jueves, 1 de noviembre de 2012

Bentham, Samuelson and Becker

What do they have in common? A fascination with homo economicus, this unfriendly character who has been described as an “unattractive, inhuman and sociopathic fellow”, whose marching strength heads the parade of economics towards rationality, wealth and prosperity, at relentless pace. What could be more promising than a man like that?  Silence follows the question and there is no answer to it anywhere near.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), himself a kind of victim of Dr. Frankenstein, is the creator of homo economicus. Bentham donated his body for a public autopsy to the faculty of Medicine of the University of London, a School created by Bentham and supported with his state. To this day at important meetings of the School Bentham’s body is ushered into the hall with the announcement: “Mr. Jeremy Bentham is present at the procedures without vote.” We could bear in mind Bentham by saying that, according to some economists, his creature homo economicus is present today in all procedures of life, without ever being able to change his stiff condition.
No one likes to represent his whole life as a homo economicus, except for a while. Most people recognize that not all of their decisions are rational nor are they only profit-seeking. Bentham was enamored of economics but forgot that behind it there are imperfect fallible human beings. One can do lots of theory and models without men but one cannot do real economics without human beings.

And that is where Paul Samuelson (1915-2009) comes in. He took homo economicus and turned him into mathematical models. By that we understand what Peter Boettke calls the inferiority complex of economists to natural sciences. Keynes was responsible of this as seen in the name of his work “General Theory”, a la Einstein. Samuelson contributed by applying the mathematics of thermodynamics to economics. In 1947, based in the principle of Chartelier, he established “the method of comparative statics for economics”. In response to that many have said that “physical economics” explains things that have no application or use in reality since their theoretical origins suggest that things happen by themselves without connection to human actions and decisions.

And that last sentence helps us to bring in Gary Becker (1930- ), who is credited by doing the most interesting things in economics in the last quarter of a 20th century that is, applying economics to every thing. The question is what kind of economics. You guessed it the homo economicus version of the discipline. We marry to maximize utilities or for exchanging purposes, have kids for the same reasons, and believe in God to increase our chances in eternity. It is in this context that love, justice and faith are proposed by D. McCloskey as also part of this humane science called economics. She puts it in one odd-sounding but promising word, which has far greater depth than homo economicus, “humanomics”.  

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