Where did Homo Economicus come from?

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically,  though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.

This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):

It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work,[1] and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.

Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.

Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.

In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.

For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here.[2] I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.

Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.”[3] [4]

What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.

[1] Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”

[2] In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.

[3] Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.


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