Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is the title of a 2012 (2016 in the US) book by Katrine Marçal, a Swedish journalist. The title question is based on a famous bit from Adam Smith’ The Wealth of Nations*:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

But the butcher, the brewer and the baker did not cook for Smith. That job went to his mother, Margaret Douglas, later joined by his cousin, Jane Dauglas. These women took care of Smith’s household until they died. Smith never mentions their labor.

Marçal explores the impact of Smith’s omission on the study of economics. One thread is the feminist story: much of the crucial work of care is provided through benevolence, not for money, and so it not considered part of the economy or part of the field studied by economists. Marçal points out that when an economist marries his housekeeper, the GDP goes down.

Smith’s omission makes ti possible to make “markets” the center of the study of economics. Eventually theorists dreamed up the silly story of Homo Economicus with his rational calculation of individual advantage as the essential human characteristic. We identify that rationality as masculine as opposed to feminine in the context of male-centered history and culture. In feminist terms, homo economicus is ungendered and dominant; women are the other in every way.

Instead of this stunted theory, Marçal shows that the economy isn’t just about the production of things for the market. A huge part of the work of any society is care for one another. We care for children, for the aged, the sick, the abandoned, the orphan and the widow, those injured in war and those injured in mind. We care for our planet, our air, our parks and our public spaces, our cities, our lakes and rivers. Much of that care has nothing to do with markets. We do it solely out of benevolence, in direct contradiction to Smith.

If economists are ignoring the importance of care in the functioning of an economy, what are they doing? They tell us that they study the allocation of scarce resources. This is from the introductory textbook Economics by Samuelson and Nordhaus, 18th Ed. 2005:

Economics is the study of how societies use scarce resources to produce valuable commodities and distribute them among different people. Id. at 4.

Scarcity and efficiency are the important elements of this definition. Care for the vulnerable must not involve a scarce resource under this definition, probably because everyone blithely assumes that women will do it for free, and there are plenty of women. Importantly, care isn’t controlled by the demands of efficiency. If the baby cries, what does it even mean to talk about efficiency? We do whatever it takes and for as long as it takes. So taking care of each other is excluded from the study of economics from the outset under Samuelson’s definition.

In his textbook Introduction to Macroeconomics, 6th Ed. 2012, N. Gregory Mankiw quotes the 19th C. British economist Alfred Marshall: “Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.”. Id. at viii. I’d guess Marshall meant “Malekind”. Mankiw adds that The word economics springs from a Greek word meaning household, and he talks about how households have to make decisions about who goes to work and who cooks, and who gets the extra dessert. Then he drops the idea that cooking dinner is part of the economy. Apparently when Mankiw talks about the ordinary business of life, he means “male business”, not changing poopy diapers or making dinner. It’s funny when you see it from the perspective Marçal demonstrates.

Of course Marçal is right to say that economics ignores a huge chunk of the work necessary to maintain us in the ordinary business of our lives. That doesn’t make it useless, to be sure. Marçal points out the utility of the data and statistics gathered by economists. But it does mean that the models economists are creating are likely to be useless because they purposefully ignore a crucial element of ordinary life. And it means that economics isn’t a plausible basis for thinking about human nature.

The book is informed by feminist theory, but it isn’t theoretical. It is an application of feminist theory to economics. Marçal uses uses words like “gendered”; and she writes:

It’s only woman who has a gender. Man is human. Only one sex exists. The other is a variable, a reflection, complementary. P. 159.

Then she gives concrete examples that make the meanings perfectly clear for people like me who don’t know anything about feminist theory. The result is that I began to leann a little about the theory, and it was much easier than trying to learn it on my own from primary sources**.

Marçal devotes several chapters to eviscerating the economists dream person, Homo Economicus, the ungendered center of their universe, the Man we all must become. These chapters expose the shallow thinking that neoliberal economists like Gary Becker bring to the discussion of human nature. She makes neoliberalism look childish and silly. I particularly liked the discussion of the hidden emotional vulnerabilities of neoliberal Man. We have to coddle Mr. Market, and steady him when he gets the jitters, which happens all the time, and which, of course, requires tons of money.

Marçal writes clear, direct and engaging prose. Like every good book this one clarified several inchoate ideas that have been floating around in my head, and it gave me several new ideas I hope to take up in future posts. I am grateful to my excellent daughter who gave me this book.

* Here it is in context. I leave for my skeptical readers the pleasure of picking at the holes in this passage.

// In almost every other race of animals, each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.//

**Another good book for this purpose is Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

19 replies
  1. Neil says:

    Perhaps a wider reading of Adam Smith’s works would provide important context for the arguments made in the Wealth of Nations. For instance, the following are from The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

    “When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?”

    “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

    “If there is any society among robbers and murderers, they must at least. . . .abstain from robbing and murdering one another. So beneficence is less essential than justice is to the existence of society; a lack of beneficence will make a society uncomfortable, but the prevalence of injustice will utterly destroy it.”

    “Two different sets of philosophers have attempted to teach us this hardest of all the lessons of morality. One set have laboured to increase our sensibility to the interests of others; another, to diminish that to our own. The first would have us feel for others as we naturally feel for ourselves. The second would have us feel for ourselves, as we naturally feel for others.”

    “And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.”

    “The prudent man always studies seriously and earnestly to understand whatever he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that he understands it; and though his talents may not always be very brilliant, they are always perfectly genuine”

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for this material, and for reminding me that Smith was a lot more than an early economist, he had a strong philosophical bent as well. When I was writing the post, I read the Wikipedia entry on Smith. He was friends with the Scots philosopher David Hume among others.

      One of my inchoate thoughts is that people tend to focus on a tiny aspect of something, in this case the first quote in this post, and drive it to a far out logical conclusion, while excluding all other thoughts, caveats, context and even common sense. Maybe that, or something like that if I could frame it better, is what happened to Smith.

      When I read quotes like yours, it makes me think that a bunch of misanthropes latched on to that quote as the foundation for their caricature of human nature.

    • Melanie says:

      Thanks, Neil.  Somewhere in the Wealth of Nations I remember a passage that went something like “capitalism without compassion will devour everything around it, and, eventually, itself.”  Perhaps you are the scholar who knows the direct quote.

        • John Casper says:


          I’ve got a longer assessment of Prof. Horwitz’s embarrassingly bad review in moderation. In that response I misspelled his name. Sorry.

          If Prof. Horwitz knew anything about Adam Smith, he would have mentioned “the natural progress of opulence.” WN, 377

          Since you and Prof. Horwitz are friends, you can go together to watch “The Big Short.” Based on his review, you both need to see it.

          OT, another book that puts Smith in a better light is Jerry Evensky’s “Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Readers Guide.”

        • John Casper says:


          WRT Prof. Horwitz’s claim that the underwriting was the fault of government “subsidies, mandates, and regulations,” please ask him which caused this.

          “In New York City in 2005 and 2006, however, black “affinity marketing” mortgage brokers fanned out through poorer areas, targeting homeowners with substantial equity in their homes. Edward Jordan, a seventy-eight-year-old retired postal worker, has owned his home since 1975 and was just a few years from paying off his mortgage. He was approached by a broker who told him that he was overpaying; she could get him a rate of only 1 percent. Jordan sought out another broker, who confirmed that was so, and placed a mortgage for him with Countrywide. Total fees were $20,000. After the deal was closed, Jordan, who had trusted the brokers, discovered that the interest rate would quickly escalate to as high as 9.95%. When he complained to Countrywide, the firm’s loss-mitigation group offered him an interest only alternative, but at a higher rate, and with steadily escalating principal, so monthly payments would eventually rise to several times Jordan’s income. Jordan who lives solely on his pension is now afraid he will lose his home.” ( p.70)
          That’s from another book Prof. Horwitz hasn’t read, Charles R. Morris’ “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown.”
          I blame Cato’s editors as much as Prof. Horwitz.  They let through  something that a real conservative, Jack Kemp, debunked years before he died.

          Economist William Lazonic gets the democratic capitalism Adam Smith espoused.  
          “To make society materially better off, productivity needs to grow over time. The extent which productivity growth contributes to economic well being depends on how the productivity gains are distributed among a society’s members.” (p. 77)


          “Rethinking Capitalism”

          When it’s working, it’s positive sum, not zero sum, and certainly not the negative sum we’ve got now.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Thank you.

    A usually unspoken priority here is efficiency for whom.  It is not efficiency in the abstract.  It is not self-sufficiency, which economics wants banished.  It is usually efficiency from the perspective of those seeking to aggregate the most resources into the fewest hands.

    Economic “efficiency” converts the qualified self-sufficiency of family, clan and village into monetized dependency on the industrial factory and its owner.  Modest and varying self-sufficiency becomes dependency.  Discarded along efficiency’s yellow brick road are the social obligations inherent in community.  Benevolent Quaker chocolatiers once competed with imperial Gilded Age excess; today, corporations have cast off their post-FDR social obligations in favor of being sufficiently predatory.

    The irony for economic theory is that interdependence among actors with varying levels of choice became dependency in a monetized economy, which severely limits choice.  Economics obscures this by claiming we are are all rational actors, with full information and valid choices from among which we choose wisely.  The simplest observation disproves this long before we get to to the tens of billions spent yearly by the persuasion industry.  Economics attempts to make us complicit in our own demise, as it directs resources to the benefit the large accumulator of capital.


  3. Noncooperator says:

    Humans are not the only mature animal that relies on others of its own species.  Apes, monkeys, canines(packs), fish(schools), birds(flocks), herd animals like horses, bison immediately come to mind.

    • sillybill says:

      Kropotkin noticed this in the late 1800’s while conducting research in Siberia, he later used the info when writing ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’. This idea of Mutual Aid later became one of the foundational principles of anarchist self organization.


  4. Larry Nowers says:

    Love it, anything that questions the dismal science .  I find it interesting that as we become less healthy as a society our medical expenses increase GDP.   Just think if we all became obsessed with our ears and we all spent $25k on ear cosmetic surgery,  GDP would increase over 25%.

  5. Jason Fordham says:

    Very nice.

    “Adam, aren’t you hungry? It’s getting late, you know.”

    “I am, mother, but I want to finish this paragraph about economics being more important than benevolence. And you’ve just given me an idea!”

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The list of un- and under-compensated is long.  Spousal, parent and childcare ranks high, not just in the home, but outside the home and throughout life: child care, teaching pre-K through high school, counseling, social services, cleaning, food and food service, “hospitality”, ancillary medical services, elder care.  The list is long.

    Smith may be the origin of this male-centered analysis, but he wrote over two hundred years ago.  That it continues so thoroughly to dominate the culture – despite attempts at the periphery to change it – is all the more reason why critiques like Marcal’s are so sorely needed.


  7. Melanie says:

    Another brilliant look at this subject is by Riane Eisler in her “The Real Wealth of Nations”.  Thank you for giving me another book to read and recommend, especially in connection with the 8th March Women’s Strike.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Useful data points on this theme from a Guardian article written by Bernie Sanders’s 82 year-old brother, Larry Sanders, who lives in the UK:

    “Every year family, friends and neighbours provide £55bn of unpaid care, four in 10 people in care homes pay for themselves, and a staggering 1.2 million people over 65 with care needs receive no help at all. We are simply not providing enough care and support for people in the community….People who are medically well are stuck in hospital because there is nowhere suitable for them to go and too little support for them at home. The system is failing….”


    The takeaway is that the US and the UK are run by leaders living on broken promises. The health systems in those countries, for example, are failing because political leaders and their corporate patrons choose that they should fail. It is a price of lower taxes and an ideology that decrees that government not succeed. Only the market should succeed. So when necessary, government should subsidize private profits. When government programs threaten to succeed, they need a little push out a high window.

  9. ca says:

    David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years points out that Adam Smith had Persian writers in his library, in Latin translation, from whom he got not just ideas but specific examples.  (I.e., the efficiency of a pin or needle factory.)

    One key difference between Smith and his sources?  Smith named competition as the root of trading; the Persians cited mutual aid.

    Graeber isn’t focused on the feminist angle, but he demolishes Smith nonetheless in his sprawling history of debts.  It’s a fascinating read.

  10. John Casper says:


    If this blog has a contest for worst link ever, I’m nominating yours.

    From your friend Prof. Horowitz:

    “The housing boom and bust was driven not by unregulated financial markets and “greed is good” capitalists, however, but by the Federal Reserve’s attempts to manage market outcomes and political actors who claimed to be altruistically helping a wider range of people obtain houses through a variety of subsidies, mandates, and regulations.”

    Can Prof. Horowitz add and subtract?
    Can you explain to him that it would have been less expensive–$750 billion – $2 trillion–to bail out the underlying assets, the mortgages, than the $5 to $15 trillion we spent to bail out the leverage.


    Mark Adelson—who practiced mortgage-backed securities law before moving on to careers at Moody’s Investors Service and Nomura Securities—authored “The Deeper Causes of the Financial Crisis: Mortgages Alone Cannot Explain It.”

    “Although losses on residential mortgage loans may have served as the spark that ignited a powder keg of true underlying causes, the mortgage losses themselves are not one of the true causes. If mortgage losses cannot explain the financial crisis, what can? The immediate causes seem to be financial firm behaviors, particularly high leverage and strong risk appetite.”


    Any idea when Prof. Horowitz will discover derivatives?

    U.S. taxpayers already provide $193 trillion in free derivative insurance coverage.

    “The notional amount of derivative contracts held by insured U.S. commercial banks and savings associations in the first quarter increased by $12.0 trillion (6.6 percent) to $192.9 trillion from the previous quarter (see table 10).”


    “For perspective, annual U.S. GDP—Gross Domestic Product—is around $18 trillion.”


    “Congressional appropriations to the Pentagon from 2001-2016 have totaled more than $8.5 trillion.”


    “Social Security’s Trust fund is around $2.3 trillion.”


    Congress didn’t require “pay-as-you-go” taxes or spending cuts for that $193 trillion.

    Why isn’t the insurance industry screaming that government is “crowding” them “out” of that market?

    Why is Prof. Horowitz opposed to individual responsibility, lenders taking responsibility for underwriting?

    Even Hollywood gets it. See “The Big Short.”


    Can you ask Prof. Horowitz to provide links to the “variety of subsidies, mandates, and regulations,” he mentioned?

    Speaking of subsidies, please show Prof. Horowitz this: “Fed Authorized 100% Payout by AIG on CDS.”


    Maybe you can explain to Prof. Horowitz that the situation is actually a lot worse, because now that $193 trillion in free insurance is laundered through the FDIC. He might not understand that’s the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

    It began no later than 2011.

    “FDIC To Cover Losses On $75 Trillion Bank of America Derivative Bets”


    Not everyone agrees that derivatives should fall under the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s mandate and in case of bankruptcy have a super priority ahead of depositors. In 2011 the Journal of Finance published “Should Derivatives Be Privileged in Bankruptcy?”

    “Under OLA, all Qualified Financial Contracts (QFCs), which include swaps, repos, and other derivatives, are transferred into a solvent bridge bank, such that counterparties are fully protected and therefore “prohibited from terminating their contracts and liquidating and netting out their positions” (see p. 9 in FDIC (2011)).” (p.38)


    From Footnote 1: Similarly, under FDIC receivership there is essentially no stay on derivative contracts. If not transferred to a new counterparty by 5 pm EST on the business day after the FDIC has been appointed receiver, derivative, swap, and repo counterparties can close out their positions and take possession of collateral.” (p.46)


    From the article’s abstract: “Derivatives enjoy special status in bankruptcy: They are exempt from the automatic stay and effectively senior to virtually all other claims.”


    From Ellen Brown’s “A Crisis Worse than ISIS? Bail-Ins Begin:”

    “Dodd-Frank states in its preamble that it will ‘protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts.’ But it does this under Title II by imposing the losses of insolvent financial companies on their common and preferred stockholders, debt holders, and other unsecured creditors. That includes depositors, the largest class of unsecured creditor of any bank.

    Title II is aimed at ‘ensuring that payout to claimants is at least as much as the claimants would have received under bankruptcy liquidation.’ But here’s the catch: under both the Dodd Frank Act and the 2005 Bankruptcy Act, derivative claims have super-priority over all other claims, secured and unsecured, insured and uninsured.”


    Isn’t FDIC insurance for derivatives like the federal taxpayers covering blackjack bets by dealers and gamblers? If so, does the FDIC lose every time a derivative clears?

  11. Evangelista says:

    Journalist Katrine Marçal’s effort to advanced herself to scholar appears to be a failure.  The reason, she failed to learn the basics of her subject areas before launching herself.  She failed to learn what economics is, what economics is not, what is economics and what is not economics.
    Instead, she took a single phrase from a single line of Adam Smith’s treatise on economics and, oblivious to the meaning Smith sought to convey in the line and phrase, or what economics compasses as a dicipline, launched on a tangent, using constructions she generated herself in her own imagination for starting blocks, leaping from her own leap from Smith’s observation that ‘benevolence’ plays no part in economy to a discussion of ‘economics’ void of real economics.  
    ‘Benevolence’, as Adam Smith used the word (we may better use ‘altruism’, the engagement in actions without specific expectation of defined reward, since consciousness is implicit in the word ‘benevolence’, which, carrying a meaning, today, of conscious action for others with perhaps undefined reward, what Smith would have defined “hypocritical benevolence”, may be, for the construct of ‘reward’ an economic component) means acting without expectation of specific compensatory benefit, action for the action being needed, or ‘to be done’, or within one’s abilities, not for ‘reward’ or ‘compensation’.
    Economy, as used in economics, as used by Adam Smith, necessarily implies trade, exchange, expectation of return, compensation, reciprocation.  Smith’s butcher, baker and brewer were merchants engaged in trade.  Their trade was controlled by self-interest, hence, was economic.  
    In Smith’s day the smallest economic unit was family.  The family could be of one, or two, or, with children, grandchildren, aging parents and incompetent or otherwise dependent adherent relations, extensive.  Those in a family acted for the family, and if any produced, produced for the family.  Daughters and grand-daughters, for example, would spin, weave, sew, provide elder care, infant care, babysitting and so forth for family need (benevolently), not economic incentive (remunerative self-interest).
    Ms Marçal, being unaware of this, was unable to perceive it, or include it in her treatise.  Instead, she perceives the activities of women she identifies, Adam Smith’s mother and cousin, to be uncompensated employment.  She puts a Feminist turn to her perception by rising in offended indignity to complain against the non-compensation.  She faults Adam Smith for not defining in-family activities economic, and for not including them in his treatise on economy.  She failed completely to recognize that Adam Smith, in his sentence, from which she launched, stated specifically that such activities were not component in economics, that ‘benevolence’ and benevolent activities operate in a sphere apart from economics.
    Not only does Ms Marçal’s ignorance of history and operative principles of unit-family leave her unable to comprehend such units being isolate from economy, it leaves her unable to perceive existence of such principles, or, from those, family-history, which, were she able to perceive it, would provide her where with all to define family-principles and therefrom understand what Adam Smith was writing.
    Ms Marçal’s treatise also demonstrates ignorance of Feminism, what Feminism is, what its purpose was, why it was perpetrated, perpetuated and promoted.  Ms Marçal’s treatise shows her to have no comprehension that Feminism is an economic construction, that ‘feminists’ are economic units, women ‘removed’, or encouraged to separate, from the family-unit former smallest economic component, the component that dealt with butcher, baker and brewer, other trades-persons, and merchants and employers.  In the family-unit the ‘breadwinner’ was not a separable component, he was a conduit for income into the unit, which others of the unit would trade with to the merchants.  Separating the family-unit into components, however done, through ‘second-income’ employments, Feminism, divorce etc., provided means to make the separated components each separate consumer units:  Break a family unit into two parts with divorce, for example, you have two units, two rents or mortgages, two purchasers frequenting shops, two workers available (needing) for compensatory employments etc.  You also have units too small to handle child and elder care, creating economies in those areas, child-care for compensation, elder care needing to be paid for.  More jobs that are paid, more taxes paid, more fees and so forth.
    Katrine Marçal’s treatise showing her this ignorant, and incompetent in scholarship,  it would probably be a waste of time and effort to ask if she did any research and knew at all what she was talking about when she wrote that Adam Smith’s mother and cousin cooked for him.

    Did they?  Did the women of Adam Smith’s household really cook for him?  Or did they manage his household for him?  Did they shop for chops and bread and beer and prepare those in “his” kitchen?  Or did they direct servants, as was common in Adam Smith’s time in households of Adam Smith’s class?  Did “Adam Smith”, to use anacronous twentieth century terminology and construction, instead of “the Adam Smith family”, reflecting the common ownership of a family-unit of that time, employ a cook, and other domestic staff, as was customary in English households of Adam Smith’s class in his time?  Did, or does, Ms Marçal know?  Did she research?  
    Did she even seek to discover, before she leapt to her barricades in offense against Adam Smith’s non-Feminist-Divided culture, how that culture perceived and defined its family units, or how the members of those units perceived their units and themselves?  Did Adam Smith’s mother and cousin perceive themselves owned chattel, as Ms Marçal indicates herself to perceive them?  Or beholden to and subject to and ‘owned by’ Adam Smith, as Ms Marçal’s Feminist beliefs coerce her limited mind, and so many additional similarly limited minds today, to define them?   Or did Ms Marçal create a fictional construction, a Feminist propaganda mosaic, to substitute for reality, to replace the reality of history, to make a whole-cloth new imagination-imaging of the time and place and culture Adam Smith observed in and wrote in to produce his “Wealth of Nations”?
    Does, or can, Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” have any place in this new, modern, divorced-from-reality world of modern construction?  Or is Smith’s treatise like, totally out-dated and old-fashioned?  Only good to kick off from to launch whiney sexist lamentations, deprecatory dirges of self-pity whose constructions depend on separation of all into male and female, the male always abusive, always master, always owner, the female always unappreciated, always put upon, always under compensated, always depreciated, always taken advantage of, never getting its due, forced to endure in a hard and harsh world where no co-misery or sympathy ever forth comes without an aroma of peeled onion?


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