Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A review

Date Posted: Thursday 27th August 2020

A book review of:

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner by Katrine Marçal

Publisher: Granta Publications, 2012 (2015)

by Anna Johnston

What’s self-interest got to do with it?

‘’We cannot challenge economic man without feminism, and we can hardly change anything of importance today without challenging economic man’’

Katrine Marçal’s pithy and punchy book, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, unpacks the underlying tenets, and assumptions inherent in economic thinking from the time of Adam Smith in the late eighteenth century, to today.

Using the brilliantly simplistic example of Smith’s mother Margaret Douglas she points a spotlight on the glaring flaws in the basic economic principles that underpin classical and neo-classical economic theory and modelling.

Smith was deeply devoted to his mother, and she doted on him. Whilst penning seminal works such as The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith was supported, fed, watered and generally kept alive by the ‘invisible hand’ that was his mother.

So presumably as a person, he was acutely aware of the reliance of a functioning society on unpaid labour such as caring, cleaning and cooking and appropriately framed his economic treatise around these fundamentally important activities?

No, of course he didn’t.

So, what does underpin economics as Adam Smith saw it? What were the fundamental economic assumptions that have led to the hyper-financialised world we see before us?

Smith wanted to examine the economic world as a natural scientist would approach and explain physical phenomena. Following the footsteps of Newton, he surmised that just as physical science could be explained by breaking down structures to its smallest (at the time) particle, the atom, so too could economists break down economic spheres, occurrences and behaviours to their smallest unit, the individual or economic man.

In many ways this appears quite logical, but as Marçal explains through the course of the book, economic man- and it is ALWAYS a man- does not behave like anyone you’d want to know.

Economic man is a strange creature- he needs no-one, acts only according to self-interest, and is always rational and anonymous in his choices. Crucially, he was also not born. He does not have family and is unobscured by relationships or emotions.

Clearly, this is going to present some problems when we try to apply this alien invention to actual economic activity. Marçal is razor sharp in exposing the multiple defects of economic man to show that far from being independent, rational, self-interested economic actors, in reality we act with emotion, altruism, care, competitiveness, and a strong sense of justice; ‘our feelings create our stories- and our stories become movements on the market’.

Marçal details many different pieces of research to show this. A particularly startling example came from a group of psychologists finding that from the age of seven upwards, we begin to consider justice when we make decisions. Amazingly then, it was only those under the age of seven that acted as selfishly as economic man. Our economic models are based on assumptions about greed and self-interest that we outgrow in childhood.

‘’Since Adam Smith’s time, the theory about economic man has hinged on something else standing for care, thoughtfulness and dependency. Economic man can stand for reason and freedom precisely because someone else stands for the opposite.’’

Marçal argues that undermining the inherent importance of altruism, care, kindness and support for each other as key features of economic theory is deeply connected to the position of these traits within socially gendered roles. These qualities and the action of caring in both paid and unpaid work have been consistently left out or undervalued within the economic sphere precisely because they are constructed as ‘women’s work’.

‘Actually, the idea of economic man is an efficient way of excluding women. We have historically allocated women certain activities and said that she must do them because she is a woman. Then we create an economic theory that states that these activities have no meaning…Economic mans’ primary characteristic is that he is not a woman…Woman can choose between trying to be him, or being his opposite. Complement and balance his hard logic of rationality and self interest.’’

We know women are more likely to be in low paid, insecure and part-time employment. The omission of unpaid care from economic life, and the undervaluing of feminised work spheres such as care work, teaching, nursing and the gender pay gap across all industries are no coincidence.

In understanding the modern incarnation of economic man, and his usage, we must realise that his sociopathic behaviours and the simplistic and flawed economic models built in his name reproduce and ‘naturalise’ these structural oppressions and injustices. As Marçal notes; ‘When we are all rational individuals, questions like race, class and sex become irrelevant. Why, we are all free…if you torture the data enough, eventually it will reveal the truth: everything is economic man’.

Whilst economic man appeared to drop to earth fully formed, real humans- Smith included- are interdependent, requiring a great deal of care, kindness, support, education and social contact to become ‘productive’ members of society. Marçal cites feminist economics as the strongest tool in our collective armoury to show the hugely important and central role of these undervalued, often invisible contributions to economic activity.

Straightforward and accessible, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? debunks the economic man behind much economic theory and modelling. Each chapter chips away a little more at the assumptions and logics proffered by free marketeers and it is hugely persuasive in conveying the urgency with which we must employ feminist economics to change the deeply unequal gendered, racist and classist assumptions that underpin current political and economic structures.

‘’Feminism’s best kept secret is just how necessary a feminist perspective is in the search for a solution to our mainstream economic problems. It is involved in everything from inequality to population growth to benefits to the environment and the care crunch that will soon face many ageing societies…Wave economic man off from the platform and then build an economy and a society with room for a greater spectrum of what it means to be a human.’’


Anna Johnston is a Research Assistant at the Women’s Budget Group