Maybe it’s the fact that if you removed the ‘R’, “Romney” would be an anagram for “money”. It seems as though he really believes that money can buy happiness.

Economists refer to the conception of human beings as rationally self-interested actors motivated primarily by economic gain as homo economicus, or economic man. Some actually believe that in the final analysis, all we really care about is economic self-interest, and so we may as well reward profit-maximizers with hopes that there will be enough leftovers to suppress social unrest. Other economists — and, increasingly, primatologists, ethicists, and psychologists, among others — see homo economicus as representing a crude caricature of human motivation, only marginally useful as a predictor of collective action. They are convinced that human beings are curious, creative, compassionate, and cooperative social creatures who care about money as a means to a multiplicity of worthwhile human ends.

Homo economicus positions the economy as both a worthwhile end in itself and as the principal means to virtually any other worthwhile end. The lynchpin, in his view, of the United States’ relationship with China? Currency values, not global understanding. The importance of the Middle East to American interests? Oil prices, not peace. The value of education to the country’s youth? In his virtuous circle, the economy funds higher education which in turn serves the end of getting a job which in turn serves the economy. “For me,” says homo economicus, “this is about jobs.” Any jobs, apparently, not meaningful work that supports self-realization and service to others. Not a meaningful philosophy of life, the virtue of good citizenship, and the ability to think critically to appreciate all of the good things in life to which economic value cannot be reliably assigned: truth, beauty, sociality, health, freedom, and love, among others.

Comparative research across countries suggests that, while countries at the low end of human development and flourishing tend also to be poor, by no means is wealth a predictor of happiness and well-being. Now, I do understand the potentially destructive effects of a bad economy on human happiness. Every family in poverty or otherwise suffering has a chance to benefit from greater economic opportunity. But let’s not suppose then that economic growth is the key to solving all of our problems. Rather, a nation of homos economicus is likelier to divide and fail amid a chaos of competitive greed than to unite and succeed as a people who care about their fellow human beings and non-economic well-being. Even if homo economicus could fix the economy, I would not vote for him, because his view of human well-being is too narrow, wrong, and dreadfully dull; money can’t buy happiness.

This commentary by Christopher Michaelson, Ph.D., associate professor of ethics and business law, originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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One Response

  1. Alexis Rodarmel

    Hi Professor,

    I read your post and I found it very interesting. As a free American who has the ability to do nearly anything you want, I find it really odd that you are taking a position like this. I agree when you say that jobs need to accomplish service to others and self-realization. Maybe I am wrong but are there jobs out there that do not do those here in the U.S.? At a time when unemployment is so high, I think the focus should be on jobs in general because if people are unable to afford to live, then what is going to allow them to go out and do things that allow them to achieve self-service to others and self-realization? If they can’t afford rent or food then what is going to drive them to live a virtuous life? They will be focused on survival rather than doing good for others.

    I do not think that a flourishing economy breeds competitive greed, nor do I think that it prevents people from uniting and taking care of their fellow human beings and their non-economic well-being. There have been plenty of instances of greed in the recent past here in the U.S., but I think there are many more examples of the generosity and kindness that Americans demonstrate to their fellow citizens and people across the world. If the economy is flourishing and Americans find themselves living comfortably, rather than pay check to pay check, I think they are much more likely to take care of others around them, knowing that they have the time, energy and financial resources to do so. I do not think that money buys happiness, but I definitely think it helps make being happy a little easier. In a society like the U.S. I do not think that many people could find happiness living on the street, begging for food and having nothing to do with their time. But maybe that’s just me.