books economics equality

Book review: Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner? by Katrine Marçal

Adam Smith is often described as the father of modern economics, and his descriptions of the market and how they function have become the foundations of the discipline. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner” he famously wrote, “but from their regard to their own self-interest”. But what about Smith’s own dinner, asks Katrine Marçal.

Adam Smith never married, and he lived with his mother. She cooked his dinner. And back in their respective homes, the butcher, baker and brewer probably had wives cooking theirs, and doing the washing, and raising the children. “However you look at the market” writes Marçal, ” it is always built on another economy. An economy that we rarely discuss.”

Who’s doing all the work in that invisible economy? Women. Globally, two thirds of the work that women do is unpaid – mainly housework and care. For men the figure is around a quarter. The economy has always relied on the uncounted and literally unvalued work of women. Adam Smith didn’t notice it and didn’t factor it into his economics. And 250 years later we’re still not paying attention.

Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner? seeks to remedy this situation with a feminist perspective on economics. The author points out the flaws right at the heart of economics, and explains how the consequences of this blindness unfold. For a start, it helps to explain the inequality between men and women, the gaps in pay, why 70% of the world’s poorest are women, why women around the world have worse working conditions, find it harder to access healthcare, get credit or start businesses. But it doesn’t serve men either. Our vision of ‘economic man’ as a rational, maximising individual constantly discounts the importance of relationships, cooperation, altruism, and community in how life actually works. It discounts the role of the human body, of love, and the fact that the starting point of every human life is total helpless dependence.

We’ve built our economics on the assumption that people are selfish and rational, and have continued with these assumptions despite all the evidence that we are more complicated than that. “We govern the world from a place of not knowing who we are”, and if we’re misreading what it is to be human, then it’s hardly surprising that we create institutional structures that don’t serve human flourishing. We create economies that put profits above people, that benefit the richest first, and harm the poor most when they falter. How on earth could you create a functioning economic system with so  much missing information? “If you want the full picture of the economy you can’t ignore what half the population is doing half of the time.”

There are plenty of take-downs of ‘economic man’ out there, but there are few as perceptive as this one. Marçal takes it one step further, looking at the underlying psychology behind our insistence that people are rational, selfish individuals. This idealised view of humanity reveals our insecurities, Marçal suggests – our fear of being dependent, of losing control.

There are few books on economics that are such a joy to read, I should add. Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner? is written with flair and wit, in a straightforward, almost epigramatic style. It’s full of wisdom, humanity, and righteous anger. (Credit should go to the translator too, , as the book was originally written in Swedish.) If you’ve never read anything on feminist economics, this is a great introduction.

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7 comments

  1. “The magic of the market” is not scientific, is it? But that sounds so much nicer than the reality: The boss pays you only a small fraction of the value of what your produce on the job, and unpaid labor at home sustains the job-holder so the job-holder can continue to produce profits for the boss.

  2. So women are irrational but generous and kind but nasty men are fearfully rational and selfish.

    Beyond the misandry there are more strawmen than at my local scarecrow festival.

    Having a pop at Adam Smith is like those evangelicals who think by finding an error in Darwin they disprove evolution. Unlike the Bible the founding texts of Economics like Evolution are just the starting point. Adam Smith had great insight but he’s not the last word. He didn’t invent capitalism but was the first to describe it.

    Economic man was always just a model. A model that Behavioural economics has been expanding for many years. Remember, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. The rational economic man has been a useful model over the years. A theory that has led to a world with the lowest level of poverty in human history isn’t been all bad.

    And the assertion that Margaret Douglas only cooked for her son out of love isn’t necessarily true. Since she was a widow in a world where women had little wealth of their own she depended on her son to pay for her. It might have been an unfair world but in its context she behaved as the rational Economic man theory would have predicted. A useful model after all.

    Remind me, what models are the Radical Feminists bringing to predict anything? None, because we are so irrational that we won’t notice the collectivist economy they espouse won’t fail like all the other collectivist economies. They decry rational thinking; because if you think rationally a lot of what modern Radical Feminist/Intersectionality/Social Justice (note the capitals) thought says makes no sense. Better to assert that everything is irrational so you can try to paint your opponents as being down at your level, just as Russia does with Fake News.

    What I see is a rational attempt by some female economists following what’s in their economic advantage to gain position and hence increased wealth through pushing their economic model that requires them to investigate it. Just as Adam Smith (after a good meal) would have predicted.

    1. Seriously? You need this book more than most. Don’t bother to reply until you’ve read it, because that’s just a ranty list of assumptions you’ve aired there that bear no relation to the contents of the book.

      1. You mean she doesn’t believe that how economics is taught should be changed to a more feminist angle which would, oh what a lucky coincidence!, mean more academic roles and prestige for people who just happen to have her exact skillset.

        Its amazing how nobody ever says that their area of interest requires less importance and fewer resources. Its not like the rational economic man model would have predicted that at all.

        1. I guess we’ll have to chalk feminism up to the list of things that make you see red.

          You have no idea who the author is, what her motives might be, or what the book actually calls for. So either read it and then come back and argue about it, or keep your prejudices to yourself thanks.

          1. I have read it. I didn’t have it to hand yesterday but this quote from page 197 points to the rent seeking. “Feminism’s best-kept secret is just how necessary a feminist perspective is in the search for a solution to our mainstream economic problems”. Meaning we need more feminist economists, just like the author.

            Feminism has different meanings. It use to mean equality which I am very much in favour of. Unfortunately Radical Feminism is often conflated with the wider movement when it has an avowedly anti capitalist framework. To be against Radical Feminism is not to be anti feminist, but that distinction passes you by.

            In practice ‘feminism’ is used as a cover for middle class white women to elbow their way up the career ladder. I have direct experience of a government run recruitment organisation for a public body that promotes female recruitment, such as favouring a female candidate when two are of the same qualifications. When faced with a panel that is 100% white and female it refused to offer the same favourable treatment to male (or BME) candidates despite the head of the panel demonstrating that this was eroding public trust in her organisation. Equality it isn’t

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