Adam Smith did not believe people are merely economic maximizers. Instead, we balance self-interest with humane sympathy for others. Deirdre N. McCloskey reviews ‘Cents and Sensibility’ by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro.
By Deirdre N. McCloskey
The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 13, 2017
CENTS AND SENSIBILITY
By Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro
Princeton, 307 pages, $29.95
In the middle of the 19th century, when the new telegraph meant that Texas could communicate with Maine, Henry David Thoreau quipped: “But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Today, the university puts literature and economics under the same roof. But do the two have anything important to say to each other?
Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro say yes. Their new book, “Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities,” is a sweet contribution to the dialogue. Covering such topics as university admissions, child-rearing, organ harvesting and economic development, the chapters each analyze public questions first through economics, and then through literature. The conclusion is that economics—a hugely influential approach to studying human societies—isn’t worth all that much without first understanding what it means to be human.
Mr. Morson is a professor of Slavic literature at Northwestern University, and Mr. Schapiro teaches economics there, where he is also the president. The book is the fruit of an undergraduate course they taught together, which suggested critiques of their disciplines, and especially of economics. Economics, they argue, has been stripped down to a theory neglecting language and culture. At the same time, literary study has abandoned its responsibility to lead students to the best that has been thought and said. The humanities, Messrs. Morson and Schapiro contend, should acknowledge economics for worldly purposes. Yet for a truly human science the economists need literature, philosophy and history. Each discipline can supply what the other lacks.
Their agendum is, in their phrase, “a return to the ‘real’ Adam Smith. ” They exhort students of economics to grasp that the author of “The Wealth of Nations” also wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” The real Smith observes that human beings summon qualities of sympathy balanced with their self-interest. People are not merely economic maximizers: They are ethical creatures from the get-go.
Messrs. Morson and Schapiro advocate a fusion the economist Bart Wilson and the Nobelist Vernon Smith have recently dubbed “humanomics.” The humanities study categories, and the initial step of categorization is essential to any human inquiry. As Niels Bohr once said, humans ask the questions: good versus bad, big versus small, red giant stars versus white dwarves, Homo sapiens sapiens versus Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. You can’t measure gross domestic product or unemployment without first saying what they are, qualitatively, as categories of interest to humans. If we were to decide that a society were best judged using the number of houses of worship erected—or, for that matter, the number of M&M candies consumed—such a measure, not dollar-value output, is what we would study. There is no God-term telling us from the outside what categories humans care about. Economics, physics, biology, history—all need the first, humanistic, categorizing step.
In most chapters Mr. Schapiro writes about some piece of economics—how information about opportunities matters in determining which colleges students attend, how families and criminal enterprises respond to incentives, or why geographical determinism is the wrong way to think about economic growth. Then Mr. Morson writes about what “a humanist would add.” For instance, economists calculate in court the value of a human life by determining that person’s remaining lifetime cash earnings. Mr. Morson demurs. In such calculations the economists have not drunk deep from literary or philosophical springs.
Parts of the book explicitly, and all of it by implication, give an eloquent defense of the humanities against fanatical advocates for “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The STEM-ers want to shove aside the humanities, and most of the social sciences, too, in favor of fields they think are more likely to add to GDP. Messrs. Morson and Schapiro point to the example of Japan’s minister of education, who a few years ago proposed eliminating in public universities every field except STEM. No study of Japanese literature. No economics. Such naive zeal ignores that most of what actually goes on in STEM’s “M” and “S”—and even a good deal of the “E”—is, like the humanities, an inquiry into the artistic or intellectual products of humans. They have no economic usefulness. Astronomy and number theory should properly be viewed as quantitative kin to, say, theology and art history. Indeed, the very word “science” is unusual in contemporary English in signifying only the physical and biological. In other languages, and in English before the 1860s, it has a much wider meaning, “systematic inquiry,” as in the German word for the humanities—Geisteswissenschaften, or “spirit sciences.
In discussing the communication between literature and economics, Messrs. Morson and Schapiro focus rather more on method than on substance. But it is early days for humanomics, and a certain amount of methodological ground-clearing is justified. Both men, true, represent somewhat conventional, even old-fashioned, versions of their specialties. Mr. Morson, for example, adheres to the old “belletristic” theory of literary criticism, which regards its purpose as awarding stars like movie reviews to great literature. This book cannot mention Tolstoy or Dostoevsky without informing us, in case we forgot, that they are “great.” Still, when it comes to placing economics and the humanities in dialogue, “Cents and Sensibility” constitutes a wise first step. As to the people who disagree—who believe that maximizing utility subject to constraints is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know, or who believe that prudence and calculation can tell us nothing about the human spirit—well, they are exactly the people most in need of the book.
Ms. McCloskey is a distinguished professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author, most recently, of “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.”
Appeared in the September 14, 2017, print edition as 'A Human Face For Economics.'