Cooking Dinner for Adam Smith

Elizabeth Dietz

Edited by Rianna Walcott

Art by Arta Ajeti

“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”. Adam Smith famously asserted the rational features of man in The Wealth of Nations in 1776, and inspired a constellation of theories on Homo Economicus that would come to define the field of Economics.  Over two centuries later, journalist Katrine Marçal wonders if these claims hold true. In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? (2016) she points out that Adam Smith in fact had his dinner made by his mother, Margaret Douglas. Why did she make her son dinner? Not simply because of rational self-interest, thinks Marçal, as she develops a feminist critique of economic rationality. What could this perspective add to how we understand the economy? Perhaps it is time Economics students found out.

So who is this Homo Economicus – the rational, self-interested agent who roams markets far and near, helping the economy flow efficiently? Homo Economicus is calculating, utility-maximizing and autonomous. And, as Marçal points out: he is a man. Indeed, a particularly useless one at that. Marçal argues that this theoretical economic agent is an unrealistic model for people’s actual behaviour and experiences – especially those of women. Dripping with sarcasm, she notes that “no baby has ever vomited on him”, and “no baby ever will.” (65). Taking a stab at the so-called rationality of Homo Economicus, Marçal points out the prevalence of irrational choices and inconsistent behaviour. Further, she affirms that we are often driven by forces other than narrow self-interest, such as altruism or social obligation. She is quick to note that the supposed rationality of economic man is enabled by the unacknowledged labour of women. If economic man has been able to act in self-interested ways in the market, it is only because women have been taking care of the children and housework – for free! “Somebody has to be emotion, so he can be reason. […] Somebody has to be self-sacrificing, so he can be selfish. Somebody has to prepare that steak so Adam Smith can say their labour doesn’t matter.” (42). Marçal’s simple yet effective observation is that Margaret Douglas probably cooked her son dinner because of familial ties, affection, or societal expectations – not because of calculations she made regarding her own self-interest.

It is easy to accuse Marçal of attacking a straw man in her repetitive critiques of economic man. The topic of irrationality has been thoroughly addressed by the field of Behavioural Economics, acknowledging how heuristics and biases affect our choices, and developing wider models of self-interest and rationality that incorporate factors like altruism. It is perhaps tempting to ask: why does all of this matter? If Marçal’s project is one of reforming the academic discipline of Economics – why all the fuss about women’s unpaid labour? Why does Marçal insist on picking a fight with Adam Smith, a classic suspect for the ‘pale, male and stale’ trope if there ever was one – instead of engaging with contemporary economists and debates? After all, as writer Malcolm Harris points out in his review of the book: “Adam Smith didn’t invent capitalism – he just gave it an astrology.” However, the relevance of Marçal’s book lies not merely in her critique of neoclassical conceptions of rationality. It is better understood when placed in the wider tradition of feminist critiques of capitalism, along with writers like Selma James, Chandra Mohanty, Silvia Federici and Angela Davis. Marçal is poignant when she questions how we think about the economy, and how we teach it to students. Yet she is at her best when she points out that the act of critiquing our conceptions of the economy can also mean attempting to re-envision the very economic system itself.

It is these sentiments the ‘Rethinking Economics’ movement wishes students would be introduced to. Organiser Ebba Boye (2017) argues for exploring collectivist approaches to the economy, drawing on Marilyn Power’s (2004) definition of feminist economics as based on a recognition of our social connection with others. Similarly, Marçal emphasises how we all come into life as fragile babies from our mothers’ wombs – our fundamental condition is one of dependence, not autonomy. Humorously, she mocks the traditions within Economics and Political Science that instead assert that society starts with ‘independent’ men negotiating social contracts for their individual security. In reality, however, many students receive little exposure to such critiques of mainstream social theory. Marçal persuasively argues that we are instead taught to identify with the feelings of economic man, his “fear of vulnerability, of nature, of emotion, of dependency, of the cyclical, and of everything we can’t understand.” (184). As a consequence, our understanding of the economy is limited. Furthermore, these characteristics, commonly associated with femininity, are devalued – and the same goes for the labour they are linked to.

This might be why the myth that women first ‘went to work’ following the Second World War, and contributed to a boom in the economy, still holds sway. As Marçal forcefully puts it, “Women have always worked. What has happened in the last decades is that women have changed jobs. From working in the home, they’ve taken positions out on the market and started to take payment for their labour.” (4). Economist Diane Coyle (2014) argues that statisticians have not included data on unpaid labour in official measures exactly because it is women who perform the bulk of it. Marilyn Waring (1988) even suggests that the system of measuring GDP was designed to keep women “in their place, precisely because it gives legitimacy to only certain forms of labour. Going back to Adam Smith, it is certainly ironic that, while this type of ‘invisible labour’ seems absent from his thought, women were certainly not absent from his life. Smith remained dependent on his mom until her death, and later on his cousin Janet Douglas. Nevertheless, as Edith Kuiper (2014) points out, he “did not consider women a topic of his theorizing”. As a result, she argues, his deliberate orientation towards the masculine realm set the direction for his moral and economic theories– to the detriment of their insight, according to Marçal.

So where do we go from here? Marçal has written a polemic, not a policy proposal. She imagines gradual change towards the dissolution of patriarchy rather than any radical transformations of the economy. Although some might see this as a weakness, she still manages to maintain refreshing confidence throughout the book. Her rejection of mainstream narratives in economic history is enough to tickle anyone’s curiosity. Marçal approaches Economics with the kind of fierce inquisitiveness that invites students to ask questions as diverse as: what was the role of colonialism in the development of industrial capitalism? Why has domestic work traditionally been unpaid? How did slavery, as well as racial segregation and the politics of difference, play a crucial role in making our economic system profitable? Does economic man really exist? Marçal does not offer any definite answers. But exposing students to her questions would serve to cultivate a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the complexities of economic life.

Works Cited

Boye, Ebba. “Når kvinner teller.” Manifest Tidsskrift. August 16th, 2017.

Accessed October 1st, 2017.

Coyle, Diane. GDP. A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Harris, Malcolm. “Mom’s Invisible Hand.“ The New Republic. June 28th, 2016.
Accessed October 1st, 2017.

Kupier, Edith. “The invisible hands; Adam Smith and the Women in his Life”
The Adam Smith Review, vol. 7, 2014, pp. 62-78.

Marçal, Katrine. Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner? A Story About Women and Economics. Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel. Portobello Books, 2016.

Power, Marilyn. “Social Provisioning as a Starting Point for Feminist Economics.” Feminst Economics, vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, pp. 3-19.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776.

Waring, Marilyn. If Women Counted. Harper & Row, 1988.

About the author

Elisabeth Dietz is studying Economics and Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, with a particular interest in economic history.

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