Let’s start with an addled view of what it is to be human. According to economists, it is the ability to calculate. Their picture of the human is that of Homo economicus, “economic man”, a calculating machine who is always weighing up the costs and benefits of every course of action.
Economics is about “economising” –eliminating waste (including waste of time) so that all behaviour becomes efficiently purposive. The task of economics, according to the economist Dennis Robertson, is to “economise on love, that scarce resource”. We need to economise on love because we live in a world of scarcity and cannot afford to spend too much time on wasteful activities such as love. Economics offers us a way of getting what we want without love. Excluded is the idea that we might “want” to love and be loved, that we might want beauty, leisure and many other things that make life worth living.
In order to make the construction Homo economicus plausible, economists assume that human behaviour is self-interested and that wants (“preferences”) can be measured in money. It is money that makes possible the calculation of costs and benefits from different courses of action. Every activity has a cost and a benefit measurable in money. Love has a cost. If I spend time on love, I forgo the opportunity to make extra money to buy the iPad I crave, because “time is money”. The best form of love for Homo economicus is quick sex, because that wastes very little time.
Most people believe that marriage is about love, but the economist Gary Becker has shown that individuals, in making their choice of partner, calculate the costs and benefits of different types of relationships.
Similarly there are costs and benefits in telling the truth, not cheating at cards, buying one’s partner flowers, listening to music, reading a poem. Indeed, there is almost no form of activity one can think of that does not have attached to it at least the pretence of costs and benefits calculable in terms of money. And if one habitually makes this calculation before deciding to act, one will slowly but inexorably cease to be human.
The alarming thought is that, exposed to training in economics, human beings do start acting in the way economists say they should. In a marvellous book, I Spend, Therefore I Am, Philip Roscoe reports on research that shows that students studying economics are markedly more calculating than students of other subjects. Economics contaminates all our motives, forcing, in Amartya Sen’s words, “smallness on us”.
The dilemma in defining what is human is this: calculation is an integral part of the human outfit; animals don’t calculate. Without calculation, there could be no economising behaviour. And without economising behaviour there would be no growth of wealth. But if calculation is all we do, then we cease to be human. For the alternative forms of existence are not human and animal, but human, animal and robotic. Robots can be programmed to act exactly as economists think human beings should: efficiently, purposefully. There is no waste in a robotic civilisation.
So, as I would see it, the essence of distinctively human activity is action without thought of the consequences, without counting the cost of the activity and weighing it against the prospective benefits to be obtained.
And I would also claim that for many, if not most activities, this is the only rational form of action. For, contrary to Dennis Robertson, the truly scarce resource is not love, but knowledge. The great advantage of acting from motives of love is that it economises on the need for knowledge.
Usually we have only the foggiest idea of what the consequences of our actions will be, especially further in the future. And the net of delusion is being cast ever wider, as we are bombarded with more and more information masquerading as knowledge, more and more material for the calculus, which far outruns our ability to sift it into truth and falsehood.
Therefore to follow our hearts rather than our heads, our intuitions rather than our calculations, is the distinctively human way of being. And if economics tells us the contrary, down with economics.
Robert Skidelsky is emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick
The What Makes Us Human series is published in association
with BBC Radio 2