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The Economics of Caring

There’s something deeply flawed about an economic system that measures utility but not the attachments we feel to another person, or to one’s homeland.

So-called Samuelsonian economics is the main sort at American universities today. It says that all human behavior can be captured in “maximizing a utility function,” which says that happiness depends on how much stuff you get. The only character in Samuelsonian economics is a fellow called Max U. Max treats everyone as a vending machine. His pleasure tops everything.

The only way Samuelsonian economics can acknowledge anything else, such as love, is to reduce it to food for the implicitly male and proud Max U, on a par with the other “goods” he consumes, such as ice cream cones or apartment space or amusing gadgets from the airport shop. In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil Screwtape is in fact suspicious of the very existence of “love,” and reinterprets it as interest. God’s “love” for human beings “of course, is an impossibility. . . . All his talk about Love must be a disguise for something else—He must have some real motive. . . . What does he stand to make out of them?”

A Samuelsonian economist will say, “Oh, stop it. It’s easy to include ‘love’ in economics. Just put the beloved’s utility into the lover’s utility function, U(Lover) [Stuff(Lover), Utility(Beloved)].” Neat. Some German economists, for example, think of a taste for social justice as merely another term, J, in Max U’s utility function. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who seems to have had little to do in his life with love, wrote in the economistic way in 1651: “That which men desire they are also said to Love. . . . so that desire and love are the same thing. . . . But whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth Good.” Or, the modern economists say, “goods.”

But to adopt such a way of talking is to absorb the beloved into the psyche of the lover, as so much utility-making motivation. (A certain kind of Marxist economist also makes the reduction to interest, such as class interest.) Your mother loves you, in one restricted sense, for the pleasure you provide to her. When you graduated from high school she got utilitarian pleasure directly—that she is the mother of such a brilliant child. It reflected on her own brilliance, you see, or on her own excellence in mothering. It added to her utility-account some points earned, straightforward pleasure, like frequent-flyer mileage. And she got some pleasure indirectly, because you did so well—for yourself, to be sure, yet as a pleasure to her.

It is not for your sake. It is as though you were happy and accomplished for her. Even if no one else knew that you had your degree, she would know, and know the material pleasure and higher satisfactions your education would give you, and would be glad . . . for her sake. It is “on her account,” as the revealingly bourgeois expression says. That is, she absorbs your utility into hers. If you are happy, she is happy. But derivatively. It is a return on her capital investment in motherhood. It’s still a matter of points earned for her utility. Means, not ends.

Economists think this is a complete description of your mother’s love. A greeting card company could make a card for the economist to send to his mother: “Mom, I maximize your utility.” The great Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, for example, thinks in this fashion, as do his numerous followers. He realizes that love — or as he usually styles it, with embarrassed male scare quotes, “love” — entails more than “caring” in his restricted sense: “If M cares about F, M’s utility would depend on the commodity consumption of F as well as on his own.” But treating others as “inputs into a self’s utility function,” as Becker puts it, is to treat the others as means, not as ends. Immanuel Kant said two centuries ago in effect that your mother, if she is truly and fully loving, loves you as an end, for your own sweet sake. You may be a rotten kid, an ax-murderer on death row in Texas. You’re not even a high-school graduate. You give her “nothing but grief,” as we say. In all the indirect, derivative ways you are a catastrophe. And yet she goes on loving you, and stands wailing in front of the prison on the night of your execution. Economists need to understand what everyone else already understands, and what the economists themselves understood before they went to graduate school, that such love is of course commonplace. It is common in your own blessed mother, and everywhere in most mothers and fathers and children and friends.

You see it in the doctor’s love for healing, in the engineer’s for building, in the soldier’s for the homeland, in the economic scientist’s for the advance of economic science, down in the marketplace and up in the cathedral. Such loves, or internal goods, defeat the economistic view that all virtues can be collapsed into utility. Utility is the measure of an ends-means logic, prudence only. Loving some end, however, goes beyond means. The Samuelsonians can deal only with the means of life, not its meaning.

Time to get serious, and get beyond Max U.

Read more in this debate: Barry Schwartz, Dan Ariely, Alberto Alemanno.

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