Is “economics” society’s operating system?

Is economics now society’s default, or de facto, operating system? And what does this mean? I heard this mentioned in passing on the radio the other day in another context. But it struck me as a really useful and interesting analogy to the role of economics in society, and the values and goals that we subconsciously prioritise.

An operating system is system-wide software that manages computer hardware and software resources, and which provides common services for computer programmes. It operates as a base on which all other functions rely for resources and access – it sets the rules of the game. Similarly, we can see economics, in particular neoclassical economics, as performing a similar function within society, although widely unrecognised and largely subconsciously. It does this, as I suggest below, through setting the rules of the game as well as providing the vocabulary and grammar that we use to talk about the game.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s piece in the Times Higher Ed this morning, on the impact of competition and marketization in higher education, perfectly summed up some of the issues of economics-as-operating-system, but in the specific context of higher education.

Fitzpatrick writes that while friendly competition can be helpful, “when the competitiveness that fuels excellence and prestige becomes based in the logic of the market, universities lose sight of their true purpose”. In a detailed and thoughtful piece, she argues that excellence in academia and higher education has embodied the norms of the market, and competition between academics, between faculties, between institutions and between fields of research has become the main means of determining achievement, excellence, and promotion. The metrics that are used to determine success – publication in the right place, impact, and so on – are based on orthodox, or neoclassical economics and the assumptions, biases and norms contained therein.

Fitzpatrick asks what we could achieve instead if we moved from competition to collaboration within faculties and within higher education more generally. What could we achieve by articulating our goals and values and determining excellence in relation to the achievement of those goals and values rather than against one another?

Fitzpatrick’s argument relates to higher education, which is in a state of flux at the moment given the questions surrounding its funding and the role of higher education in society more broadly. The answer is, of course, not quite so simple, as to challenge or step outside of the mainstream competitive framework inherently makes oneself “uncompetitive”. Funding and prestige are therefore potentially sacrificed – a leap into the unknown that so far, only the University of Ghent has been prepared to take.

In other words, the system perpetuates and reproduces itself, while being almost impossible to step outside of. However, within the sphere of higher education, there is some level of awareness of the metrics, competition, and implications of this on career progression, wellbeing and industry more broadly, even if there is no clear or simple solution.

But the article raises broader issues that relate to my research, and the comment about economics – particularly neoclassical economics – functioning as a de facto operating system throughout society. The difference here is the general lack of awareness about the way that neoclassical economics shapes the way that society functions. Even within economics as a field of study and research, there is a generalised monoculture.

We can point to economics notions like competition and a belief in the free market, ways of measuring (GDP, for example), profit maximization, and so on, as having pervaded social consciousness and public discourse to such an extent that they guide and influence policy making even tacitly. By effectively fixing the rules of the game, and even the way we talk about the game before playing it by supplying the vocabulary and grammar, economics functions as a social operating system. And the sooner we are more aware of the impact of this, the sooner we can begin to challenge its effects.

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