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Monday, December 20, 2010

NOTES ON HOMO OECONOMICUS

My next section, in my intro, should focus on the question of the relation of what was developed, at first, as a heuristic fiction to become, at last, a policy norm. That is, there is a historical moment, here, that is described, felicitously, by Adam Smith as a revolution of public happiness – and yet it is a revolution that happened, so to speak, behind the back of the revolutionaries, and indeed, of all actors:

“A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness was in this manner brought about by two different orders of people who had not the least intention to serve the public. To gratify the most childish vanity was the sole motive of the great proprietors. The merchants and artificers, much less ridiculous, acted merely from a view to their own interest, and in pursuit of their own pedlar principle of turning a penny wherever a penny was to be got. Neither of them had either knowledge or foresight of that great revolution which the folly of the one, and the industry of the other, was gradually bringing about.” WoN, Book 3, Chapter IV)

This citation comes from Smith’s chapter concerning the relations of the city to the country – another twist in the contrast between the great and little traditions with which we are setting out. Smith is describing this from a post-revolutionary position, in which the ridiculous – vanity – is contrasted with the much less ridiculous (acting merely from a view to their own interest). We have not yet reached the point at which the pedlar principle has become the basis of human rationality. We have certainly reached the point at which the system contains something above and beyond the intentions and views of its agents. This is an important and paradoxical point – for try as the classical economist will to reduce society to the individual, something doesn’t reduce here – call it progress, call it the market, there is an emergent, here, which is only honorifically attributed to ‘individuals’. This is in Marx’s mind when he writes:
“The secret of the commodity form thus consists simply in the fact that it projects back to Man the social character of his own work as the objective character of the product of labor itself, as a social natural property of this thing, and derivatively the social relationships of the producers to the collective labor as an social relationship of objects existing externally to them.”

What Harold Innis called –from the standpoint of neo-classical economics – the “penetrative power of the price system” is ‘eating’ the older system of status. The revolution in public happiness, of course, has its victims – how to separate the washerwoman’s enjoyment of tea in her sugar from the tortures of the slaves who grew and milled it is one of those finer moral questions that will haunt the West – but that revolution there was was certainly in the awareness of the Enlightenment philosophes.

TBC

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