43. ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’ by Katrine Marçal

Last month I did a ‘reading spa‘ at Mr B’s bookshop in Bath where I was given tea and cake, had a chat with a bookseller and then they brought me a stack of books they thought I’d like. Part of my haul from that day was Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal. It’s probably not something I’d ever have picked up by myself, but it came so highly recommended that I started reading it as soon as I got home. The people at Mr B’s clearly know what they’re doing, because I really enjoyed it.

who cooked adam smith's dinner

This book is about economics. Yes, I know, normally that word would turn me off too, but Marçal writes in such a compelling way and is clearly so passionate about her subject that she makes it really, really interesting. The core of her argument is that economics has been viewed for a very long time as being driven by self-interest and logic, and it explains the workings of our society based on competition and profit. However, Marçal argues, this view of economics is incomplete. For two hundred years a vast section of society has been ignored by economic theory; the work that these people do – caring, cooking and cleaning – has not factored into the major equations and theories of economics, even though it is absolutely necessary to keep society operating. Of course, this is a feminist argument because this unrecognised, unpaid labour has traditionally been the responsibility of women. Marçal highlights her central idea through the figure of Adam Smith, a top 18th-century economist who lived with his mother. She cared for him, likely not out of self-interest, so that he could go out into the world and claim that self-interest rules us all.

At the heart of Who Cooked? is the character of ‘economic man’. This is a figure made up by Marçal who embodies everything about the popular, long-held theories of economics. He is rational and ruthless, hyper-masculine, emotionless and independent. He is out for himself and his own profit, supposedly just like everybody else in the world, and he trusts in the ‘invisible hand’ (a term coined by Adam Smith) which is said to balance the free market, supply and demand, so that it reaches a natural equilibrium. In reality, Marçal argues, nobody thinks or acts like economic man, and the ‘invisible hand’ is a convenient lie which absolves us of responsibility for our own society: if people end up at the bottom of the heap, underpaid for long hours of backbreaking work, well, it’s just the way economy is. There’s no use fighting it. So why have we turned a blind eye to this oversimplification for so long? Marçal sums it up like this:

“The bloody events of the twentieth century have shown that people really aren’t that simple. But it’s a good story. And few interrogate a good story.”

One of the things I loved about Who Cooked? is how funny it is. Marçal has an incredibly readable writing style, and the whole book is laced with biting humour. She doesn’t hold back from criticising a system which she obviously sees as deeply flawed, and her critiques are clear, well thought out and often drenched with sarcasm. This isn’t something I ever thought I’d say about an economics book, but I laughed out loud in places. This particularly cutting line, about Adam Smith’s mother cooking his dinner, actually made me wince:

“Somebody has to prepare that steak so Adam Smith can say their labour doesn’t matter.”

Marçal is also very good at analogies, and two of them have really stayed with me. The first is a twist on an analogy frequently used to describe supply and demand in economics: two men are stranded on a desert island, one has a bag of gold and the other has a bag of rice. If they weren’t on an island, the gold would be worth more, but given their current predicament the rice is clearly more valuable. Therefore the man with the rice can demand as much of the gold as he likes for payment, or he can refuse it because it is worthless here and keep all the rice for himself. That would be the rational, self-interested thing to do and, we’re told, this is how economics works. However, Marçal points out that this isn’t how people would act in reality. Two men stranded on a desert island would likely be scared and lonely; who’s to say the man with the rice wouldn’t share it with his only companion? Who’s to say they wouldn’t forget their self-interest and work together? So, since we’re all in the economy together, who’s to say that kindness and camaraderie and a desire to help others aren’t factors that should be taken into account? Analogies about the changing values of rice and gold are all very well in a vacuum, but we’re not all self-interested all the time, and the idea that we are falls apart when you look at how people actually behave.

The other analogy I remember ties into this book’s strongly feminist ideals. Marçal talks about how women have frequently been sidelined and ignored because the work they do does not ‘count’ in the competitive, masculine economic world, and she highlights this with the idea of a running race. There are three villages competing to win a running race. Everybody must run – young, old, healthy, infirm – and the winner is the village who gets everybody across the finish line first. The race begins. In the first village, everybody is out for themselves; they all run as fast as they can and the fit and healthy cross the finish line first, but the oldest and sickest are still straggling far behind. In the second village, the fastest runners are the young men, so they tell the women to help the children and the elderly while they run on ahead. When the young men reach the finish line they celebrate their victory, but the women they’ve left behind are annoyed because they could have run just as fast if they hadn’t been left to look after the slowest people. Finally, and you already know where this is going, the people of the first village all work together to get everybody across the line and as a consequence they win the race because they haven’t left anybody behind. It’s in analogies like this that you can see Marçal’s optimism: the current system might be flawed, but she believes in human goodness and our ability to help each other if we could just let go of the compelling untruths we’ve grown so used to.

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is packed with interesting ideas and cleverly illustrated points just like these. My notes about this book are tightly written because Marçal makes a compelling point on every page and I just had to get it all down. This is a book everybody could benefit from reading, even if you’ve never read anything about economics before: it’s quite a quick read that is funny, fascinating and will really make you think.

“We have failed at giving our daughters a definition of success that simply lets them be.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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