What’s wrong with ‘human capital’?

Anthony Haynes writes: Over recent months I’ve been using Twitter, WordPress, and Google bog search to some comparative searching. The terms I’ve been exploring most are ‘human resources’ (and cognates such as ‘HR’ and ‘HRM’), ‘talent management’ (and ‘acquisition’), and ‘human capital’.

‘Human capital’ emerges as a relatively little used phrase, but one that — in my subjective judgment — often associates with interesting content. By’ interesting’ I mean, often, well researched or intriguing (quirky, even).

Objections

But in the process of searching I’ve found many instances of people objecting to the very term ‘human capital’. There is a view that simply using the term — regardless of what one actually says about human capital — is somehow offensive  or unethical.

Why? So far as I can tell, the objections boil down to two points in essence:

1. the belief that the term ‘capital’ is reductive: it is felt to reduce human beings to mere economic factors of production — or, worse, purely financial items on a balance sheet, as if the word ‘capital’ cancels out the word ‘human’;

2. ‘capital’ implies a capitalist view of the world.

Defence

Karl Marx Mayall, Creative commons licensed: J. (Mar 29, 2012). Karl Marx. Retrieved Jun 05, 2013, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.nd.edu/political-science/the-rise-and-fall-of-world-communism/images-1/karl-marx.
Karl Marx Mayall, Creative commons licensed: J. (Mar 29, 2012). Karl Marx. Retrieved Jun 05, 2013, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.nd.edu/political-science/the-rise-and-fall-of-world-communism/images-1/karl-marx.

These objections are profoundly mistaken. Against the first objection, it may be argued that:

  • human beings are — as employees, entrepreneurs, etc. — factors of production and they are economic assets. This doesn’t mean that they are only that;
  • ‘capital’ is certainly not essentially a financial term. It’s always been used widely to refer to technology as well as finance and is now widely used in phrases such as ‘social capital’ and ‘natural capital’. The phrase ‘natural capital’ is favored by many environmentalists as a way of defending nature: they use the term to denote something worth valuable, worth valuing, developing, and conserving.

Against the second objection it may be argued simply that the writer with whom the term ‘capital’ is most associated is Karl Marx. Marx’s objections to capitalism were based on questions of ownership of capital, not on conception or existence of capital per se. There’s nothing intrinsically capitalist about the term ‘capital’.

In fact, ‘human capital’ seems to me to carry a more positive, valuable, aura than any of  the alternatives. As a director, I’d certainly prefer FJWilson to think of my skills, knowledge and so on, as human capital, than a human resource, which sounds altogether more down-market and expendable.

Nobody should object to being seen as human capital: on the contrary, that is  something we should welcome, is it not?

Advertisements

Respond here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s