The End of Economic Man

In THE END OF ECONOMIC MAN, George P. Brockway argues for an economics based on the exaltation of human beings over “things” such as GNP and the “bottom line” understood as maximum profit. A monthly columnist for THE NEW LEADER, Brockway acknowledges the productivity of “economic man”—a model of human behavior based on the selfish pursuit of material wealth—up to a point. The “invisible hand” hypothesized by Adam Smith’s WEALTH OF NATIONS has guided the self-interested actions of individuals toward a dramatic increase in our collective wealth and productive capacity. As often noted, this increase has been accompanied by disruptive social upheaval and distributive inequities. Now, according to Brockway, we have reached a point in history where the predominance of “economic man” becomes an obstacle to further economic growth. In short, Brockway believes that Smith’s invisible hand has been superseded by one which produces economic stagnation instead of wealth. At this stage of laissez-faire capitalism, speculation takes precedence over productive investment and unemployment cripples markets. What is needed is a true full-employment policy, lower interest rates, and emphasis on acceptable vs. maximum profits. These quasi-altruistic measures will lead to enhanced private wealth.

Free-market ideology being alive and well in the White House, universities, and various periodicals, this book will be heavily criticized. Advocates of free-market economics will argue that Brockway’s pessimism is counterproductive and that free markets still afford us the best chance of maintaining wealthy, free societies.

Brockway’s most disappointed readers, however, will be those who agree with his assessment. THE END OF ECONOMIC MAN obscures its central point with a meandering stream-of-consciousness style and presents only slim hints as how a “future economics” might be made to work, given our current political and economic institutions. “Economic man” may be an inadequate model, but it is hard to reject totally in the absence of a well-articulated alternative.