I was just looking at Evonomics.com, an important new source of misinformation about economics. Numerous essays there talk about how economic analysis is based on the study of homo economicus, a creature that is only concerned about its own selfish material interest.
“homo economicus… is the character that inhabits the economics texts, and the computer models that are the silent dictators of analysis and policy. Econ, as I will call him, is a myopic integer of self-seeking, who goes through life with a relentless and unfailing calculus of personal loss and gain. He has no social affinities, is oblivious of social context, and has no capacity or inclination to think of anyone besides him or her self.” (Jonathan Rowe at Evonomics)
It is easy to see how foolish those economists are and what a waste of time economics is. There is only one small problem. The imaginary being is not homo economicus, it is homo paleas. Homo paleas is an imaginary economist created by people who want to criticize economics without having to go to the trouble of studying what economists actually do.
Economists generally do analyze models in which people are assumed to maximize utility, but these people can get utility from anything they like. No real economist says that you can’t get utility from someone else’s pleasure, or, for that matter, someone else’s pain.
What have economists actually said?
Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that
“How selfish soever a man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though h derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Well, Smith was special. It must have been after him that economists starting studying homo economicus. What did Alfred Marshall say?
Alfred Marshall wrote in his Principles of Economics that
“Thus though it is true that "money" or "general purchasing power" or "command over material wealth," is the centre around which economic science clusters; this is so, not because money or material wealth is regarded as the main aim of human effort, nor even as affording the main subject-matter for the study of the economist, but because in this world of ours it is the one convenient means of measuring human motive on a large scale. If the older economists had made this clear, they would have escaped many grievous misrepresentations; and the splendid teachings of Carlyle and Ruskin as to the right aims of human endeavour and the right uses of wealth, would not then have been marred by bitter attacks on economics, based on the mistaken belief that that science had no concern with any motive except the selfish desire for wealth, or even that it inculcated a policy of sordid selfishness.” (Book I Ch. II).
Okay, it wasn’t Marshall. Maybe economists now think that people can’t care about others.
In 2011, Andersen, Ertac, Gneezy, Hoffman and List explained that
“where economics provides its most basic predictions revolves around how people should respond to changes in incentives—pecuniary or nonpecuniary (Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini 2000)—not whether subjects have fairness, spite, or altruistic proclivities.” (Stakes Matter in Ultimatum Games)
Because they analyze the actions of the imaginary homo paleas rather than actual economists, these critics of economics think they have shown the weakness of economics when they point out that people vote, or give to charity, or are willing to incur a cost to punish economic experiments are concerned with fairness. The trouble is that there is actually nothing in economics that suggests a person cannot care about other people.
Economics theory does not suggest that people should not give to charity. It suggests that people will do it more if you lower the cost by, for instance giving a charitable deduction.