Economic Man: Absent without leave in the pages of the NYT


Yesterday, David Brooks declared the displacement, perhaps the end, of economics as we know it.

Economics, which assumes people are basically reasonable and respond straightforwardly to incentives, is no longer queen of the social sciences.  The events of the past years have thrown us back to the murky realms of theology, sociology, anthropology and history. Even economists know this, and are migrating to more behaviorialist and cultural approaches.

For a guy who has distinguished himself as someone with special powers of pattern recognition, it’s a disappointing showing.  And as someone who presumes to write a blog that sits at the intersection of economics and anthropology, I feel I should respond.

First, there is some evidence that economic man is "on the run," abandoning, in the process, our dearest assumptions about the actor’s rationality and the reasonableness.

But notice, most of the irrationality that troubles the political world come from people who are not very good at being economic actors.  Most of us suspect that if the countries and cultures of the Middle East had real economies, they would be very much less inclined to take umbrage against slights, real and imagined, inflicted or merely drawn.  Certain Middle Eastern countries and cultures appear to live in a perpetual state of status anxiety, a condition exacerbated by the fact that they do not have real economies and the benefits, liberties, and dignities that flow there from.  (This argument is hardly original.  It appears to be one of the mainstays of the Bush Whitehouse.  And there is no chance that it is mysterious to Brooks who knows this White House very well.)

So, no, actually, it is a little early to start declaring the death or displacement of economic man.  He may be challenged or beleaguered where economies are diminished or compromised.  But, hey, that’s why we call him economic man.  He is unlikely to flourish everywhere.  (And surely, he would be murdered in his sleep in most traditional, face to face, societies.)

But Brooks finds evidence of the elipse of economic man in Western, market societies where "cultural differences become more pronounced, not less, as different groups chase
different visions of the good life."  But this obscures the fact economic man is the very platform on which most of this Cambrian cultural invention is made to happen. 

It was as if the species always over-estimated the constraints that needed to be imposed, and the conformity that needed to be extracted, for a social world to work as a social world.  We could read the West as an experiment in the dismantlement in these constraints, and the creation of a market economy as an "eureka moment" in this experiment.  The more this market economy established itself, the smaller proved to be the constraint/conformity rule set required for social, cultural, and political order.  Once the market economy was fully in place, once this served as the great gyroscope of the social world, individuals and groups were released to rework their cultural definitions.  Now a great profusion of cultural invention was now inevitable.  This invention may appear to efface the rationality and reasonableness of economic man.  I prefer to think it demonstrates what can be accomplished once commerce is made to serve a platform for culture. 

We are only beginning to think of ways to think about this relationship between culture and commerce.  The complex theorists give point the way by giving us models that help reveal how culture patterns can emerge from commercial ones.  Neither this larger intellectual project, nor the complexity theory contribution to it, can be unknown to Brooks. 

Certainly, it’s true that there are parts of the economics model that require renovations more dramatic than anything ever dreamed of by a University of Chicago economist.  But these will come in time.  Truly, market societies release forces and powers that now make the world various and inscrutable.  But we will come to terms with these mysteries not by displacing economic man, but seeing that he maximizes with a cunning we have yet to fathom. 


Brooks, David.  2006.  Questions of Culture.  New York Times.  February 19, 2006. 

5 thoughts on “Economic Man: Absent without leave in the pages of the NYT

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  2. Anonymous

    Here’s the bit that caught my eye in the excerpt: “thrown us back to the murky realms”. That’s the loaded part.

    I actually do find rational economics deeply flawed when it treats us as entirely rational beings. But that is not to say that emotions should be triumph, taking us back to the reptile brain.

    What I think is happening is we are learning that reason and emotion are inseparable and that we need to go forward not back to something that gives rationality its full due AND gets that incentives etc often have many unintended consequences. It’s a move from treating the world as complicated to seeing it as complex.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    If the concept of “rationality” does not also include that of “murky,” then the rationality we’re speaking of is not the kind that belongs to human beings. It would have to be rationality that belongs to some disembodied cyber-extrapolation.

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