Monday, June 9, 2014

The Natural Home Of Homo Economicus Is A Massive Surveillance State

Last term I taught a course in philosophy of economics for the first time. Early on, we read some passages from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. I wanted to initiate a discussion of the way Smith -- who was also the author of Theory of Moral Sentiments -- understood self-interest in context.

As we all know, Smith said "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." So I asked the students "If people are really just self-interested, why do they pay the baker at all? Why not just hit him over the head and take the bread?"

The first answer they gave was that if you hit someone over the head you'd get caught and get punished, so it would not be in your self-interest to do it.

That answer is surely right as far as it goes. But it doesn't go too far. What if you knew, or strongly suspected, you wouldn't get caught? What if you were stealing not from a baker but from some giant impersonal corporation? And what if you were right that you could get away with it?

A few people pointed out that it would still be wrong. "What if everyone did that? The whole system would fall apart."

This goes further. Morally speaking, it's a good answer, evoking both Kantian universalism and some of Smith's own ideas about morality and the point of view of an impartial spectator. But once you ask "what if everyone did that," you're in the realm of morality, not just self-interest.

This isn't a problem for Smith himself, since he embraced morality and understood self-interest in the context of a decent society." (You can read more about Smith's moral and political views in this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and in this scholarly paper.)

But in our modern world, you're likely to encounter people who think self-interest is the whole shebang, like the guy described in this article who said there is no moral high ground, there's just self-interest.

Now, OK, I get that this guy is not saying "it's all self-interest" in the sense of "it's all selfishness." Since he says that Mother Theresa was acting self-interestedly, we know he intends self-interest somewhat broadly, to include preferences people have for doing things for other people and not just for themselves.

Still, even if some people have such preferences, many people do not. Even people who do have them are presumably trying to set them aside when they're acting in the world of business, in which looking out for the other guy is a kind of transgression.

In fact, it's worse than that, because the modern person who allows their personal moral qualms to constrain their behavior is often treated in modern culture as a loser, someone who lets other people walk all over them.

So what about the reason for why you shouldn't just stealing the bread? If the moral answer is off-limits, then we're back to punishment: it's not in your interest because, and insofar as, you might get caught.

But we know what that means: for the system to work, you have to catch people. A lot of people. And for the system to be fair? You have to catch everybody. Or at least, enough people to put the fear of god into everyone.

A few years ago one of the Freakonomics guys noticed that if you put a letter in the mail without a stamp in the US, it will often get through. Why? "The reason is apparently the automated mail sorting machines fail to catch many letters that are missing a stamp."

On the blog, he asked readers to try to send mail without postage to see how much of it gets through.

One commentator responded,  "Are you using your blog to call for theft of service? I’m not against it, I was just curious." Another said, "Don’t encourage free-loaders."

Of course, stamps are just stamps. But what about large-scale fraud? Insider trading? Why shouldn't you do it? If the answer is only self-interest, you'd better be everywhere with your hidden recording devices, your search warrants, your coerced informants.

Back in the day, you might have tried telling everyone that doing the wrong thing is wrong because, well, it's wrong. But I think that ship may have sailed.

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