By Jonathan B. Wight
We all know the delightful Smith passages that are quoted on end, such as this one:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
How much mischief arises from these pithy quotes?
Now along comes Katrine Marçal with an apparently wonderful book on Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story About Women and Economics (Pegasus Books 2016).
You see, Smith’s dinner actually came mainly from his widowed mother, who labored out of love and devotion. To equate her service and sacrifice with self-interest alone ignores Smith’s own critique of Mandeville for this crass and shallow analysis.
Annie Lowrey, in her review of the book in the New York Times notes that:
“Marçal does not just rail against an economy that disadvantages such women and discounts their work — and, oh, does the economy discount it. Anybody who has ever changed a diaper, bathed an aging parent or scrubbed a house clean knows that it is work, though work that comes without a paycheck, overtime or sick days, and work that women often end up doing even when perfectly capable men are available.”
“Marçal also rails against the study of that economy, meaning economics, our favorite latter-day science-religion. Because that care work often happens without any dollars and cents changing hands, it does not show up in G.D.P. reports or economic outlooks — and does not figure as prominently in our own minds as it arguably should. Canada’s statistical office took a stab at figuring out the value of uncompensated care, and came up with roughly one-third of the country’s annual G.D.P. Here in the United States, that would mean something like $6 trillion a year.”
Lowrey goes on to critique Marçal for attacking a straw man, so to speak. Selfish individualism and measurement problems have been addressed (to some degree) by advances in behavioral economics, ethics in economics, and most importantly, feminist economics.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud thinking about who literally cooked Smith’s dinners? Bravo to Marçal for bringing the feminist critique into focus.
[Addendum: This came to my attention today, in a passage from Luke 8:
"After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him,2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."
While 12 men sat at the last supper, how many women labored to make this ministry possible? Could we ask the same thing about Gandhi? These movements had "invisible hands" at work--but not the kind often celebrated in economics books!]