The Myth of the Health-Maximizing Consumer

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to kick off the month with the second in a series of posts by UCLA’s Brad Fidler, Director of the Kleinrock Internet History Center and a historian of anti-psychotic medication and its markets.

Gary Becker Wants You to Maximize Utility

Economists often expect us to be rational and self-maximizing when it comes to the financial choices we make as consumers: we are meant to wisely allocate our resources in order to secure the most utility for our dollar—and in the process to reward the most efficient companies.  However, it turns out that we don’t always behave this way, and our economies are correspondingly less stable and prone to growth than was once imagined.  Indeed, if we are truly self-interested, our interests are broad and contradictory, and each of us works from a laundry list of altruistic and other inexplicable motivations.  The ideal of the rationally self-maximizing model of human behavior is called “homo economicus,” often derisively, by academics who believe it flies in the face of reality and decry the way it has been used to justify mainstream economic models that have led to forty years of slowing growth and stagnation. 

Homo economicus is a useful concept for drug historians because, sometime during the heyday of the American post-war economic expansion, another rational consumer emerged: the health-maximizing consumer.  (The homo salinas, perhaps?)  It is worth rethinking the role that this ideal health maximizer plays in debates concerning the use and overuse of psychiatric medication.

The health maximizer is a model of the consumer whose motivation and behavior flow from concern for the risk-benefit ratios of the individual medications she takes.  It’s a reasonable model, and also the place where controversy begins.

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