Restraining the Genuine Homo Economicus: Why the Economy Cannot be Divorced from its Governance

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Skaperdas, Stergios (2003) Restraining the Genuine Homo Economicus: Why the Economy Cannot be Divorced from its Governance, Economics & Politics 15(2): 135–162.

The Homo economicus of traditional economics is far from being completely self-interested, rational, or as individualistic as he is purported to be; he will haggle to death over price but will not take what he wants by force. Implicitly, he is assumed to behave ruthlessly within a well-defined bubble of sainthood. Based on a simple model, I first examine what occurs when this assumption is relaxed and genuine, amoral Homo economici interact. Productivity can be inversely related to compensation; a longer shadow of the future can intensify conflict; and more competition among providers of protection reduces welfare. The patently inefficient outcomes that follow call for restraining self-interest, for finding ways to govern markets. I then review some of the different ways of creating restraints, from the traditional social contract, to the hierarchical domination of kings and lords, to modern forms of governance. Checks and balances, wider representation, the bureaucratic form of organization, and other ingredients of modern governance can partly be thought of as providing restraints to the dark side of self-interest. Though highly imperfect, these restraints are better than the alternative, which typically involves autocratic, amateurish, and corrupt rule. Then, thinking of most problems in terms of a first-best economic model is practically and scientifically misguided.


Stergios Skaperdas

Stergios Skaperdas

Professor of Economics, UC Irvine