Zero-sum dating game

Traditional free-market liberals generally pride themselves on their biological, or at least psychological, realism, following Adam Smith in the belief that humans are fundamentally self-interested, if not actually greedy, beings, and that self-interest has to be taken into account and put to use in any effective society and economic system. Now that their critics seem to be incorporating research in evolutionary biology to an encouraging degree (though whether they are interepreting the findings correctly is a different question entirely), I have noticed a bit of a strange drift towards tenuous psychological claims and social-constructivist claims in a couple of free-market defenses themselves. In one, this year’s Nobel laureate in economics, Edmund Phelps, tries to comparatively assess the economic systems of the Anglophone world and Continental Europe. Although he asks the question as to whether at some point continued gains in wealth and economic growth are valuable, he seems to assume implicitly that the comparison can essentially be reduced to these terms. I don’t think even the most die-hard defender of social democracy would deny that Americans have a higher average income than Europeans; that’s just a fact. Usually the defense, and a not invalid one either, is that the greater range and quality of state-provided or -guaranteed social services makes the society as a whole, and especially the poorer members, better off. And in fact, on other measures of quality of life, for example average health, European countries generally score a lot higher than the U.S. Phelps also seems to be aware that wealth is not the sole measure of quality of life, but his alternative justifications for more time spent working and earning money, as in America, seems to hinge on dubious non-empirical claims such as: “The American application of this Aristotelian perspective is the thesis that most, if not all, of such self-realization in modern societies can come only from a career. Today we cannot go tilting at windmills, but we can take on the challenges of a career. If a challenging career is not the main hope for self-realization, what else could be?” Um, I don’t know, but if we really want to be tolerant liberals, we should probably let people find out for themselves. I think a more pressing, and objectively verifiable, question about the social democracies is not whether they are providing a high standard of living for their people but whether with the general lack of economic dynamism it will be sustainable into the forseeable future. I know that the vaunted tuition-free university systems in most of the European countries, for example, are, if not bankrupt, under increasing financial strain, especially in comparison with American universities.

At the end, Phelps urges us to see entrepreneurs as the victims in a society that does not facilitate entrepreneurship, even if poor people benefit. I am rather skeptical that entrepreneurship is intrinsically prejudicial to the interests of the poor, but if it were than it seems to me the case would be a lot more complicated. Because Phelps doesn’t seem to acknowledge that some people’s desires are not compatible with others’. The desires of thieves or arsonists cannot be reconciled with the interests of the rest of society, so they have to be excluded. I am not saying by any means that entrepreneurs as a class fall into this category, but if one is willing to sanction a group’s activities even if it is detrimental to the well-being of another, which Phelps is apparently willing to grant hypothetically, then it has be determined whether the harm is only incidental or intrinsic.  That distinction to me often represents the line between what can be tolerated and what has to be suppressed. The other article responds to a claim made from several sources recently that income inequality is inherently bad because it is detrimental to the psychological well-being of humans who, evolved as status-seeking beings, are wounded by the seeing themselves as less well-off than others. There is evident psychological truth in this view, although it is equally evident that even its proponents, like the British politician Richard Layard (a member of the British nobility, it should be noted!), believe that it can be to some extent transcended, or they would not be presenting policy proposals for how to fix the problem. Nor does Will Wilkinson, the author of the article, really contest the biological evidence of this phenomenon, even though he throws out some pro forma arguments about how humans and rhesus monkeys are in fact different and results from research on one are not necessarily extrapolable to the other. His basic argument is that, even if status-seeking is a fixed element of human existence, the forms of status are not, and in an ever-expanding world the number of high-status positions can be multiplied without limit. In one sense this is obviously false, in that no matter how many status groups there are, one still has to have status relative to someone else or it becomes meaningless, like everyone in a class getting gold stars.  On the other hand, this view has merit insofar as it shows that, once again, wealth is not the only measure of status. One of the many ways in which Layard and his ilk are either naive or disingenuous is in seeming to believe that if perfect equality of wealth were achieved humans would either stop seeking greater status or would be stymied in their quest. But people are not equally intelligent, or athletic, or attractive. They would find other ways of one-upping each other. Wilkinson recognizes this. But it is unclear if he recognizes that there is at least one inflexible fixed measure of status, which is of course…reproductive success! Poets, economists, pop singers and politicians may define their status within different niches, but the odds are that they will not all be equally successfiul in getting girls or boys. And there is a rather high probability that people will find themselves competing across niche boundaries for a mate, which is where all the tidy non-competitiveness breaks down. And especially at these times, I doubt that a “high-status” poet will even be able to convince himself that he has a truly high status in the world.  Not that I have any policy proposal at the bottom of this. If you think about the basic tradional needs of humanity, like food, shelter and mating, there seems to be a radical and ever-increasing asymmetry between food and shelter, which are relatively easy to obtain for most people today, at least in the developed world, and mating, which seems to be just as difficult to secure as ever. And the reason, as I see it, is that our environment is the source of food and shelter whereas we are the source of mating to each other. We can make collective progress relative to the environment because it is relatively unchaning, but we can’t make collective progress relative to our selves, so the growth of societal knowledge and expertise has not been of much use. But at least we can make ourselves more beautiful.

One Response to “Zero-sum dating game”

  1. Dave Says:

    “I am rather skeptical that entrepreneurship is intrinsically prejudicial to the interests of the poor, but if it were then it seems to me the case would be a lot more complicated.? Curt

    I don’t see how you can repeal basic economic principles. If I earn my living running a hamburger stand and you open another one in competition or perhaps get a McDonald franchise, I may suddenly become poorer. Or maybe my hamburgers are so good that you will become poor trying to compete against me. The societal benefit of this interchange is that the public will get the best hamburger at the cheapest price. In other words competition when looked at globally is better than altruism. Beware of proposals that publicly promote the protection for some while tacitly promoting narrow interests. Not to be too cynical, but many of these proponents or their cronies would benefit personally if their recommendations were ratified.

    Hardly anyone promotes a direct socialistic takeover today but if the latest trends persist neither of us will be able to sell hamburgers at reasonable cost. This is because of the indirect manner of attack used by today’s leftist pressure groups. For example: 1.) Cows produce methane which contributes to global warming. 2.) Cows have feelings and should not be slaughtered. 3.) The French fries that come with the hamburgers have trans- fatty acids. 4.) The wrappers on the hamburgers contribute to road side litter and solid waste, contain traces of dioxins and PCBs and the meat contains estrogens and antibiotics. These are causing cancer, premature menarche, congenital malformations, autism, etc. This is all due to inadequate government control of hamburger makers. 5.) The employees don’t get minimum wages and proper health insurance because of lack of national health care and unfair restrictions on unions. 6.) The meat is contaminated with bacteria due to inadequate government inspection. 7.) The manager is a white male and the employees are predominantly minority and female and are non-union due to inadequate affirmative action programs and patriarchal control of society. 8.) The product is contributing to the national obesity problem but the obese are unfairly discriminated against. 9.) There are too many hamburger stands, a fact that is contributing to urban sprawl. Proper social /governmental control of this is being prevented by real-estate developers. 10.) Oh, now something new. Entrepreneurs are making too much money relative to the poor. This is unfair because it is making them sick. You need to give them more of your profits which may heal them by reducing your affluence.

    A surprising thread running through many of these pleas is the appeal to health. Why? Are supporters of these causes hypochondriacs? Since the economy and life span are at an all time high, do they have no other things of which to complain? Are health complaints the most effective type? Note the trajectory of litigation and legislation from obvious to less obvious injury, from mine safety, to asbestosis, to tobacco use, to sexual harassment such as putting pinup girls on office calendars, etc. Likewise, since there is now a near absence of gross environmental pollution, lack of polio and TB epidemics and now the availability of effective treatments for AIDS, wars where two or three soldiers die daily instead of 12 thousand storming one beach and relief from the fear of a nuclear holocaust, the senses must be progressively sharpened to feel progressively less realistic fear and more subtle injury..

    The last I heard, banks were being sued because terrorists were bank depositors and bought their airline tickets with funds from a bank. Will you soon see the rich being sued for damages because they bought a mink coat for their wife and drive a Lexus instead of a Chevy?

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