Homo economicus at home

I follow a blog cal­led EconLog, writ­ten by eco­nomists Bryan Caplan and Arnold Kling. It’s mostly a «know thy enemy» kind of thing, al­beit the clean ra­tio­na­lism pres­cri­bed by eco­nomists is re­fres­hing in quite a few dif­fe­rent areas of inte­rest.i

But in some cases, the ima­gi­na­tive con­cept of the eco­no­mically ra­tio­nal in­di­vi­dual really gets to rear its ugly head. This is one of those ti­mes. Bryan Caplan ar­gues that com­pa­ra­tive ad­van­tage should be ap­plied to the di­vi­sion of do­me­stic la­bour. In prac­tice, this means the one with hig­hest skill and low­est wage should do as much housework as pos­sible. Because, as the eco­nomists put it, «Wouldn’t hus­band and wife alike be bet­ter off if he spec­ia­lized in brin­ging home the bread, and she spec­ia­lized in ba­king it?»

This goes to show how nar­row a mind can be. Imagine a pro­fes­sor, a spec­ia­list in thin­king, wri­ting so­met­hing like that wit­hout even see­ing the pro­blem. That’s how nar­row you can be­come, even when you’re al­ways re­ques­ting ot­hers to free their minds and «over­come bias».ii «Better off», mr. Caplan, is not uni­quely de­fined as eco­no­mically bet­ter off. And de­fi­nitely not in ques­tions of love, more spec­i­fi­cally a just dis­tri­bu­tion of te­dious tasks between to equals in a re­la­tion­ship.

In ad­dition, the dis­tri­bu­tion of housework vs. paid work is pos­sible to change over time. As there is no rea­son to be­lieve na­ture has made wo­men more adept to un­paid work, there must be some his­to­ri­cal rea­son the dis­tri­bu­tion is so skewed.iii As a re­sult, it is com­pletely rea­so­nable to ar­gue that men must do more un­paid work. That is the only way to free up women’s time, so they can get (on average) the same le­vel of eco­no­mic goods that men have. After all, money is power. It is un­just that wo­men should be left wit­hout this money (and power) due to some an­cient di­vi­sion of la­bour, kept up by Caplan’s in­sist­ence on main­tai­ning the cur­rently most ef­fi­ci­ent di­vi­sion.

Women and men alike need to work full time to get care­ers, they need to have enough time to spend on edu­ca­tion (both for­mal and in­for­mal), and they need to earn money to secure their fu­ture pen­sions. Unless Caplan is wil­ling to say that wo­men are more adept to hou­se­kee­ping than men, he must ad­mit the cur­rent di­vi­sion is both un­fair and in­ef­fec­tive.


  1. Til mine norske le­sere: Når jeg sva­rer på et inn­legg i en en­gelsk blogg, syns jeg det er rik­tig å skrive på en­gelsk. []
  2. Mr. Caplan has ac­tually writ­ten books strongly at­tack­ing «bia­ses» in the electo­rate, re­com­men­ding less de­mocra­tic con­trol over society. []
  3. Furthermore: If we as­sume men and wo­men as groups are equally skil­led at paid work from nature’s part (al­beit in­di­vi­duals are dif­fe­rent from each ot­her), the dis­tri­bu­tion we have to­day must be in­ef­fi­ci­ent. If men and wo­men (as groups) are equally skil­led, the 50-50-division would also be expec­ted over time. Obviously, this ar­gu­ment requi­res the pos­si­bi­lity of edu­ca­tion. At the cur­rent levels of edu­ca­tion, a skewed dis­tri­bu­tion might be ef­fec­tive. This means a dif­fe­rent dis­tri­bu­tion than the cur­rently most ef­fi­ci­ent might be the most ef­fi­ci­ent in the long run, by free­ing up time to edu­cate wo­men, who (properly edu­cated) will be more adept to paid work than their spou­ses 50 % of the time. []

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Sigve Indregard

Jeg er journalist i Morgenbladet, men skriver her helt for egen maskin. Jeg er samboer og har to døtre. Ellers er jeg interessert i internasjonal politikk, skolepolitikk, økonomi, filosofi og romersk historie.

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