There is no Nobel Prize in Economics … and why that matters

14 November 2014

Alfred Nobel was long dead when the Bank of Sweden created “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” Even if the bank did not mean it to be confused with the real Nobel Prizes, a sloppy press has done just that (not to mention most of the recent recipients on their own websites, despite having been chosen for the care and honesty of their scholarship).  

The New York Times, for example, has gone back and forth over the years between “Nobel Prize” and “Nobel Memorial Prize” (as if adding “Memorial” makes it less Nobel). In the past few years the Times has reverted to just Nobel, although in two recent articles, a few days apart, one used Nobel Memorial and the other Nobel. (Had psychologists created such a prize for themselves, would anyone be calling it “Nobel”?) 

Even, the official site, seems to be confused. It revised its site recently, deleting from the home page a long-standing list of the five real prizes, labelled “Nobel Prize in Chemistry”, “Nobel Prize in Medicine”, etc., followed by “Prize in Economics.” Now they’re all Prizes.

Why does this matter? Because we and our planet are being destroyed by a dogma centering on “economic man” for whom greed is good, property is sacred, markets are sufficient, and governments are suspect. As one view of human society, this makes some sense; as the view of human society, it is nonsense. But it prevails nonetheless, in good part because it has provided justification for the private sector forces that, as discussed in my TWOG last week, have been throwing this world out of balance. How many of us now realize the extent to which we have become the victims of our own economic structures?  

Each of the social sciences focuses on one or two key concepts—for example, culture in anthropology, markets in economics, cognition and behaviour in psychology. Considered together, they provide a broad view of society. But considering any one of them alone leaves us with a distorted view of society. Imagine, for example, seeing human behaviour exclusively through a lens of stimulus-response, as did much of psychology years ago. Well, economists have succeeded in getting many of us to see the world exclusively through a lens of markets. 

It is telling the extent to which economic vocabulary has infiltrated our everyday speech. Are you a human resource? a human asset? human capital? I am a human being. I do not “maximize value”, whatever that means. (Trying to maximize anything is perverse.) I have no intention of competing, collecting, and consuming my way to neurotic oblivion. And if I am not cooperative alongside being competitive, selfless alongside being selfish, I am nothing. 

What can we do about this?  Our economically developed world is in dire need of social redevelopment. This can start by putting economics in its place—which is alongside the other social sciences. How about if we challenge the misuse of the label Nobel every time we hear it about an economist. Let’s all strike a blow for balance! 

See more on these issues in my forthcoming book Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.

© 2014 Henry Mintzberg