Aquinas and the Market: Part 6, Homo Economicus

Having reviewed various approaches toward theological economics, in the posts to come we're going to start turning toward and discussing Mary Hirschfeld's critiques of modern economics in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

Again, Hirschfeld isn't going to simply lament capitalism and let her proposal cash out into a simplistic appeal for social welfare and/or socialism. That debate, between capitalism and socialism, is longstanding, and theologians aren't equipped to wade into evaluating the various trade-offs within each system. In that debate, theology is reduced to rooting for a preferred economic team.

Hirschfeld's approach, by contrast, involves a close examination at the fundamental assumptions of economic theory. She begins where working economists begin, with models and mathematics.

At the heart of economic modeling is what is called "the rational choice model."

For the formulas of economic models to work, you have to have some working assumptions about how humans make their choices. If you have that model in hand you can run this fictional human person through the equations to produce descriptions and predictions for how a given market (an ecosystem of goods, choices, and constraints) will behave, along with the trade-offs involved. The model of human choice used in modern economics is the rational choice model, what is called Homo economicus, "economic man." This is the gas that makes the equations hum.

The heart of the rational choice model is that human choice is involved in "utility maximization." Utility is a slippery, contested concept. Broadly, utility means something like satisfaction, pleasure, or happiness. To maximize your utility, then, when faced with the choice between A or B, is to make the choice that produces the most satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness.

As it stands, the rational choice model is perfectly sensible. It's both very simple and very comprehensive. It conforms to both common sense and empirical data. People make choices that they believe will make them happier, more satisfied, and give the more pleasure.

Of course, we can all imagine exceptions to this rule, but these are rare exceptions and anomalies. And even then, these might not even be exceptions if we looked closely at the situation. Take addiction, for example. It might not look like the addict is making a choice that will maximize his happiness and satisfaction, at least not in the long term. But there is a trade-off between short term satisfaction and long-term satisfaction. We tend to discount future goods. As we say, a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush. In short, while to the outside observer the addict might be behaving "irrationally," if we were to model his utility function we'd see the "rationality" of the choice.

Still, terms like "satisfaction" and "happiness" do murk up the waters. We're going to return to this issue in coming posts. For now, Hirschfeld notes that most working economists don't want to wade too deeply into the philosophical waters about the nature of "utility." All the economists need from Homo economicus for their models to work is a ranking of preferences, that you prefer A over B. We can speculate to the moon and back about why you might make that ranking, the "utility" lurking behind it, but all the models need is a ranking. In short, for working economists, utility maximization is "preference satisfaction." If you prefer A over B you choose A. That's Homo economicus, that's rational choice.

Okay, all this review is necessary going forward as this is where Hirschfeld will begin her theological critique of economics. Specifically, the rational choice model presumes to be value-free, without metaphysical content or baggage. Hirschfeld, however, is going to argue that the rational choice model is smuggling in a suite of values and metaphysical assumptions. Given that situation, her goal is to interrogate the metaphysics of modern economics.

However, as Hirschfeld points out, she isn't the first to question the values and assumptions of the rational choice model. So, before turning to Hirschfeld's analysis, we'll look at two common criticisms of the rational choice model and how economists have addressed them.

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