Courtesy Evangelical Outpost and the always-interesting 33 Things, here’s a video on the strangeness of the economics of incentives and punishments:
The lesson here is that people in real life, body and soul, are not simple rational economic actors who respond only to material realities.
We exist in the context of social webs and relationships. But we also have non-material faculties; consciences, free choice, creativity, speculative reason.
Homo economicus is useful as a partial model of human behavior, but it is not exhaustive, comprehensive, or reliably predictive. Why do economists try to universalize this model?
My theory is that it is in part a response to the post-Englightenment subversion of the unified field of learning. Theology was displaced, albeit briefly, as the queen of the sciences. Philosophy could not hold on, and was torn down by the clamoring crowd of other disciplines. Now each discipline seeks to place itself upon the throne, thus we get tyrannizing and universalizing claims from every academic discipline. Everyone tries to explain everything in the terms of their own discipline, and these explanations are therefore by necessity reductive.
For a bit more, see “Requiem for Homo Economicus,” from the Journal of Markets & Morality 10, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 321-38, in which Edward O’Boyle argues, “Burying homo economicus and substituting homo socioeconomicus brings the basic unit of economic analysis out of the individualism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the personalism of the twentieth century.”
To these models, we ought also add homo religiosus, all the while recognizing the each are models and therefore limited, partial, and provisional relative to the comprehensive picture of humanity in imago Dei.