Friday, February 24, 2012

The Economic Worldview Is Ruining Our Lives

This post is about the way The Economic Worldview is ruining our lives by making us cold-hearted and alone. 

It's often said that The Economic Worldview is compatible with kindness, love, and altruism, and doesn't entail a selfish view of the world.  My argument here is that even if that is true, the economics of the Economic Worldview make kindness, love, and altruism impossible, because in the world of competition and exchange, they're simply unaffordable.

This post has details, so bear with me. 

Let's say that The Economic Worldview is Rational Choice Theory together with The Individualist Social Contract. 

Rational Choice Theory says that human life is all about the cost-benefit analysis.  To act rationally is to maximize benefits and minimize costs, where what counts as a benefit and cost is determined by a person's preference rankings.  That is, people have a list of things they desire together with some judgments about what those things are worth to them. 

When found alone, Rational Choice Theory often presents himself as Mister Harmless.  "Hey," he says, "I'm just a theory about human behavior!  I'm not telling anyone what to do!  No shenanigans -- honest!"

But the thing is you almost never see him alone.  He used to pal around with Utilitarianism, a somewhat kinder gentler fellow who was all about doing stuff for other people just because, you know, it would help them out.  But Utilitarianism's not out and about much anymore.  In public life these days Rational Choice Theory's got a new sidekick:  The Individualist Social Contract. 

The Individualist Social Contract is the idea that human interactions are generally best understood as episodes of Let's Make A Deal.  Everything is a neo-Hobbesian-tit-for-tat.  Life in the state of nature is nasty brutish and short, The Individualist Social Contract says, but that's OK, because if you refrain from killing, plundering, and walking across my lawn in exchange for me refraining from killing, plundering, and walking across your lawn, we both do better.  It's a  steal of a deal for both of us. 

The Individualist Social Contract is all, "What do you want for that?" "What'll you give me if I do"?

When they're together I call them The Economic Worldview.  Together, these two ideas tell you how to run the world.  Actually, they not only tell you how to run the world, they bully you into running it their way.  They're like the socio-cultural Mafia.

What they'll tell you is to run the world according to The Principle of the Economic Worldview:

The most efficient and fair way to run the world is that everyone should make deals with everyone else based on what they're preferences tell them would function as rational trade-offs. 

Makes sense, right?  Joe has butter and wants bread; he makes a trade.  You want something you gotta pony up.  The Economic Worldview will tell you this is the most efficient way to run the world because everyone gets to directly pursue what they most prefer.  They'll tell you its the fairest way because everyone gets to make whatever deals they want.

Yes, I just made this principle up.  Yes, I know it's possible for preferences to be altruistic, so that the Principle of the Economic Worldview does not immediately entail some kind of crude self-interest -- I'm getting to that. 

The problems and limitations of The Economic Worldview are well-known.  It encourages us to divide everything into costs and benefits, when many things aren't quite one or the other.  It treats altruism, voting, and trust as quirks of human nature.  It takes into account only measurable and exchangeable things.  It treats as stable and unchanging preferences which are contextual, variable, and easy to alter.

I could go on and on.  But my point here is not about how the Economic Worldview gets it right or wrong.  It's about how the Economic Worldview changes us. 

At the basis of the whole scheme are preferences.  But there are some funny things about preferences.  First, many of our best preferences are not for measurable and exchangeable things.  They're for things like love, fairness, and the well-being of other people.  Second, preferences change all the time.  If wanting X makes you feel like a loser then you'll stop wanting X.

And here we are finally at the basic idea of this post:  The Economic Worldview makes losers out of the people with the best preferences and winners out of the people with the worst preferences.  So in a real way it makes us worse human beings.

You can probably see how the mechanism works.  The Economic Worldview allows for simple and effective ways of taking into account and satisfying preferences for exchangeable and measurable things like money and objects.

But not so much for preferences for love, fairness, and the well-being of others.  You can try to satisfy those preference through exchanges, but their satisfaction can't be counted as adding to your success -- because they're not measurable or exchangeable goods. 

To put it bluntly, the more you love others, the more altruistic preferences you have, the more of a loser you are in the preference-satisfaction scheme cooked up by The Economic Worldview.  Because the exchanges you make to try to satisfy them just leave you poorer in every other dimension, and the gains you get in satisfying them aren't for measurable and exchangeable things. 

Think of it this way.  What kind of preferences should you have?  To be successful in the world of The Economic Worldview, you should cultivate preferences for money and material objects and you should suppress cultivation of ties of affection, which will get in the way.

In his astonishing book, Gomorrah, about the Camorra mob in Naples, Roberto Saviano talks often of the mob as the natural logical end of liberal free market ideals.  And at one point he explains why loyalty and friendship can have no place there.  "Every bond, be it affection, law, rights, love, emotion, or religion, is a concession to the competition, a stumbling block to success." 

So those altruistic preferences?  In The Economic Worldview, you just can't afford them

Maybe you're thinking, "Well, you're getting carried away.  The problem with The Economic Worldview isn't with the "Economic" part, it's with the "Worldview" part.  Economic principles of exchange are fine in their place, applied in the proper sphere, you just don't want to get carried away.  And everyone knows that."

Nice idea, but no. 

A) We do get carried away.  We use theories of human behavior and interaction to understand and interpret ourselves, and we're doing this now with The Economic Worldview. 

B) Everyone knows that?  Are you kidding me?

What does The New York Times call its "Economix" blog?  "Narrow science applied beyond its scope?"  No.  It calls it "Explaining the science of everyday life."

I rest my case.


Daniel said...

I like your post! I am a little confused by the following, though:

"If wanting x makes you feel like a loser then you'll stop wanting x."

What I'm confused about is in what sense a "loser"? Like money / possessions-wise?

I feel like people make all sorts of compromises - they choose jobs where they make less money because they want to stay with their partner or family, or because they can't imagine working at such and such a firm. Or they get welfare checks rather than taking a job at McDonald's because they think they'd be unhappy at McDonald's. I think typically they don't think of themselves as "losing" in these situations.

I guess it's complicated, but it doesn't seem so clear that one set of values or priorities inevitably stays "on top" or "wins."

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Daniel, What I meant was that as people adopt the economic worldview as a way of understanding their selves and their relations to others in a broad sense, they tend to feel like losers the more their preferences for non-measurable and non-exchangeable goods gets in the way of their satisfying their preferences for measurable and exchangeable goods.

The cases I have in mind are like people who couldn't pay tuition because they were taking care of family members -- their preferences for other people's happiness gets in the way of their ability to go to school and then earn more money.

I think in many relevantly similar circumstances people could feel like losers in a world that adopts the economic worldview. For instance, it might be hard, if you're in those circumstances, to have romantic relationships in a world in which partners are partly negotiating for more measurable and exchangeable goods.

I agree that in some sense, no one value wins or stays on top. But I do think there's something about applying the economic worldview to life in general (rather than just, say, money or business exchanges) that makes us generally more likely to value what is measurable and exchangeable.

The theory counts some things and not others, so it wouldn't be surprising that if we use the theory to understand our nature and our relations to the the people around us we'd tend to count those things for more. It's not something that has to happen, but it's something that somehow does.

So I guess I mean "loser" in the sense that other people, or people in general, with their values influenced by the economic worldview, would count you as a loser.

Thanks for the comment and sorry for the long reply!

Daniel said...