Monday, May 21, 2012

Human Capital and Neoliberalism

Around two weeks ago, I had an opportunity to attend a debate on Neoliberalism Thought at the University of Chicago between Gary Becker (Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago), Bernard Harcourt (Professor of Law and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Chicago) and François Ewald (former assistant to Michael Foucault and Professor of Insurance at Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris). I think the quality of the debate is very good and it would be a pity if I don't share the ideas raised in such debate in this blog.

First of all, the debate spins on the idea of Homo Economicus or the Economic Rational Men by Gary Becker. Michael Foucault, a famous French philosopher and historians, believe that Gary Becker's idea on economics rationality provides the necessary theoretical foundation of Neoliberalism. This is interesting because usually Neoliberalism is more associated with political economic thoughts rather than pure theoretical economic thought.

I think even most of the time, when Indonesian people talk about Neoliberalism, they think about the idea of excessive free market, non governmental intervention, injustices by corporations and dictators, etc. Of course, I heavily doubt that this is the correct interpretation of Neoliberalism since pure Capitalism does not support any crony capitalism, dictatorism, business without liabilities, and so on. See my previous post on this issue here.

For now, let us return to Foucault ideas. He is a proponent of the idea that history is determined by the power relationship that controls men. Law and morality are things that are defined by those who have power and authority, and therefore they might be simply an illusion for the society. However, Foucault finds some consolations in Gary Becker's concept of Homo Economicus, which according to him is liberating.

Gary Becker, which is also a Nobel Laureate, is the proponent of idea that the science of economics can be used as a powerful tool to analyze almost all, if not all, of human behavior and activities. He introduces the use of economic analysis on crime, family and discrimination and is also considered as a part of Law and Economics development at the University of Chicago.

Within Becker's theory, human is viewed as a rational being that always wants to maximize his own interest. It does not mean that human has a perfect capacity of calculating the entire costs and benefits of his action. It simply means that when they are making their decision, they pay attention and respond to incentives, and thus, to certain extent, human behaviors are predictable.

A separate note though, even Becker agrees with Foucault that a perfect rational men is a fictional concept. What matters is that the theory is useful to understand the world in an insightful way by taking certain aspects of human behavior and make a simple model. After all, all theories are fictions, and a good theory of fiction is the one that works the best among many other fictions.

Then, why this kind of theory is liberating? According to Foucault, economists are seekers of truth, their analysis is not based on moral or legal issues, rather they focus on human behavior and incentives, and they also prioritize liberty (through free market concept). This is important for Foucault who sees the possibility of maintaining order without any coercion or doctrine as presupposed by laws and morality.

But the Neoliberalism view of Gary Becker is not totally free from any problem. Although it may be a liberating theory it can also be used to suppress the people and here we are moving to Gary Becker theory of Human Capital which is an essential part of Neoliberalism. Becker believes that human capital is very important, i.e. investing in people, making them to be a better and more productive person which will contribute to the welfare of the society.

The problem with that view, at least according to Harcourt and Foucault, is that once human is viewed as a part of capital, the government may favor certain group above other groups, discriminating and investing only in people who will produce the highest benefits and left the ones who are bad to suffer in the slumps. An example would be the case of mass incarcerations in the United States that target most of African Americans and poor people based on various criminal actions. Eugenics can also be a problem here since there was a time where the Government of US actually allow the sterilization of imbeciles and people with mental disorders.

Furthermore, viewing human as only a part of capital production could be degrading, i.e. human is viewed like a machine with the sole purpose of producing more capital and whose value is solely determined on how much capital will be produced and accumulated by him in the long run. I take this as the modern critics of Neoliberalism and Capitalism in general.

Becker's response was simple. His theory on human capital is established to liberate the people and while he agree that some aspects of economics theory on production and capital can be used to analyze issues on human capital, human capital is still a separate subject (and thus the reason why he makes a separate class on human capital in the University of Chicago).

From any point of view, human cannot be fully compared with machines. We can put machine in the warehouses and easily disassemble them whenever we want, we can't do that with human. Furthermore, the theory put a lot of stress in building human capital so that everyone may reap the benefit of social welfare. It includes investment in education, on the job training, health, etc.

The most interesting response from Becker is that his theory of human capital focuses on efficiency, but most of the time, things that are efficient, are also equitable. Through his theory, Becker want to show that human is the most important part of our capital. By investing in people, we hope that they can develop themselves and free to make their own life decisions without any interference. He also notes that there is an underinvestment in poor people and that is actually an inefficient thing to do, since better human capital always lead to better welfare maximization.

I completely agree with Becker's notion. This is indeed the main purpose of introducing the concept of human capital, preserving freedom and reducing paternalism, finding the most efficient way to allocate resources among the people. And I think this should be the main idea of Neoliberalism. It is just too bad that politicians and even some academics are using this concept in such a misleading way that they confuse the original concept of Neoliberalism that focuses on liberation and freedom of the people with crony capitalism, dictatorism, and the freedom to do anything without any legal liabilities which are not even parts of original concept of Neoliberalism.      

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