Words that think for us

The hollowness of human capital
February 24, 2010

Economists, said John Maynard Keynes, should think of themselves as humble specialists, on a par with dentists. But his advice has gone unheeded. Over the past 50 years, economics and its jargon have penetrated every corner of human life. Decisions to marry and inject heroin alike are explained in terms of utility maximisation. Doctors, priests and scientists are lumped together as service providers or rent seekers. Schoolteachers are urged to “add value” to their pupils. The pig philosophy, as Thomas Carlyle called it, has become all-embracing.

Of the many harms inflicted by economics on the English language, “human capital” is the most grievous. Coined by Chicago economists Jacob Mincer and Gary Becker in the 1960s, it refers to the stock of personal skills and qualities that constitutes a worker’s economic value. Such skills and qualities are often costly to acquire and yield returns only over a long period of time, so are readily thought of as a kind of capital. Mincer and Becker’s work has provided the intellectual rationale for the huge expansion of higher education in recent decades. In an economy dominated by the knowledge and service industries, with personality and expertise at a premium, “investment in human capital” is the name of the game.

The phrase “human capital” is now so thoroughly naturalised that we seldom pause to ponder its implications. What is capital anyway? Capital is not a particular kind of good, but any good viewed in relation to certain interests. A donkey is capital to the wood-carrier. A derelict church is capital to the restaurant entrepreneur. Capital, in short, is wealth viewed not as an end in itself but as a means to more wealth. The phrase “human capital” insinuates that human beings too are to be viewed in this light—as instruments of the productive process. We have all of us attained the status which Aristotle reserved for slaves, that of living tools. What a triumph for the dismal science! Keynes naively supposed that economic growth was for the sake of personal cultivation. His modern successors have put him right: personal cultivation is for the sake of economic growth.