called Samuelsonian economics is the main sort at American universities today. It says that all human behavior can be captured in “maximizing a utility function,” which says that happiness depends on how much stuff you get. The only character in Samuelsonian economics is a fellow called Max U. Max treats everyone as a vending machine. His pleasure tops everything.

The only way Samuelsonian economics can acknowledge anything else, such as love, is to reduce it to food for the implicitly male and proud Max U, on a par with the other “goods” he consumes, such as ice cream cones or apartment space or amusing gadgets from the airport shop. In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil Screwtape is in fact suspicious of the very existence of “love,” and reinterprets it as interest. God’s “love” for human beings “of course, is an impossibility. . . . All his talk about Love must be a disguise for something else—He must have some real motive. . . . What does he stand to make out of them?”

A Samuelsonian economist will say, “Oh, stop it. It’s easy to include ‘love’ in economics. Just put the beloved’s utility into the lover’s utility function, U(Lover) [Stuff(Lover), Utility(Beloved)].” Neat. Some German economists, for example, think of a taste for social justice as merely another term, J, in Max U’s utility function. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who seems to have had little to do in his life with love, wrote in the economistic way in 1651: “That which men desire they are also said to Love. . . . so that desire and love are the same thing. . . . But whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth Good. [More]

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