Billfold Book Review: Katrine Marçal’s ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’
Nicole Dieker

There’s a disconnect between pop economics and academic economics. Economists don’t study individuals particularly; that’s psychology’s area. Economics is to some extent a branch of sociology, and for the most part it looks at the behavior of either businesses/firms (microeconomics) or governments (macroeconomics).

When an economist talks about individuals (like the butcher) it’s basically flavor text to help you remember or identify with the thesis on a gut level, like a reporter pulling out the story of one person’s debt in order to interest a reader in a story about bank regulation. The smallest economic unit you’ll hear most economists talk about is “the household,” which is typically assumed to include non-wage-earning members — and there’s not much talk about even the household. Personal finance? Deciding who to marry? Outside the scope of the field.

Obviously the stuff that gets media attention from non-economists is sexied up with some self-help angle like “according to this study, it’s rational to eat chocoate at every meal!” because that sounds more exciting than reading about the distortions introduced by different voting systems, or whether it looks like a tax rebate is affecting how many people buy solar panels, or how Brazilian monetary policy responds to fuel price shocks, or how Greek bonds related to German industrial expansion a decade ago, or whether businesses in ex-soviet regions still take on significantly different levels of risk than similar businesses in areas which never had centrally planned economies. Which is the stuff economists actually spend their time studying and trying to explain.

Adam Smith wasn’t trying to describe a utopia in The Wealth of Nations. He was trying to explain how geographically dispersed strangers arrive at similar prices for similar goods and services, and how sometimes people managed to be helpful through their own selfishness (i.e. not solely through kindness). He self-defined as a humanist philosopher, not an economist (field didn’t properly exist yet), and was more proud of another book of his, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (a.k.a. why are people nice to each other, how to we manage to become good people). I’m maybe too sleepy to explain this well right now, but Wealth of Nations (which I’ve read a lot but not all of) is more like “ok, so how have I observed that people interact when they don’t feel compelled to save or kill each other, and in what ways might this explain the British Isles’s ongoing transition away from a subsitence-based standard of life?”

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