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The Looming Death of Homo Economicus

KIEL – The world seems to be on the verge of another “great transformation,” with changes far more profound than news-grabbing economic or geopolitical headlines about Asia’s economic rise or the fires in the Middle East. The coming changes will fundamentally redefine the nature of our economic interactions – and the social dynamics that underlie them.

This is a transformation on the scale of the shift, more than 8,000 years ago, from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to settled agricultural ones, which eventually led to the rise of cities. A similar transformation occurred in Europe in the tenth century, with the emergence of guilds – associations of skilled workers who controlled the practice of their craft in a particular town – which paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.

The particular characteristics of the impending transformation remain unclear. It may well involve revolutions in bio-, nano-, and digital technology, together with a social-networking revolution that eliminates geographical and cultural barriers. What is already clear, however, is that, like previous transformations, this one will involve a fundamental change in all of our economic relations and the social relations that support them.

Mainstream economics offers a straightforward analysis of and policy response to such a transformation. Whenever technological or other changes allow for people to be compensated for the benefits that they confer on one another (minus the costs), the price-based market system can adjust. When the changes create externalities, economic restructuring is required – say, adjustments in taxes and subsidies, regulatory shifts, or property-rights upgrading – to offset the costs and benefits for which the market cannot compensate. And when the changes give rise to particularly high levels of inequality, redistributive measures are needed.