by Daniel Cohen
The West has long defined the pursuit of happiness in economic terms but now, in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis, it is time to think again about what constitutes our happiness. In Homo Economicus: The (Lost) Prophet of Modern Times the leading economist Daniel Cohen traces our current malaise back to the rise of homo economicus: for the last 200 years, the modern world has defined happiness in terms of material gain. Homo economicus has cast aside its rivals, homo ethicus and homo empathicus, and spread its neo-Darwinian logic far and wide. Yet, instead of bringing happiness, homo economicus traps human beings in a world devoid of any ideals. We are left feeling empty and dissatisfied.
Today more and more people are beginning to recognize that competition and material gain are not the only things that matter in life. The central paradox of our era is that we look to the economy to give direction to our world at the very time when social needs are migrating toward sectors that are hard to place within the scope of market logic. Health, education, scientific research, and the world of the Internet form the heart of our post-industrial societies, but none of these belong to the traditional economic mould. While human creativity is higher than ever, homo economicus imposes himself like a sad prophet, a killjoy of the new age.
Drawing on a rich array of examples, Cohen explores in Homo Economicus: The (Lost) Prophet of Modern Times the new digital and genetic revolutions and examines the limitations of homo economicus in our rapidly transforming world. As human beings have an extraordinary ability to adapt, he argues that we need to rebalance the relation between competition and cooperation in favour of the latter.
This thought-provoking analysis of our contemporary predicament will be of great value to anyone interested in the relationship between what happens in our economies and our personal happiness.
Daniel Sage on LSE Review of Books wrote:
"In this very interesting book, Daniel Cohen confronts the reader with ideas from philosophy, sociology, history, literature, psychology, behavioral economics and, of course, economic theory. He provides an overview of findings from different fields, comments on them and based on them develops the basic theme of the book that can be actually expressed by the question: does Homo economicus become someone who kills the joy of new times? Has he with time become a 'sad prophet'? [...] Will, asks Cohen, economic and technological globalization become a factor of peace by spreading common values or will it only exacerbate the old quarrels and divisions thus creating a multipolar world? [...] Cohen insists on his view that globalization is a hybrid process. [...] A special quality of the book is provided by its visibility, accuracy and the language of analysis that is devoid of excessive technical jargon. All this together makes it accessible to a wide circle of readers."
Jonathan Allen on The Review of Politics wrote:
"Cohen’s central argument in Homo Economicus is largely straightforward. Recent and emerging findings in scientific research show that this model of humans – as rational, self-interested, and gratified by ever increasing material standards of living – is flawed. To show this, Cohen largely makes three key arguments, told through a combination of polemic, story-telling, and empirical evidence. First, despite rising living standards across the world, people are not getting any happier. [...] The reason for this stagnation, argues Cohen, is endemic to the Homo Economicus model of capitalism: in a society driven by individualism and competitiveness, people are always comparing themselves with others. It is these social comparisons that hold well-being down [...]. Second, developments in behavioural economics, psychology, and neuroscience challenge the view of man as self-interested. [...] Third, the dawn of the ‘digital age’ once again bares the tension between market and non-market goods. [...] The main problem with Homo Economicus is that it is largely unoriginal. The main thrust of Cohen’s argument – that this is a flawed model for understanding (and motivating) human behaviour – has been repeated ad infinitum over the past few years. [...] The problem for Cohen is that these books are much better argued – and, in many cases, have a far stronger empirical base – than Homo Economicus. [...] There are also parts of Homo Economicus that veer off into unusual avenues that detract from the main argument. One chapter, for example, is devoted to exploring the historical provenance of Homo Economicus in the expansion of Christianity, whilst another looks at the rise of China and other emerging economies vis-à-vis the implications for global relations. [...] Cohen is perhaps guilty of trying to cover too many disciplinary bases – sociology, economics, ancient history, globalization, genetics – rather than focusing on the structure and logic of his argument. Nevertheless, Homo Economicus provides a strong overview of the main critiques against this model of human behaviour and motivation. It is also a lesson for many academics in terms of synthesising large swathes of research into a volume that is not just wide-ranging and easy to read (at just over 100 pages), but entertaining and humorous. Cohen not only draws upon scientific research to make his case, but a rich source of literary and film history"
Allen R. Sanders on his personal website wrote:
"Daniel Cohen’s Homo Economicus: The (Lost) Prophet of Modern Times is an intriguing, puzzling, and flawed work. It aspires to offer an accessible and comprehensive critique of the impact of the dominant economic model of competitive, rational agency. Perhaps it is to be welcomed as a manifestation of an emerging new economics, critical of the discipline’s basic assumptions,drawing on experimental economics, history, and social theory, rather than on deductive and game-theoretic models. Yet Cohen never provides a clear or comprehensive theoretical framework for his criticisms of homo economicus—his work is impressionistic and anecdotal, the economist’s equivalent of the pictorial tourist maps that pick out points of interest, using appealing not-to-scale pictures to orient the reader. Just as pictorial maps have a function for the inexperienced tourist, so Cohen’s book may provide a serviceable sketch of various critical claims concerning the dominant model of economic agency. It is not, however, likely to displace that model or to prove an essential reference point for those who wish to do so."
Jonathan Newell on Political Studies Review wrote:
"This short book by French economist Cohen offers a familiar, veritable refrain among French academics and politicians: Economic Man must be subjugated so that morality, ethics, empathy, and cooperation can again triumph over competition, markets, prices, and the false god of material possessions. More broadly, Homo Economicus enters a seemingly ubiquitous cottage industry at present among social scientists--anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, and economists--that purports to treat the relationship, if any, between happiness (or subjective well-being) and income or wealth; most take (cheap) shots at the rational economic (straw) man. To unravel the if-we're-so-rich-why-aren't-we-happy paradox, the author's journey includes a chapter titled 'Gross Domestic Happiness,' how capitalism has altered--and diminished--the nature and value of work, the decadence and decline of the West (and China), and the negative impacts of globalization and the 21st-century digital world. The book is richly endowed by the author's frequent inclusions of commentary and contributions of scholars, the breadth of his ownknowledge, and solid endnotes. The soapbox characteristics and constant to-the-ramparts exhortations throughout nevertheless constrain its importance for scholars and relegate its interest to general audiences. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and general readers."
"Daniel Cohen’s engaging essays confirm the age-old truth that money does not buy happiness. He uses as his foil homo economicus, an attempt to model humankind on the premise that rational, economically focused choices will maximise profit and produce optimal returns for the individual. Cohen opines that as the Western world has pursued this model, some measures of wealth have increased, but the modern world is marked by staggering inequalities, pervasive unhappiness and a shrinking sense of community. [...] Cohen portrays Western workers as trapped in situations where their workplaces emphasise competition over cooperation, and corporations make choices solely on economic grounds, often putting workers’ moral values into conflict with the company’s purely rational profit/loss calculations. Wider society has suffered as this sense of what Cohen terms the ‘civic spirit’ is worn away, leaving individuals together but isolated from one another. Although he focuses on the United States, Cohen shows that the advanced economies of Europe and the emerging economies of China and the world are also wrestling with these issues, finding that neither communism nor capitalism have provided the instinctual satisfaction that all humans crave. Cohen concludes that homo economicus is a lost and failed prophet."
Interview with Cohen about the Book
The interview with Cohen starts at 0:35.
Table of Contents of Homo Economicus: The (Lost) Prophet of Modern Times
- Gross Domestic Happiness
- Work: A Diminishing Value
- The Decline of Empire
- De-Centring the World
- The Great Western Crisis
- Darwin's Nightmare
- The Postmodern Condition
About Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen is Professor of Economics, Université de Paris (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris. He is also a member of the Council of Economic Analysis of the French Prime Minister. Mr. Cohen was named as a Distinguished Fellow by the Association Française de Sciences Economiques in 1987 and as "Economist of the Year," in 1997, by "Le Nouvel Economiste." From 1991 to 1998, he was the Co-director of the CEPR International Macroeconomics Program. He served as a Consultant to the World Bank, from 1984 to 1997. He has served as an Adviser to the Bolivian government (along with Jeffrey Sachs) and was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University from 1981 to 1982. He has published several books, including Private Lending to Sovereign States, Our Modern Times and The Wealth of the World and the Poverty of Nations, which has translated into 15 languages.