“Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality” argues Tyler Cowen, economics professor at George Mason University, in this weekend’s New York Times. Cue a collective sigh here at Lady Economist and a personal mea culpa on behalf of my profession for the obliviousness of Cowen to the androcentric bias in our dismal science.
According to Wikipedia (whose “Wikipedians” are 87% male and 13% female, for the record), androcentrism “is the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing male human beings or the masculine point of view at the center of one’s view of the world and its culture and history.” (Somewhat unfortunately, the opposite concept of placing the feminine point of view at the center is known as gynocentrism.) Feminist economist and sociologist by training Paula England argues in the scholarly article “The Separative Self: Androcentric Bias in Neoclassical Assumptions” that the concept that economics is value-free, and therefore an egalitarian theory, is misguided and based on a masculine worldview. The hyperfocus on the individual denies the importance of families and communities, generally the purview of the feminine sphere. Economics focuses on a masculine experience, and thereby denies a lot of what is important to real, actual humans – both the masculine and feminine aspects that are in all of us.
Cowen honors his classical economics predecessors of the 19th century and says that “their utilitarian moral theories placed individuals on a par in the social calculus by asking about the greatest good for the greatest number.” However, if the people developing these theories are themselves privileged men, their concept of “greatest good” will be affected by what they perceive to be the best state of affairs for society, which many of us may not agree with.
For example, in mainstream economics, the value-free theoretical utopia described by Cowen, you cannot make “interpersonal comparisons of utility.” This means that it is impossible to say that a dollar means more to a man who has nothing than it does to a man who has everything. Who are we as economists to say that we know what that dollar means to any person and therefore how can we compare the “utility” or benefit that different people can get from that dollar? I feel like most other humans probably think that’s what we as economists should have been trying to know all along so we can make things better for a lot of people.
Paula England writes about the idea of a separative self – the hyperfocus among economists on separate individuals, which basically makes it so that we can’t think communally about how to improve well-being beyond just saying whatever we can do to get more is better without taking anything away from another individual. “Assuming that interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible amounts to assuming a separative self, and to denying the possibility of an empathic, emotionally connected self.” Cowen’s plea to break down all barriers and just let the rational self-interest resolve inequality denies that we relate to our world through our human connections. When there has been real gender, racial, ethnic and class differentiation for thousands of years that lead to vastly different economic outcomes for groups, denying the real implications of institutionalized structures of patriarchy, racism and ethnocentrism has costs that cannot be factored into the cost-benefit analyses that Cowen argues for. Evading declaring a point of view does not actually evade a point of view.
Maybe I should have become a sociologist instead…