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Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 137–158 | Cite as

Behavioral economics as neoliberalism: Producing and governing homo economicus

  • John McMahon
Article

Abstract

The research program of behavioral economics is gaining increasing influence in academic economics and in interest from policymakers. This article analyzes behavioral economics from the dual perspective of Foucault’s genealogical investigation of neoliberal governmentality and contemporary critical theorizations of neoliberalism. I argue that behavioral economics should be understood as a political economic apparatus of neoliberal governmentality with the objective of using the state to manage and subjectivize individuals – by attempting to correct their deviations from rational, self-interested, utility-maximizing cognition and behavior – such that they more effectively and efficiently conform to market logics and processes. In this analysis, I contend that behavioral economics enacts three components of neoliberal governmentality: positioning the market as a site of truth and veridiction for the individual and the state; regulating what constitutes the objects of political economy and governmental intervention; and producing homo economicus (economic human) and diffusing this mode of economic subjectivity across the social terrain. In doing so, behavioral economics and its rationalities transform and introduce new technologies of power into neoliberal governmentality. I illustrate this argument with an analysis of recent changes to retirement savings policy in the United States, heavily influenced by behavioral economics thinking, that entrench neoliberal formations.

Keywords

behavioral economics neoliberalism governmentality Foucault homo economicus subjectivization 

Notes

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Rosalind Petchesky, Leonard Feldman, Joanna Tice and Rachel Brown for insightful commentary on earlier drafts; thanks to George DeMartino and William Seitz for their assistance in orienting me within behavioral economists. This article benefited immensely from the thoughtful criticism of two anonymous reviewers. An earlier iteration of this article was presented at the Northeastern Political Science Association Annual Meeting, where I received helpful feedback from the ‘Critiquing the State, Critiquing Modern Institutions’ panel and audience.

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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • John McMahon
    • 1
  1. 1.Political Science and Women’s Studies, The Graduate Center, City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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