The Cordial Economy--Ethics, Recognition and Reciprocity
Patrici Calvo (Universitat Jaume I)
Cham: Springer, 2018, xvi + 187 pp.
Any standard textbook in economics starts with definitions that students must digest and internalise before being able to engage in economic research. Behind each definition lies a key-concept that must become part of the forma mentis of the acolyte. As Parkin, Powell and Matthews write in the preface to the 7th edition of their successful tome Economics, students must acquire "the economic way of thinking" about reality. All such key-concepts constitute fundamental assumptions about the world, indeed a veritable metaphysics, and some of them have a tenuous and dubious, if not grotesquely inadequate, empirical basis. Calvo's book lists a number of them: "completeness [,] transitivity[,] reflexivity[,] continuity[,] monotonicity[,] convexity[,] independence[,] greed[,] insatiability" (24; emphases removed). In particular, his book tackles two of these assumptions, namely the greed and insatiability of the so-called homo oeconomicus, who acts for the sheer sake of self-interest and aims at accumulating indefinitely as much material wealth as possible standard textbooks' "self-maximising rationality" and "non-satiety", in short.
First of all, the history of the idea of selfishness as the chief motive of human action is outlined and discussed in chapter 1, with special reference to the 18th-century thinkers who gave birth to modern political economy, namely the austere intellectual parent of economics. It is inside that older idea that the later axioms of greed and insatiability are rooted. The historical net that Calvo casts is ample and stretches from Hobbes and La Rochefoucauld in the 16th century to "the axiomatization process of economics throughout the 1950s", and mentions aptly Jevons, Menger, Walras, Robbins and Hayek (14).
Nevertheless, it is the century and the milieu of Mandeville, Butler and, above all, Adam Smith, that are crucial to the emergence of modern political economy and the de facto enshrinement of "psychological selfishness" qua prime motor of human agency in the philosophical anthropology of the West (2). It may be true that Adam Smith himself, as the author of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, would have objected to such a dismal step being taken, but that is precisely what Calvo's account of the history of the idea of economic selfishness displays, as well as of the general reception, predominant understanding and selective reiteration of Adam Smith's own much larger legacy (e.g. "the invisible hand", 20; emphasis removed).
Secondly, in chapter 2, Calvo tackles the process of...