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Bay Street in Toronto. Is everything subservient to the market?

‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’ a provocative look at ‘economic man’

in Opinion by

Katrine Marçal blows the whistle on the founding father of our economic system, Adam Smith, in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

When Adam Smith proclaimed that all our actions were motivated by self-interest, he used the example of the baker and the butcher as he laid the foundations for his ‘economic man’ theory. Smith reasoned the baker and butcher didn’t give bread and meat out of kindness, which was certainly an interesting viewpoint coming from a bachelor who lived with his mother for most of his life — the same woman who cooked his dinner each night and certainly not out of self-interest.

Columnist Judy Paul.

Despite material growth in Western societies, we still face economic problems and Marçal argues convincingly that feminism is crucial to the solutions. Economic man was meant to create prosperity and then step back. Instead of a step back, he has taken over, and been worshipped like a god.

According to mainstream thinking economic man works, creates new companies, and makes money:

“Those in society who are more disciplined will win, and therefore they deserve their success. Earning money becomes a sign that one is a good person. That’s why it’s reasonable to expect lower taxes for high-income earners.”

This pervasive story explains the lack of outrage at Canada’s growing inequality where financial gains have gone to the top 10 per cent.

Marçal challenges competition, rationality and wealth accumulation suggesting that “Neoliberalism tries to manufacture the reality that it insists already exists.” Because economic man needs some help to get going, deregulation, low taxes and related incentives prop him up. Market principles are applied to everything; consequently education, health care and the environment are the losers.

When Ontario politicians state that a carbon tax will hurt jobs we know economic man is whispering in their ear. The environment is subservient to the market.

The last 40 years have seen critiques of economic man, yet he persists:

“Economic man is the most seductive man on earth because he can take us away from all that frightens us. The body, emotion, dependency, insecurity and vulnerability.  These don’t exist in his world. Our bodies become human capital, dependency ceases to exist, and the world becomes predictable. That is why we cling to him. He helps us escape our fears.”

By embracing those needs suppressed by economic man, we will accomplish great things like ending homelessness, providing a basic income for all citizens, and building a carbon free world.

“Feminism’s best-kept secret is just how necessary a feminist perspective is in the search for a solution to our mainstream economic problems,” writes Marçal. “It is involved in everything from inequality to population growth to benefits to the environment and the care crunch that will soon face many aging societies…”

Only a man, Marçal suggests, would imagine independence rather than dependence as the foundation for the human condition.

Who cooks your dinner?

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Judy is interested in promoting ideas that shift our society in a more just, sustainable direction. Newly retired, she spent her career facilitating positive change in the areas of adult and family literacy, mental health, community development, and outdoor recreation. As a volunteer, she worked on climate justice issues, peace education with youth, and blogging about local food. Judy lives in Haliburton where she loves to ski, paddle, read and watch the birds.

1 Comment

  1. Well, I often cook my own dinner, but I agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with our economic systems. I think this topic can be put into a broader context, which is, that our economic systems, and the accountants that monitor and modify it – lack a subtraction button on their calculators.
    If a true “full cost accounting” methodology were applied to everyday activities, ranging from average you and I up to massive corporations and governments, then many of the greatly proclaimed economic success stories of our time would be questionable.
    The fossil-fuel industry, for example, would likely collapse if all the explicit and hidden subsidies it is built upon were accounted for correctly and subtracted from the net result (direct payments, cheap loans, tax breaks, and especially, the licence to use air and water as a free dumping ground for wastes). Ditto the nuclear industry, which gets a free pass against having to insure their operations (they operate free of meaningful liability risk) plus, nobody can begin to calculate the costs that will be required to clean up and deal with 30,000 years worth of active nuclear wastes. We pay for all these negatives with our health, our degraded environment, our taxes, and most importantly our debt to future generations, but the benefits are clearly not distributed as equally.
    On it goes. So yes, hidden and unaccounted costs and inputs create a massive distortion in the reality we think we live in, which politicians make decisions in, and which voters vote in. Unpaid work is a huge part of this. Thanks for pointing it out.

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