There's nothing transactional about love. Photo: Alec Soth/Magnum.
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The economics of love: Following the heart, not the head

Humans move beyond the strictures of “homo economicus” – we are more than economic entities.

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

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State