'Economicism,' n.: The Intrusion of Economics Into Everything Else

Are we losing a more humanistic understanding of the world when we think about relationships, work, and life in terms of costs and benefits, comparative advantage, and ROI?
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ASPEN, Colo.—Social capital. Comparative advantage. Vertical integration. Synergies. Efficiences. ROI. 

If you are cringing from all that, I apologize; I did not mean to offend you with my careless leveraging of those terms. Then again, many other people should be apologizing, too: The stultifying language of economic theory is becoming more and more prevalent outside the worlds of business and policy. We use terms like "human resources" to discuss ... our coworkers. We run cost-benefit analyses when deciding between the pizza and the pasta. We use language that suggests a world that can be scrutinized and organized according to neat inputs and outputs—according, in other words, to systems.

Leon Wieseltier does not want us to be talking in this way. He does not want us to be understanding the world in this way. As the cultural critic said during a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival, put on by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, this afternoon: "American language, in the discussion of non-economic realms, has been infiltrated by economic metaphors and economic terms."

And that means that those metaphors and terms are infiltrating other fields. "There's economics and economicism," Wieseltier said. Economics is ... well, you know what economics is. Economicism, on the other hand, is allowing the language and the frameworks of economics to permeate other fields. The "ism" version of "economics" is, Wieseltier said, "raising economics as a source of wisdom in realms that have nothing to do with economics." 

So you get things like the Freakonomics franchise. And defenses of the humanities that are based, somewhat awkwardly, on economic logic. ("So basically," Wieseltier says, "you're providing utilitarian arguments for the resistance or indifference to utilitarianism.") And then, of course, you get cringetastic terms like "synergies" and "efficiencies" and "human capital." ("There is something inhumane," Wieseltier said, "about the term 'human capital.'")

You get, overall, a sense that the world can be understood in terms of costs and benefits, inputs and outputs. And this deprives us, Wieseltier argues, of a more nuanced and humanistic—you might even say spiritual—understanding of the world and our place within it. "There isn't the cultural answer to an economic problem," he said, "and there isn't an economic answer to a cultural problem." Things are more complicated than that. They're more messy than that. And though of course there's some validity to the economic approaches—what is culture, after all, but a series of interactions?—they are also, Wieseltier believes, limited in their descriptive capacities. 

"The categories and the vocabulary of the market are being used in realms where they do not belong," Wieseltier said. "And one of the things we have to learn how to do is to distinguish between the realms."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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