Yet while the use of the expression human capital is a child of the mid-twentieth century, the “investmentality” behind this concept has far deeper roots. In this paper, I trace the origins of our current neoclassical theories of human capital and economic distribution back to the Gilded Age. The paper will examine how a diverse group of late nineteenth century physicists, chemists, economists, self-help gurus and businessmen came to conceive and quantify human beings as capitalized investments. Placing these ideas in their larger historical context, the paper will explore the social, political, intellectual and economic forces which shaped these ideas, from Henry George’s Progress and Poverty to the second industrial revolution.
In so doing, the paper will argue that Gilded Age Americans “capitalized” humans by imagining them as money-making machines whose productivity was determined by personal investment in one’s skills. I will also argue, however, that these very same theories served to “humanize” capital by presenting a generous and kind narrative of capitalism which argued that every man and woman earned what they deserved and that there was no such thing as economic exploitation.
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