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THE ECONOMICS OF GOOD AND EVIL: how to make the devil work for good

THE ECONOMICS OF GOOD AND EVIL: how to make the devil work for good
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Photo by Rishabh Dharmani on Unsplash


It may seem that economics is all about numbers. Many of us are convinced that our usual economic behavior lies on the other side of right and wrong. But the eminent economist Tomas Sedlacek has tried to prove otherwise.

In the book «The Economics of Good and Evil», he showed that many modern ideas were already born at the dawn of civilization. In his view, economics is not preoccupied with the generation of material goods and the growth of labor productivity but precisely with questions of good and evil. Let’s reflect on this together, building on Sedlacek’s ideas.




«The Epic of Gilgamesh» is the world’s first literary work. At least nothing older has come down to us. More than 4000 thousand years ago, the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia — Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians — were thinking about things that concern mankind to this day: good and evil, love and friendship, immortality and posthumous glory.

It seems to the modern Homo economicus, obsessed with the rational economic content of any activity that ancient people did not understand anything about economics. Where can economic thinking come from if consciousness is bound by the fetters of religion and myth? In fact, economics did not begin with Adam Smith and not even with the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon, who actually invented this wonderful word — «economy».

The famous economic historian Niall Ferguson fairly states that the authors of ancient texts were not poets and philosophers at all but businessmen. And, if you look closely, this applies not only to clay tablets that recorded the indicators of the ancient temple economy.




Long before «behavioral economics» by Daniel Kahneman, «The Epic of Gilgamesh» tells us about the role of consumption not only of physical stimuli but of perceptions and motivations. It is precisely in the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia that we should look for the origins of concepts such as the market, maximization of efficiency, division of labor, natural resources, and others.

Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk, appears at the beginning of the epic as an outstanding visionary, something reminiscent of Steve Jobs, who was known to have an obnoxious character and often humiliated his employees. Both had great goals but were cruel and unfair to those who were around them. What was an iPhone for Jobs for Gilgamesh was the construction of a grandiose city wall. If work is a higher priority for you than family, you are «typical Gilgamesh».

He believed that family stood in the way of work. So, in an attempt to maximize productivity, he limited workers’ contact with their wives, mothers, and children. This is practically the first version of Homo economicus, a «robot man» whose life must be subordinated solely to rational economic goals.




Gilgamesh was not only the forerunner of Plato’s ideas about the ideal state but also of the dystopias of A. Huxley’s «Brave New World» and J. Orwell’s «1984». Actually, neoclassical economics, with their approach to the result of human labor as a «pure function», is from the same category. But in the case of Gilgamesh, life and the gods put everything in its place.

Following the prayers of Sumerian laborers who complained about their bosses ignoring their natural emotional needs, the gods sent Gilgamesh an opponent — the savage Enkidu. But when it became clear that they were equal to each other in physical strength and ambition, a friendship developed between them.

A feeling that breaks the rational notion of cooperation as a collective action for the sake of material results. Friendship is completely unproductive. But it can change a person’s personality and even the shape of an entire society. Friends perform acts that are beyond the power of a single person.



Gilgamesh and Enkidu have ventured to fight the demon Humbaba, who guards the cedar forest. This was a severe economic act since scarce wood in Mesopotamia was more expensive than gold. An important nuance: cutting down the forest is also an idolatrous act because the cedar grove is sacred, and the murdered Humbaba was put in his workplace not by anyone but by the gods.

Nature is no longer sacred; from now on, it has been an economic resource. But it required an entrepreneurial mindset and incredible courage to turn a taboo sacred tree into a building material! Friendship informs both heroes with qualities not previously known to them.


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Gilgamesh receives a kind of animal spirits — the animal energy of Enkidu. The very cheerfulness that guides human behavior is what John Keynes wrote about in «The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money» (1936).

In his turn, Gilgamesh’s animal alter ego transforms Enkidu from a savage into a consumer of the benefits of urban civilization. It can be said that the prostitute Shamhat, who seduced him, became the first marketing director in the history of humanity who first guessed to use sex for advertising purposes.




Shamhat created a previously nonexistent consumer demand for new goods and lifestyles. After all, at first, Enkidu did not understand the value of the benefits of civilization. As the embodiment of uncivilized evil and a consistent «anti-marketer», he destroyed the results of Uruk’s economic activity.

With a certain amount of imagination in the story of Enkidu’s humanization, we can see a parallel with one of the central schemes of economic theory — the origin of the principle of the invisible hand of the market. Sometimes, it is more profitable to put evil to the plow than to fight it. This was understood as far back as ancient Sumer. Later, St. Procopius would plow the field on a «tamed» devil. And Goethe, in «Faust», tells about the power that «eternally wants evil and eternally does good».

The presence of the Faustian beginning in the modern economic system was noted by the American philosopher Michael Novak in his book «The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism» (1982). Unlike the advocates of alternative systems, the supporters of capitalism realized that evil was deeply embedded in human nature and decided to harness the energy of sin rather than fight it.

Adam Smith transformed this idea into the famous parable of the butcher who, by indulging his selfishness, brings public benefit.




«The Epic of Gilgamesh» is also familiar with the idea of hedonism, which the Austrian School of Economics considers the basis of economic behavior. Carl Menger or Ludwig von Mises believe that any Homo economicus always seeks to maximize satisfaction. But Gilgamesh would disagree with their view. When the revenge of the gods led to the death of his beloved friend, the ruler realized that the only thing worth fighting for was immortality. Neither earthly glory nor heroic deeds no longer fascinated him.

The nymph Siduri points the hero to the meaninglessness of goals and offers a hedonistic choice: «You, Gilgamesh, fill your stomach, day and night may you be cheerful, feast daily, day and night you play and dance! Let your clothes be light, your hair clean, wash yourself with water. Look how a child holds your hand, and with your embrace, make your friend happy — only this is the business of man!»

However, Gilgamesh rejects the economic maxim that is obvious to the Austrian School. He is not interested in maximizing earthly goods, but in maximizing the duration of life.




Unfortunately, the ruler of Uruk never succeeded in gaining immortality — the flower that guaranteed this possibility was stolen by an insidious snake. But still, Gilgamesh found it in another form — we still admire the narrative of his heroic friendship with Enkidu.

In the epic, we discover archetypes that still live in us today. Including those that shape our economic behavior. The questions posed by the story of Gilgamesh turn out to be highly relevant in the new technological cycle. For example, the idea that humanism hinders efficiency continues to present humans as robot-like creatures. Since the time of Gilgamesh, we have witnessed and participated in the great drama of man’s emancipation from nature.

As we move further and further away from the natural state, our desires for control, freedom, and pleasure become ever more insatiable. At the same time, the ancient epic shows us the right direction of travel — the path of restoration of the living personality. Through friendship, love, commitment to people, and the pursuit of an ideal that lies beyond this world. And sometimes — beyond human capabilities.


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