Economists look with hope to our baser instincts
English literature has its "Everyman," whose name harks back to medieval morality plays. Economics has a more scientific-sounding fellow: Homo economicus, whose faux-zoological name reflects the Enlightenment roots of the discipline.
Your literary Everyman is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. So, too, H. economicus -- but what a greed-bucket! A deeply self-interested primate, H. economicus is motivated more than anything else by the prospect of material gain. In the language of economics, he functions as a "rational actor" in accordance with "rational expectations theory;"
Though professor of economics Herbert Gintis cut his intellectual teeth on these concepts, he pronounces the terms with some amusement. "It's fine to use homo economicus when you're talking about the stock market," he says. "But what if you're talking about a worker who cares not only about what he earns, but about working conditions? Or a taxpayer who cares not only about what he pays, but about how the money gets used?"
The truth is, in recent years Gintis has taken to kicking around H. economicus in a big way. People just don't work that way, he says. The old primate just doesn't measure up to sociobiological reality.
Maybe this was easier for Gintis to decide because, about a dozen years ago, he decided that Marxism doesn't measure up. Along with his longtime friend and colleague Samuel Bowles, Gintis came to UMass in the 1960s from Harvard, where both had studied and taught, as a distinguished young Marxist scholar. The two helped make the UMass economics department an international center of Marxist thought. As it remains: last fall, thousands of scholars from all over the world gathered in the Campus Center for a conference sponsored by the journal Rethinking Marxism. The conference was interdisciplinary and so were its organizers, but UMass economists Richard Wolff and Carmen Diana Deere were prominent among them.
With these departmental colleagues Gintis expresses the amiable but unholstered disagreement of the tenured intellectual. Their sector of economic theory, he feels, represents the default position of Marxism: "If we can't make revolutions in countries, we'll make them in thought." While neo-Marxist economists would doubtless disagree, post-Marxists like Gintis feel that the German philosopher's insights have been "pushed about as far as they can go," essentially because they defy human nature.
Now, one of the many things that may bemuse the layperson about this discipline is that economists in the tradition of Karl Marx (advocates of socialism, roughly speaking) and economists in the tradition of Adam Smith (roughly speaking, advocates of capitalism) seem often to be harping on the same thing: that people are motivated by self-interest. Well, sure, says Gintis. That's one thing that both traditions had right, although neither put it in these terms: the human animal wants a full stomach and a warm, dry nest.
But socialists, he feels, have underrated the degree to which humans strive, contest, and compete--which is why "they just couldn't make the Good Socialist Man; they really weren't able to do that." And capitalists have underrated the degree to which people cooperate.
It's the impulse--even the instinct--to cooperate that Gintis is concentrating on now. What brought him to this point of view is another intellectual revolution, the rise in recent decades of "sociobiological" scholarship. "Not as early as some, but earlier than most," is the way Gintis describes his boarding of the sociobiological bandwagon rather bumpily launched by Harvard zoologist E.O. Wilson in the 1960s. The popular impact of scholarship such as Wilson's is evidenced by a spate of books for the general public, from The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, by Melvin Konner in 1982 to The Moral Animal: the New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright in 1994. (The current buzz-book is Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham.)
The way was paved for a reemphasis on our animal nature, says Gintis, not only by the failures of communism, but by "the collapse of psychiatry, the success of drug interventions, the unlocking of the gene." It's become impossible to deny what the humanistic tradition has tended to ignore: that humans are "an extension of a whole range of species," and that we behave in certain ways less because of our capacity to reason than because of the stubborness of our instincts. Gintis has read widely in the life sciences in recent years; "I now know almost as much biology as economics," he says, and is as likely, in his lectures, "to talk about dung beetle behavior or human marriage customs as the stock market."
But humanists can take heart: dung beetles or no dung beetles, what Gintis and other social scientists see in our genes--as have generations of physical scientists before them--is a hugely intelligent social animal. And what increasingly interests Gintis is the inclination of that animal to be nice.
"The fact is, people reciprocate," he says. Experimental economists have shown in "game theory" studies--studies "that produce hard data, and to economists that means a lot"--that we routinely behave cooperatively in situations where the rational-actor model would predict selfishness. These findings mirror the sociological evidence that once a person's basic needs are met--however the individual may define "basic"--the importance of income is outweighed by the importance of relationship.
"What matters to people?" asks Gintis. "It's marriage and family on the one hand and job on the other. People who are alone, and people who don't have jobs, or jobs they don't like, are not happy people"--no matter how full their stomachs or dry their nests.
Gintis says that a growing number of scholars are looking at what Robert Putnam of Harvard calls "social capital"-- the idea that civility, community, and morality have an actual value in societies. In economics, that means asking whether GNP is the whole story. For instance, Gintis argues that traditional economic theory encourages destruction of the environment, because it assigns no value to ecological preservation or biological diversity. Taking our biological interests into account could help re-orient both economic theory and environmental policy.
Gintis and Boles are currently section-chairmen in a five-year research initiative, funded by the MacArthur Foundation and involving economists from across the country, to broaden tradition economic models. Bowles' groups is considering what it calls "The Costs of Inequality." Gintis is working with Stanford economist Paul Romer on "The Human Side of Economic Analysis." Gintis and Romer's particular emphasis on sociobiology has led them to a new taxonomical distinction: Homo reciprocans.
Gintis smiles when he refers to this fresh construction, but he's very serious about it. Among the attributes of H. reciprocans, he says, are a tendency to start out being nice (i.e. to cooperate or share); a corollary tendency to be punitive if rebuffed; and finally, the capacity to forgive, in the sense of being willing to resume cooperation when the situation changes.
These attributes are active in exactly those settings in which we all live: communities and families. And these settings are exactly the ones overlooked by traditional economics. Traditional economists on the right have looked to the market; traditional economists on the left have looked to the state. Economists of his generation and persuasion, says Gintis, want to view and influence those institutions through the lens of community, family, and biological life.
These economists are by no means throwing out self-interest as a motivator. Gintis calls "all wrong" the "whole political split" reflected in arguments about nature versus nurture, biology versus culture, emotional satisfaction versus economic gain--because both dimensions count. "Both are really important, but if we want to make a good society, we need to understand how we're wired to behave."
Gintis says liberals have been marginalized in the debate over social issues because they fail to take seriously, for instance, the nature of taxpayer disgust over such social phenomena as the increase in out-of-wedlock births or the growth of the welfare state. "The response by liberals has been 'Well, it's not that much money,''" says Gintis. "But that doesn't mean anything. The point is, there's something in the way people feel about their tax payments. They care personally not only about the amount of money, but what it goes for. They care about the social statement being made."
Homo economicus doesn't understand that, says Gintis, and neither do programmatic liberals. "If liberals want to solve the problems, they have to figure out ways to clean up the system so they can help people in need without creating more problems." Though Gintis would probably classify himself as a liberal in the classical sense, he stresses that we need to know "not just how markets fail, but how governments fail."
The goal of the MacArthur Foundation project is to "speed up discussion" of these ideas within economics. Only after economists have debated and refined these theories can they begin to make their way into the policy arena. "Economists have to come around to new policy views before new economic policies will be promulgated," Gintis says.
It's a slow and frustrating process, but a necessary one, Gintis believes. He acknowledges that the frustration is even greater for some policy-makers and activists than for the economists, leading to a desire, especially among progressives, to "sidestep economics."
"You're not likely to be successful if you do that," he says. "The fact is that economists have been right about a lot of stuff. Economics is half right, maybe. If you try to do an end-run around it, you're gonna lose that half, and be left with the equivalent of astrology.
"I tell my students we're like plumbers; we know certain things about how the world works. And the purpose of what we do is to make a better world, for more people. To me that means strong governments, strong markets, strong communities. We used to believe in revolution. That didn't work, so why not try evolution? It sounds intellectually sloppy, but its true."
by Patricia Wright