McMaster takes a tally of the value of care in an economy and asks: what is a round of applause worth?

Four years before Covid 19 infected its first victim, economist Julie Nelson wrote, “The place of care in the economy is everywhere”. Her words are remarkably prescient. And they highlight the universality of care, emphasise individuals’ mutual dependency, and describe how the economy is a social phenomenon, rather than being divorced from society. The pandemic reinforces all of this.

In 2020, people throughout Western Europe applauded in gratitude those workers in health care confronting the challenges of Covid-19. Despite that expression of emotion and recognition, care work continues to be low-paid.

The financial sector, responsible for so much disruption and harm from 2008 onwards, has largely escaped the consequences of its care-less behaviour. Many financiers continue to enjoy high salaries and benefits. For instance, in the UK, despite the Bank of England ordering banks to withhold cash bonuses for senior staff during 2020, several significantly increased their bonus pools in 2021 following rising profits. By contrast, in England, the British government’s modest increase in health service staff wages is being substantially eroded by increasing taxes and inflation. There appears to be an inconsistency in how society values caring and policymakers’ caring-less behaviours.

If someone works in a financial institution, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that person does not care.

If someone works in a financial institution, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that person does not care. Nelson’s argument supports this. In investigating this further, it is worth defining care, what it involves, and its ethical properties. It s arguable that our thinking about the economy and what we value, leads to a shortfall in our capacity to care, which may be exacerbated by emphasising productivity.

Defining care is not straightforward. If care really is everywhere, then what’s so special about it?  Philosophers Bernice Fisher and Joan Tronto describe care as:

A species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes … ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex life-sustaining web,” (original emphasis).

Therefore, care can be virtually any action we take. Yet, Fisher and Tronto invite us to go beyond our selfish regard to consider others and our environment. Adam Smith said something similar 230 or so years earlier, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. For Smith, care, and caring resembled concentric rings, with the individual at the centre. Caring for ourselves does not necessarily make us selfish. As social beings we are naturally inclined to care for others. Without being cared for in our early years, none of us would survive. Care, therefore, has three basic aims: survival, fostering development in others, and avoiding pain and relieving suffering.

To meet those aims, care has three characteristics: labour, ethical, and psychological.  Labour refers to the “doing”, or the work of care, which may simply involve showing an active interest and concern for another person: taking the time to listen. The ethical aspect involves responsibility for caring, and the psychological signifies the possibility of emotional attachment and motivation.

Care is highly complex.  A teacher, for example, may not especially like a particular child.  They are emotionally distanced.  This does not suggest that the teacher, in performing their duties, does not “care” about the child. A teacher has responsibilities to the child by virtue of their social role. Financiers also have duties of care to their stakeholders and beyond.  Viewed in this way, the financial crisis is partly a failure of care.

Tronto’s work on how care can fail is instructive. She identifies phases of care: The first – “care about” – identifies a caring need. The assumption of a responsibility to care – “caring for” – follows. The third phase is “care giving”, or care work. “Care receiving” is the fourth phase, which involves assessing the effectiveness of care. Tronto argues that these phases are situated in an institutional context – “caring with” – which refers to commitments to justice, respect, and trust in a society.  In other words, social values.

Arguably, part of the reason for care deficits is that society does not sufficiently value care, and the way care workers are treated is illustrative of this.

Tronto observes that “care giving” may be inadequate in addressing care needs due to failures in identifying these needs and in assuming responsibility, which may emerge due to insufficient “caring with”. This creates a “care deficit”, where the capacity to care does not address those in need of care. This could include, for example, a lack of facilities to adequately treat people with illness or disease, or to provide all with decent levels of education, or to ensure that all members of society can live a meaningful life.  By this view, then, growing income and wealth inequalities that lead to some people being less able to lead decent and meaningful lives are a result of care deficits.

Arguably, part of the reason for care deficits is that society does not sufficiently value care, and the way care workers are treated is illustrative of this. Our social values are skewed by our desire to measure everything, and things that are difficult to quantify are seen as unimportant. An important manifestation of this is productivity. In the UK, for example, there has been an emphasis on the need to enhance productivity as part of the government’s aim for a “high-skill, high-wage” economy. Yet what does this mean in the context of care work?

Sue Himmelweit convincingly argues that imposing productivity measures on caring activities may be counter-productive. Referring to a string quartet, she asks how they can be made more productive? Removing one of the musicians while requiring the others to play the same music would technically make them more productive. Or, demanding that the musicians play the pieces over a shorter period would also increase their productivity. The point, however, is that the music would fundamentally change. Care and caring has this property. Requiring care workers to “care for” more people and/or “care give” over a more limited time-frame changes the care that can be provided.  Likely, care deficits worsen.  The output of caring is care, which escapes easy measurement. 

Our thinking about the economic system is weighted to valuing many destructive activities ahead of beneficial ones; things are valued ahead of people. Adam Smith was sensitive to this possibility and argued for a harmonious society based on sympathy, or fellow feeling.  Economists have overlooked Smith’s insight. The experience of Covid-19 and the challenges of climate change highlight the importance of care and valuing it appropriately. Now, we do not. This is part of the reason why wealth was the greatest protection against Covid-19.

Further reading

Nelson, J. (2016) Husbandry: A (Feminist) Reclamation of Masculine Responsibility for Care, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 40: 1-15

Fisher, B. and Tronto, J. C. (1990) Towards a Feminist Theory of Caring, in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives, Abel, E. K. and Nelson, M. K. (eds), State University of New York Press: Albany.

Tronto, J. C. (2017) There is an Alternative: Homines Curans and the Limits of Neoliberalism, International Journal of Care and Caring, 1: 27-43.

Himmelweit, S. (2007) The Prospects for Caring: Economic Theory and Policy Analysis, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 31: 581-599

Robert McMaster

Robert is Professor of Political Economy in the Adam Smith Business School at the University of Glasgow.  From 2005-2018, he co-edited the Review of Social Economy.  Together with John Davis …

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