The Active ‘I’

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Amidst all the re-evaluation of current economic thinking that has taken place since the 2007 crisis, there is one subject that is rarely touched upon: how economics understands the human being. By default, human motivation is treated in terms of the selfish-gene, the consumer, the unit of labour, the competing animal or some other version of the person given by natural science. Without necessarily making explicit the assumptions behind this ‘image’, conventional economic models tend to affirm the idea of homo economicus, narrowly pursuing self-interest in search of utility. The focus is only given to the intellectual rigour of the analytic framework, as if this alone could be an adequate picture of human behavior and prescription for policy.

In contrast, associative economics places the human being at the centre of economic life and this idea, or perhaps one could say ‘the human imagination’, is understood to inform and animate everything else: “it is this self that acts. One might say that the ‘I’ is the active principle here” (see page 8). If one fails to reckon with this central fact, the central fact of the self, in terms of motivation, constitution, aspirations, there can be no true economics, because the human being is the actor from whom all else proceeds.

This issue of Associate! focuses on what picture economics paints of human motivation, what inspires work and how new ideas arise. It is with the imaginative pictorial quality of the human mind and will that the various contributions, in different ways, are concerned.

Denise D. Cummins attempts to show what happens “When you take Ayn Rand seriously” by describing two experiments in promoting unbridled self-seeking as a business goal. At a basic level there is a contest for ‘the image of man’, which tends to break down into those who celebrate altruism and those who champion individualism. This is not simply an academic matter, as the first feature illustrates, it has consequences for how we communicate and organize ourselves. The ‘image of man’ subsequently animates and populates not just our intellectual endeavours but their practical outcomes.

Can selfishness lead to social outcomes, other than through the operation of a metaphysical deus-ex-machina in the form of the invisible hand? In Holism and Reductionism, Andy Denis treats the question of how its proponents imagine that micro-level selfish behaviour can lead to macro-level social outcomes.

Speaking of invisible hands, D. Wilson and W. Dixon show, in ‘The Man Within the Breast’, that Adam’s Smith’s sociological vision was both more sophisticated than we now give it credit for and also conceived as a buttress against Hobbesian brutishness. How ironic now that Smith is used to agitate for those who champion the atomistic individual in pursuit of his own ends and how timely that the true Smith should be resuscitated – in their terms:  “’sympathy’ for Smith is in the nature of the human act as such, the capacity that makes a specifically human form of acting possible. The ‘passionate’, partial side of being, and its ‘impartial’ counterpart, the man within the breast, together constitute the self. Their aim is to show that economics does not need to be saved from itself by sociology if indeed a true picture of human motivation can be allowed to prevail.

“Between the world that is interwoven with the laws of nature and the world in which conscience speaks as it streams into us, there lies the world of dreaming. The world of dreaming protests in its images against the laws of nature.” — Rudolf Steiner, BLACKBOARD DRAWINGS 1919-1924, p. 110. [R. R. sketch, 2009, based on Steiner’s. The blue area is the sleep world; yellow, the dream world; red, the waking world.

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