Welfare economics ran into market failures because of economic man. The view that all transactions are performed by an individual actor looking only after his own interest is relevant for the pursuit of private goods, but not public. If the problem isn’t structured from the point of view of a group, then it all falls apart due to freeriding. If the economic analysis isn’t contained within a sphere of voluntary reciprocity, then the desire for each and every to fulfill only their needs tells a story of everyone taking and no-one giving.
But we don’t live as the caveman did defending a little hilltop. We live in families, tribes, cities and countries. We participate in work life and school life and sports life and associational life. When our diplomatic family would show up at a new post halfway around the world, we’d be met at the airport and driven to our housing by a couple from the embassy. Co-workers would be sure we knew where to shop, how to get the kids in school, and other pressing local customs. I was recently reminiscing with a military guy who nodded knowingly when I relayed how, for years, I had missed the strong ties of service personnel when I got out into the work force.
And because these are lifestyles, the assumption of the group and its obligations can be taken for granted. The compacts of who takes care of whom at different stages of life, over decades, makes for messy accounting. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be tracked. It just means we have yet to do so. It’s taken forty years, since a little rebellion in the 70’s, to name a labor wedge. And now there’s credit for sweat labor. And then there are the Wikipedia contributors, and many more cooperative types making cool stuff.
The independent actor, however, is so ingrained in the US psyche that the conceptualization of a group as a consumer and supplier slips easily out of the analysis. To further muck up the landscape, an institution thought to be public, acts as an economic man with regard to anyone outside the group. Take the teachers’ unions actions regarding COVID as an example. The focus is on the public health and well-being of the teachers, and the teachers alone. The initiatives of their efforts do not include the public health of the school children nor their families. There is no consideration of other public objectives or benefits to keeping children in the classroom. The services the unions are negotiating are only public to dues paying members.
Economic man is a lonely notion. Have no fear, he lives in groups! But his behavior traits are accurate and, as it turns out, groups can be selfish too. To keep it all straight, one must declare an anchoring point of view in any analysis.