Economics before human capital

As part of my last big dissertation push, I’ve spent the last month reading through introductory economics textbooks published 1890-1960. The variety and content of these textbooks has been very interesting*, and in addition to many relevant passages for my own work on the history of economic statistics and macroeconomic thinking, I’ve also come across other tidbits. Today I found one that I thought I’d share because it shows just how radically a field can shift in some of its basic conceptions in a few decades, and because I think it reads like sociology which fits into a little narrative I have that economic sociology now is very resonant with (the old) institutionalist economics from the 1920s-1940s. The quote comes from Lutz and Stanton (1923, p.11) An Introduction to Economics and shows just how radical the human capital revolution was, at least for some:

Human attributes, talents, and qualities are also scarce, but we must be careful not to regard them as wealth. The reason for the distinction is that the person who possesses the unusual gift or talent is first and last a human being, whose personality is to be respected and whose well-being is the goal of all economic activity. If we class the talents of the gifted as wealth, it is a short and easy step to regard the possessors of these gifts as existing mainly for the services which they render, and not as free and independent persons. Under slavery, the talents of the slave might have been regarded, properly enough as part of the wealth of the owner. It is inconsistent with the principles of human freedom, which we now hold sacred, to confuse man as a means for the production of wealth with man as the end of economic action. No person should be degraded to the position of a mere means to the enjoyment of others. We might be in danger of doing this if we regarded human qualities as wealth, scarce though they might be.

The first author, Lutz, was no crazy radical, but rather a respected tax economist who worked on various government committees and taught at Oberlin, Stanford, and Princeton. And yet it’s hard to imagine a more strident rejection of human capital as a metaphor than calling it “inconsistent with the principles of human freedom.” A different economics for a different time.

* If you’re into that sort of thing, at least.

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1 Comment

  1. Andres

     /  August 2, 2015

    Makes me think of The Winner-Take-All Society; have you seen The Wordly Philosophers? (Sorry but I haven’t read the whole blog.)

    Good luck with your dissertation!