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How much is that kidney in the window?

How much is that kidney in the window?

Once upon a time, economists were moral philosophers, or maybe theologians, before they were economists. The point of this oft-noted observation is not that moral philosophy or theology somehow answers economic questions but that economics is, at root, the offspring of a family of intellectual disciplines, rather than the paterfamilias itself.

That all changed in the twentieth century as economics demanded its inheritance, freed itself from the moralistic constraints of home, and set off for another country where it could run its own affairs. Lionel Robbins, the esteemed head of the economics department at the LSE, dreamed in 1932 of a day when economics might offer a single, unified theory of human action, “a meaning of life expressed in economic terms.” And it was so. Economists looked upon the world and spoke of creatures that were self-interested, calculative, rational, and intent on maximising their own good, and in doing brought such creatures into existence. The Biblical echoes are not simply an irreverent irrelevance for at the heart of Philip Roscoe’s short and intelligent book is an act of Genesis-like creation.

Roscoe himself has an impressive intellectual pedigree. Now Reader in Management at the School of Management at St Andrews, his MPhil was in medieval Arabic thought and his first degree in theology. He has come to economics through the thickets of messy reality, which helps and shows.

Clearly at ease with broader philosophical ideas, the heart of Roscoe’s book beats with the ideas of John Austin, the philosopher who argued that language was not simply ‘constantive’ (i.e. descriptive) but also ‘performative’. Language does things. (His best known book is called How to Do Things with Words) Sometimes this performance demands particular social settings. The sentence “I name this ship…” can have very different meanings according to who and where it is uttered. But it need not. “My shirt is thin” can have similarly different meanings – a complaint, a reassurance, a request, a refusal – depending on its context. In small and subtle ways, language can create social reality.

Roscoe applies this idea to economics. Since its birth in the 18th century, economics has suffered from a form of physics envy, covetously spying the natural sciences for their certainty. Scientific endeavour, however, is continually disciplined by the world it examines. Get your equations wrong and the plane won’t fly.

Humans are more malleable than planes or gravity, however. Human ‘laws’ are not as immutable as those of the world they inhabit. While it is possible to get them wrong, it is also possible to reshape aspects of human behaviour by describing them in a certain way. “Economics and the world it examines are tied together by obscure, yet powerful, loops of feedback and interaction... economics makes the world it describes.”

The consequence of this is that if you are convinced that humans behave in a certain way (because they are self-interested, calculative, rational, etc.) they will start behaving that way. Or, put differently, if every situation is described in economic terms, it begins to conform to economic norms. If you start seeing life as a series of cost-benefit analyses, it becomes a series of cost-benefit analyses. “The very language of price, of utility, of value for money changes both me and the nature of the problem… the world caves in as the rules and reasoning of economics fills it.”

Much of I Spend… is dedicated to showing what this looks like in practice (one of its strengths is that it is so thoroughly grounded). What happens if we understand housing not as a personal or social good but as an economic investment; if we treat education as a personalised good to be consumed and ranked; if risk is seen as another consumer good; if healthcare is treated as an exercise in cost-saving and efficiency? What happens if you see your body as a commodity to be traded? The answer is prostitution in which prostitutes are viewed – insanely – as successful, autonomous and largely contented small-business people, or organ trading in which the poor literally sell themselves to the rich (the answer to the title question is $15,200 by the way). Ultimately, “as we internalize the rules and exceptions of economic governance… so we become the very creature upon which economic theory is based.” And that creature is not human as most of us recognise the term.

At times, Roscoe slightly overdoes the apocalyptic. Not only does he reify ‘economics’ in a way that comes dangerously close to meaning simply ‘very bad thing’, but he writes that economics is in danger of making us forget “how to have solidarity, compassion and empathy”, and that it is “at war with the goods of life”. One doesn’t need to like or defend neo-liberal economics to feel that this is an exaggeration. People still love and empathise in the midst of all this self-interested individualism and ‘economics’ is too broad a discipline to be at war with anything.

Such caveats notwithstanding – and they may, in all fairness, be more rhetorical than substantive – his fundamental point that economic thinking is normalising attitudes that are harmful to persons and deleterious when aggregated across society is a strong one. This is obvious when we are dealing with organs or prostitution but the problems are not confined to the darker back streets of human life, and encompass everything from education (“when students are recast as customers they start acting like customers”) to romance (“the protocols of online dating make individuals fungible in the sense that they are replaceable, and exchangeable”). Moreover, the very fact that “economic forecasts are the only discourse of any real power in public life” bodes ill for the future. 

Roscoe gestures towards alternative futures in his final chapter, drawing attention to existing projects for re-humanising economic activity, such as local exchange trading schemes. The book’s strength, however, is in its analysis of the problem, if only because books about solutions almost invariably turn into policy position papers which rarely make scintillating reading.

Overall, this is not easy territory for Roscoe to traverse not because it is uncharted but the reverse: it has been well discussed by thinkers of the stature of Michael Sandel. Not surprisingly, I Spend… shares a number of examples (blood donors, Ford Pintos) with Sandel’s recent What Money Can’t Buy. Roscoe manages to hold his own, however, and if I Spend… never quite achieves the compelling clarity of Sandel and sounds the occasional bum note (is the Institute for Fiscal Studies really a neo-liberal think tank?), it remains lucid, perceptive, and engaging.

Nick Spencer

I Spend, Therefore I am by Philip Roscoe is published by Viking.

Image by Charles Haynes from under the Creative Commons Licence



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