The death of “Economic Man”, characterized not just as greedy, lazy and selfish, which to some extent we all are, but as only greedy, lazy and selfish, will be a balm to the soul
The applications of this travesty of the human condition have done immense damage. To take one instance, since Economic Man is incapable of being morally load-bearing, he cannot be trusted. He will only work if incentivized by material benefit, so his behaviour must be watched like a hawk, and his rewards linked to the observed performance of contract-specified actions. “Eat what you kill”, the phrase used in the investment banks to describe their system of monitored rewards, is implicitly normative: you get what you deserve, and you deserve what you get. Britain’s employers have been taught this in business schools and the consequence is manifest in the annual Jobs and Skills Survey. Twenty-five years ago, most people said they had enough autonomy to do their job properly; that has since dropped by 40 per cent.
The reduction of workers to automata has resulted in a massive loss of job satisfaction, and with it of intrinsic motivation: it is hard to be loyal to an organization that manifestly distrusts you. It has also forfeited the good judgement that comes from using tacit knowledge – the expertise that can only be acquired through experience. By definition, this cannot be codified, specified, monitored and incentivized. In Britain especially, as the public sector lost self- confidence and began to ape business, the same approach – specify, monitor, incentivize – was adopted in public services. The consequences of this confident paternalism in social work – a context high in intrinsic motivation, tacit knowledge and teamwork – have been witheringly revealed, most notably by Hilary Cottam in Radical Help (2017), which, as its subtitle explains, proposes “how we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the Welfare State”.
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