The Prophets of Incentives: The Metastasis of Economic Tropes in Policy and Culture Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • McDonald, Robert
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Communication
  • This dissertation critically evaluates the discourses of “incentive-driven behavior” that have arisen in culture, politics and in economic theory. I use the framework of Lacanian psychoanalysis to develop a critical typology of “the incentive,” and deploy rhetorical theory to account for the metastasis thereof. Fundamentally, I argue that “incentives” retroactively fills in a gap in our explanations of a chaotic social reality, and presumes that market structures (prices, preferences) organize all of human behavior. The result is that a fairly narrow set of assumptions about human behavior and social phenomena—borrowed from neoclassical economic theory—are smuggled into cultural analysis and politics. “Incentives” then work proactively to diagnose and solve social problems using market mechanisms, and retroactively to account for inequalities by presuming incentive structures operative below the phenomenal level. This vocabulary explicitly dismisses alternative explanations including psychology, history, and sociology, and as such, threatens the ability of rhetoric, critical theory and cultural studies to resist this flattening of reality into markets, especially given how prevalent economists have become in social policy and what Lawrence Grossberg calls “economic culture.” The term has its roots in ancient Greek and Latin, but was adopted by neoclassical economics as an object that could stand for both desire and fulfillment in equilibrium analysis. Its later metastasis comes through the work of Bank of Sweden-prizewinning economist Gary Becker, who applied the incentive driven approach to all cultural, political, social and personal phenomena, and more recently through the cultural artifacts of Freakonomics and Nudge. Through an analysis of testimony in favor of, and against equal pay legislation, I diagnose how “incentive-based” vocabularies have seeped into public policy debates and the consequences once this has occurred. I conclude with a set of questions about the shape of the modern liberal state after incentive-based approaches are implemented by the current presidential administration.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Jameson, Fredric
  • Grossberg, Lawrence
  • Lundberg, Christian
  • Palm, Michael
  • Balthrop, V. William
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2016

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