Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 7 No. 1 (Winter 1993)


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The Revenge of Homo Economicus: Contested Exchange and the Revival of Political Economy

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Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 1993. "The Revenge of Homo Economicus: Contested Exchange and the Revival of Political Economy." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 7(1): 83-102.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.7.1.83


Recent developments in microeconomic theory have shown that the self-interested behavior underlying neoclassical theory is artificially truncated: it depicts a charmingly Victorian but Utopian world in which conflicts abound but a handshake is a handshake. But a handshake is not always a handshake. Studies of principal-agent analysis, the economics of information, radical political economy, mechanism design, and transactions cost economics have all focused on the difficulties involved in policing and enforcing the actual process of market exchange. Abandoning the Victorian world of neoclassical theory will redirect economists to an older conception of their profession: what once was called political economy. By taking optimizing more seriously, post-Walrasian economics has inspired a revolution in economic thought fostering both new theoretical departures and alternative conceptions of the capitalist economy. We will offer our own interpretation of this literature, focusing on the widely recognized fact that the terms arising from exchange are not generally enforceable at zero cost to the exchanging parties. Where some aspect of the good or service supplied is both valuable to the buyer and costly to provide, the absence of third-party enforcement of claims gives rise to endogenous enforcement strategies. We refer to this relationship as a "contested exchange" because, unlike the transactions of Walrasian economics, the benefit the parties derive from the transaction depends on their own capacities to enforce competing claims.

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Bowles, Samuel (U MA)
Gintis, Herbert (U MA)

JEL Classifications

D00: Microeconomics: General
P16: Capitalist Systems: Political Economy
B20: History of Thought since 1925: General


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