Prosperity

You Might Have Earned It, But Don’t Forget That Your Wealth Came from Society

To be human is to earn the right to share in the wealth generated by productive social institutions

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By Ryan Avent

Like most people, I often wonder if I am paid fairly. I like to think that I am very good at my job. But I am keenly aware of my bargaining power. It amounts to this: I can threaten to go and maybe The Economist won’t want me to. And yet there are large numbers of people out there who could do my job well. My training and fluency in Economist culture are important to my professional success, and yet there are vast numbers of people out there with similar skills and experience, who could learn the culture if given the opportunity.

Of course, I work very hard. I put in long hours. To some small degree, I work long hours because that extra effort and contribution boosts the firm’s bottom line, and a bigger bottom line means a little more money, thanks to The Economist’s profit-sharing programme. But the link there is too small to have anything but the tiniest effect on my compensation.

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The main reason I work hard is because the value within The Economist is social, and that social value is distributed over a limited set of economics writer positions, and I mean to cement myself in one of those positions. And the way to accomplish that is to distinguish myself and to create the general impression of indispensability. The hours I invest are a critical part of the case I make to my employers to put me in my job in the first place. And it is the job that is the prize, because the value generated by the firm is so overwhelmingly social in nature: our culture and collective knowledge are our competitive edge; the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts.

The wealth of humanity is limited by our ability to produce goods and services of value. The production of goods and services of value increasingly rests on the collection, processing and management of information. There is no value without the knowledge of what can be produced, what ought to be produced, and how it can be produced most effectively. It is the information-processing structures of firms, cities, nations, and other institutions of human society that gather that information, and sort it, and turn it into the production that enriches people around the world. The wealth of humans is societal. But the distribution of that wealth doesn’t rest on markets or on social perceptions of who deserves what but on the ability of the powerful to use their power to retain whatever of the value society generates that they can.

That is not a radical statement. People take what they can take, and it is only the interplay of countervailing forces and the tolerance of the masses that limits that impulse – that works to create institutions that limit that impulse.

It is impossible to imagine Bill Gates’s wealth without Bill Gates’s ingenuity and effort. But it is far easier to imagine Bill Gates’s wealth being produced by someone other than Bill Gates within the institutions of modern American economic society than it is to imagine Bill Gates generating Bill Gates’s wealth in a different time and place – in France in the 1700s, or in the Central African Republic today – in which society was or is less tolerant of entrepreneurial capitalism and the accumulation of personal billions, and where the community of engineers that gave rise to and became America’s tech sector is absent. Indeed, at some point in Microsoft’s history it was Microsoft the information-processing organism that was more critical to Bill Gates’s wealth accumulation than Bill Gates himself. People, essentially, do not create their own fortunes. They inherit them, come to them through the occupation of some state-protected niche, or, if they are very brilliant and very lucky, through infusing a particular group of men and women with the germ of an idea, which, in time and with just the right environment, allows that group to evolve into an organism suited to the creation of economic value, a very large chunk of which the founder can then capture for himself.

The Wealth of Humans

In his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith mused on the way in which market economies translate human impulses into social wealth:

[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer … 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. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

Smith was seeking to replace one view of the way the wealth of the world is generated with another. The prevailing view at the time, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, was that large trade surpluses were the route to riches – the larger a country’s surplus, the greater the inflows of gold and silver – which implied that riches were zero-sum in nature. A larger surplus for one country necessarily required a smaller surplus for another. This antagonistic, ‘mercantilist’ world encouraged a worldview sympathetic to imperialism and war.

Smith saw things differently. Trade is not zero-sum, he wrote. Rather, trade increases the size of the market, which allows for greater labour specialization. Specialized labour is more productive than non-specialized labour, so that a world of trade and specialization, in which many people focus on one task and exchange their produce with others in mutually beneficial trades, is one in which everyone is much better off than a world in which individual countries seek to buy as little as possible from competitors. The ‘common wealth’ is maximized when people are left free to follow their self-interest and exchange whenever and with whomever they choose.

It is a beautiful and important intellectual model of the world. But it is incomplete. Self-interest governs more than our behaviour in labour and product markets. It also governs our attitudes and behaviours towards the societies in which we belong. Societal openness generates broad benefits but localized costs. And so people rationally seek to limit societal openness, out of self-interest.

But if the locus of redistribution could be changed, then the zero-sum aspect of societal openness could be defused. Secure in the knowledge that societal growth would not reduce redistribution (and could indeed increase the value available for redistribution by increasing global output) the incentive to draw the borders of society tightly would be curtailed. The challenge, of course, is to create the broad social interest in an encompassing redistribution. How to do that?

There is the hint of an answer in Smith’s other great work, the The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which opens:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

The force of human empathy can be made to serve either openness or societal mercantilism. The question we ask ourselves, knowingly or not, is: with whom do we want to share society? The easy answer, the habitual answer, the ancient answer is: with those who are like us.

But this answer is bound to lead to trouble, because it is arbitrary, and because it is lazy, and because it is imprecise, in ways that invite social division. There is always some trait or characteristic available which can be used to define someone seemingly like us as not like us.

There is a better answer available: that to be ‘like us’ is to be human. That to be human is to earn the right to share in the wealth generated by the productive social institutions that have evolved and the knowledge that has been generated, to which someone born in a slum in Dhaka is every bit the rightful heir as someone born to great wealth in Palo Alto or Belgravia.

The difficulty we face is managing the thing. We must try not to destroy the good institutions we find in front of us, the workings of which we do not entirely understand. In seeking to make the world a better place, we must be cognizant of the fact that this matters, and that we can’t reasonably expect even the most empathetic of societies to throw open their borders heedlessly when no other country is doing so, and when the pool of potential migrants dwarfs those living and working within those rich societies.

But we should also realize that those societies do not belong to us. If we are lucky enough to find ourselves within them, we can argue credibly that we are contributing to them and therefore deserve a share of the benefits that flow from them. But the fact that we are lucky enough to be within them and contributing to them does not confer on us the exclusive right to such a position.

If anything, it confers on us the responsibility to try to make the society as robust as possible, so that its membership can be extended to as many people as possible. No one deserves to be poor. No one deserves to be arbitrarily rich. Rich societies can find ways to justify their great wealth relative to others: their members can tell themselves stories about the great things they did that others could not have done that made them wealthy beyond imagination. Alternatively, they could recognize the wild contingency of their wealth, cultivate human empathy, and do what they can to extend the wealth of humans to everyone.

wealth-of-humans_cover From The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Avent. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.


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  • LowDownToo

    Wow. An amazing collection of pseudo-intellectual babble. I am now dumber for having read it. Thanks a lot.

    • robertmkadar

      Your welcome!

  • “That to be human is to earn the right to share in the wealth generated by the productive social institutions that have evolved and the knowledge that has been generated, to which someone born in a slum in Dhaka is every bit the rightful heir as someone born to great wealth in Palo Alto or Belgravia.”

    Hitler and Stalin had similar sentiments.

  • hdc77494

    Somehow you ignore the reality that societies exist because free individuals choose to participate in them. Without productive individuals, societies cease to exist. The assertion that most wealth is inherited or the product of government assisted crony capitalism is laughably false. What Adam Smith understood was that individuals working in their own interests collectively create incredible wealth and prosperity for entire societies. The most important components for massive wealth creation are free citizens and private property rights, i.e., the rule of law, where all citizens are required to compete abiding by identical rules. Our current system isn’t flawed because it allows some individuals to become exceptionally wealthy, but because we do such a poor job of ensuring access to equal education and equal opportunity. Bill Gate’s billions have zero bearing on my individual ability to create wealth. More importantly, people like Bill don’t stay on top forever, Through the market’s creative destruction, Bill gets displaced by Zuckerberg, or Bezos, and they will be replaced by others. Patents and copyrights expire and new people with new ideas develop new products and new wealth every day. Far more than half the richest individuals in America, and everywhere else with open markets, accumulate their wealth in a single generation. Thirty or forty years from now, their names are replaced by others. I am far less fearful of any individual chasing their own wealth than I am of government bureaucrats with the power to forcibly extract wealth from the most productive citizens in order to accumulate power by buying votes with other people’s money.

    • bampbs

      There is only one way to insure equal opportunity. Let everyone choose his own parents. Nature and nurture, whatever their portions of the mix, will
      come from the same place.

      The entire notion of meritocracy at high levels is a farce. It is no more than a new hereditary aristocracy, without the noblesse oblige of the old one.

    • Duncan Cairncross

      No you are totally wrong – something well over 80% of wealth is inherited,
      The rare individual who produces wealth is to be cherished but 90% of rich people are rentiers – takers not makers

      • hdc77494

        80% of wealth may be inherited, but theit of the richest among us is constantly changing. For the richest, more than half on the list attained their wealth in a single generation. The wealth you’re talking about is mostly home equity by the middle class.

        • Duncan Cairncross

          No! – You are making the same mistake Forbes did
          Just because Donald (as an example) turned 200M into 4B does NOT mean that he “attained” 95% of his wealth
          The 200M did that – if fact if a monkey had been in charge it would probably have made more than 4B
          The Donald did not “attain” anything positive

          Some people on the Forbes list did come from nowhere – but the vast majority inherited their wealth

          • hdc77494

            I’ve been reading Forbes for thirty years. The majority every year did NOT inherit their wealth. There’s plenty of info out there about the actual income distribution of the rich, the volatility of that wealth, and the reality that for the very rich, majority inheritance is a misnomer .If you increase your net worth from 200M to 4B in a single lifetime, then yes, you did get 95% of your wealth in a single generation.

          • Duncan Cairncross

            That is exactly the point!!
            If you did absolutely NOTHING then in the last 50 years your wealth would have increased from 200M to MORE than 4B
            You would NOT have “attained” that wealth – the increase in wealth was completely autonomous

            Which is where 90+% of the “wealthy” have obtained “their” wealth
            They inherited it!!! (and after they inherited it it continued to grow)

          • Now, what constitutes that ‘nothing’ to create 95%, or rather more ? Investing in 1966 in the S&P 500?

          • Duncan Cairncross

            Just giving the money to your “money man” and going back to sleep
            Piketty analysed just how much better a large sum does than a small sum (and it was a lot)

          • Hmm, I see the principle, but I do not see how it works in practice: most ‘money men’ seem to be beaten by indices – at least nowadays.

          • Duncan Cairncross

            Hi Carl
            over the last 50 years a 6% compounded increase is about 18:1
            While 6% now is fairly high over most of that period it was normal to low and large sums can get noticeably higher return than small sums (as Piketty showed)
            So that would be the 95% (OK 94.4%)
            So just a “normal” return

    • Noel Darlow

      I think you’ve got that completely backwards. Societies do not depend on self-styled “wealth creators” with economic super-powers. The wealth creators depend on productive societies. Ultimately all wealth is created by societies not individuals. It’s impossible to cleanly separate the contributions made by different sectors of the economy or by different people.

      Moreover, at a time of increasing inequality, the “wealth creators” will more often be found to be extracting wealth not creating it – wealth which they cannot reasonably claim to have earned by any work-contribution which they have made.

      The opportunities for unearned income are huge: over-inflated salaries & bonuses, tax avoidance/evasion, inheritance, all forms of rent-seeking, over-charging and profiteering. We are being robbed blind.

      The truly fascinating thing about humans is the extended networks which we create and our relationships within them. Any economic ideology which puts an excessive emphasis on the individual degrades these relationships and damages the networks on which we depend. They are wrong not just in the subjective sense of “in my opinion” but objectively wrong because they ignore a fundamental fact of human biology. We’re a social animal which lives in co-operating groups. Opportunities for individual success cannot exist without group success.

      As for private property, we first have to consider: what is private property?

      To own property is to have exclusive rights of some kind. If these rights are asserted by force, then others are also free to take them by force. We can probably assume that nobody would seriously argue for that.

      This leaves consent: property rights can only be held with the consent of the rest of society. Societies have an ultimate authority to intervene to protect the common good and they have a duty to create a fair system of property ownership which applies equally to all and which provides opportunities for all.

      The idea of an absolute, unquestionable right to private property is the original sin of capitalism. It inevitably leads to semi-feudal divisions of wealth and power which are incompatible with democracy.

  • bampbs

    To read TWoN without having read The Theory of Moral Sentiments is like reading a specialist treatise without a background in the field. ToMS was written first, and Smith always considered it his masterpiece. But even reading all of TWoN destroys the false impression that the few Standard Adam Smith Quotes prove that Smith cheered on selfishness and greed. No doubt, he promoted the material productivity of the division of labor; but later in the book he confronts the human cost, admitting that it degraded the worker to the lowest level still consistent with remaining a human being. It would choke those who consider Smith the patron saint of laissez-faire to read his words insisting that the government ought to address this problem.

    I comment (too?) often on Economist.com. I think you’ll have your job for awhile yet.

  • Cawe Coy Rodrigues Marega

    More than society, the planet.

  • Wanderer1896

    How does this apply to Politicians that line their pockets while claiming they are helping the populations they claim they are helping?

    • maxifixer

      Its all part of nature, we call ourselfs humane but we are all animals. What we call animals eat each other for dinner, we do the same thing just economically.

      • Noel Darlow

        We’re actually a very special kind of animal. Lots of species live in social groups but we alone have created civilisations which extend far beyond the bonds of genetic kinship. That’s really quite a spectacular achievement.

        There is a huge evolutionary advantage in social groups – much of it due to the opportunities for better information processing. Each new generation will begin with the accumulated knowledge of their ancestors. If one person learns how to make fire, or a new kind of tool, everyone in the group will pick it up too. They don’t all have to figure it out from scratch.

        Thus social skills which help people to co-operate will be highly favoured by natural selection. Things like empathy, compassion, skill at communication. Groups with better social skills would tend to out-compete weaker groups because they are more cohesive. They would likely also be larger – perhaps dramatically so.

        However there is no point contributing to the group if the group does not also deliver for the individual. Thus the principle that “all rules must apply equally to all” – which is the foundation of all morality – would have been hard-wired into us from the start.

        As a social animal we can’t have individual success without group success. That always has been and always will be true.

        • maxifixer

          True humans are special, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that humans are no different than animals in the food chain, sure we dont eat each other for food but we do eat each other financially and socially. Animals have more rights and get treated better than some humans. Spectacular no, predetermined yes, no one makes themselves what they are nature does and everything that comes with it like intellec, stature, skills, strength and so on. If we truly had free will to become and do anything then everyone would be great, popular, well spoken, athletic, tall dark and hadsome and so on, then how would we define great.

  • maxifixer

    Contrary to popular belief, wealth and success is not created by individuals, its born. Example, Michael Jordan didn’t do anything to become a great basketball player he was born that way. If u say thats not true then why aren’t you or anybody a great athlete, because u were not born to be one thats why. Free will is just an illusion, your destiny is set at birth your just following your predetermined path.

    • Only partially true, Michael Jordan also needed to put in hours of training – physically and mentally. Hadn’t he done so, he would have been somewhere else in life.

      • maxifixer

        Its all predetermined just like this conversation, if it wasn’t u would be MJ.

        • Why? by who? by what?

          • maxifixer

            Exactly

          • No, not exactly – that was a question to you! 😉

            If you make claims, should be able to substantiate.
            Otherwise, it is a statement like 2+2 = 5, the world is flat, …

          • maxifixer

            Your replies are predetermined as is your believe that things are not predetermined, there are scientific documentaries that ponder the qustion of free will. I dont need any special degrees or prof of anything to claim predetermined universe as i do not follow the crowd or popular belief. MJ was cut from his high school team (society, coach, institution) but that Doesn’t mean he didnt know how to play basketball. U can not with 100 percent of a guarantee prove that things are not predetermined, i can prov they are, see u are right now and in the future where your predetermined spot is and u cant prove otherwise including this dialog.

          • Well, if it is possible, I want to see this proof from you!

          • maxifixer

            Your seeing it right now. If there was anything or anywhere in the world u could be doing or be, what and where would it be.

          • If one starts from the assumption of causality (as Plato did) and follow that line of thought critically and enquiringly, as did Bacon, Newton, Heisenberg, et al, then you end up at Quantum Mechanics, which seems to suggest that at the very lowest level, nothing may be known with certainty, and everything is made up of complex systems operating stochastically within probability constraints.

            When you take large collections of such small things (which includes the smallest of things that humans can perceive with their native senses), then they deliver a very close approximation to hard causality (within experimental measurement error).

            It seems that only within such a complex system, that is a mix of the random and the constrained, can the possibility of free will exist.

            It seems that for individual human beings, the possibilities that occur as being available are very much a function of the unexamined assumptions delivered by culture and biology.

            Yes, certainly, there are many levels of influence on human behaviour, levels of physics, chemistry, biology, culture, habit; and to the degree that one examines and questions such things, and brings them to the light of awareness, then to that degree, it does seem that free will exists; as one influence amongst many in the outcome of the vast array of probability distributions that seem to actually be involved in this thing we call reality.

          • maxifixer

            In any case free will is just an illusion, if free will actually existed there would be no lower class everyone would free will there why to the top. Tge fact that everyone cant free will there way to the top is an example of predetermined destinations. If free will existed no one would need insurance. Lets say u run to seven eleven and on the way back a plane falls from the sky and kills u. U see tge plane comming but cant get out of the way, but why dont u t use your free will to avoid it, the reason is it was all predetermined.

          • I don’t see it that way.
            I don’t see free will as being in control of everything.
            I see free will as one influence amongst many on the probability of the occurrence of anything.

            Systems have the properties they have, as do networks.

            And we seem to have this property of free will.
            Free will is not any sort of omniscience, or omnipotence, it is simply the ability to consciously be a causal agent, to choose one model amongst many, to have a go, not necessarily to get everything accurate or to succeed.

          • maxifixer
      • Tracy Hern

        He also needed to be in a market with hundreds of millions of customers and limitations imposed by television rights and limitations from the NBA as to how many players there are competing. Millions of people put in hours of training – physically and mentally to do many jobs, sports, hobbies, pursuits of passion on this planet without the commensurate audience/customer numbers in play and they will never see the wealth generated from their dedicated activity that MJ did. They are somewhere else in life.

  • The moral sentiment of the author: “there are people out there with more money – let’s seize it!”

    • Noel Darlow

      More like: “Let’s establish the principle that no-one shall receive any form of wealth which they cannot reasonably claim to have earned.”

      The right ought to be able to get on board with that just as eagerly as the left (obvious exceptions for the sick, elderly and unemployed).

  • Beautiful excerpt. I work on institutions and “the commons,” and they are both vulnerable and NOT destroyed due to these social forces.

  • Tracy Hern

    In plain terms, it’s hard to imagine Bill Gates wealth without Bill Gates aggregating the labor of thousands of people and directing the aggregated labor in the payroll and benefits department to shunt a huge proportion of the wealth the many created to a single source – himself. Where would Bill Gates be without all the aggregated labor? We call these people ‘Great’ for doing this, when great might also be understood as fair, taking a reasonable proportion of the wealth the many earned, and dividing the rest of the earnings among the people who collectively generated it.

    • On the one hand, Bill Gates probably ‘inherited’ a lot of social capital and knowledge from his family / father, he also had access to computers early in school and spent a lot of his time there. What enabled him to buy (MS) Dos at 50K and sell it to IBM and then to build a company around that?

      • Tracy Hern

        Seeds were there absolutely, same with Woz, whose father had early access to IT and started teaching him at age 4. The advantages turned into the mega wealth when the aggregated labor was added to it. Bill Gates did not invent every feature that came out of Microsoft, nor did he negotiate for the purchase or transfer of many features and technologies that came out of Microsoft. He simply directed operations such that he became the owner of a portion of the wealth generated by every person who worked at Microsoft, whether he had anything to do with it or not.

  • maxifixer

    Its all part of nature the earth didnt practice to be earth it just was, just like MJ. His practice, career, greatness, was all predetermined and inherited by a super novi that created everything. Different precious metals are few because of the intense heat of the tail end of the super novi, they didnt choose to be any specific type of metal they where created different by the nature of the universe. Just like this conversation was predetermined, u or i have no control over whether or not we reply or what we say. U can explian away anything u want but it wont change what was predetermined, which is everything. If practice was all it took to be great or rich we would all be. Society is just part of nature, it doesnt create anything that wasn’t predetermined.

  • maxifixer

    So for those of u that believe in free will and a person can do anything and create their own wealth, what are u waiting for. Sorry your only going to get what nature predetermined. Those who say always and never are usually wrong but in th case no one can prove everything is not predetermined and i can prove that it is. See.

  • I wonder why all the writers here at Evonomics dread and fear income inequality. There would be something far worse than that: Income equality. Think about it. When did humans ever enjoy income equality? When they were absolutely dirt poor.

    • Noel Darlow

      When people talk about equality they do not mean perfect equality but rather about reasonable limits for the amount of inequality which we should tolerate. There are some very good reasons to claim that this is the most important task of any government.

      Democracies are subtly or not-so-subtly subverted by elites who hold most of the wealth and power. Ordinary people can’t afford to buy a news organisation for example, or make donations on a scale which might make politicians receptive to policy suggestions.

      There is a ton of academic research which shows that every possible social ill you can imagine: crime, teenage pregnancies, social mobility, educational outcomes, health, drug use – you name it – is much worse in a more unequal society (google TED talks The Spirit Level). Human societies simply do not function properly with high levels of inequality. As a species, that’s just not who we are (I’ll spare you the evolutionary argument).

      Inequality also limits economic success. The aforementioned social problems are very expensive in themselves plus businesses have a hard time selling products to consumers who have little money.

      My idea of a fair society is a ratio between highest and lowest hourly rates of pay of 5:1. Maybe even as high as 10:1 if you twist my arm. This would create a much more cohesive society but still provide plenty of scope to reward hard work and special skills.

      Who could honestly say that the work they do is worth ten times more than another person? In the end we’re all forced to work harder for smaller salaries in order to pay the price of vanity and greed.

  • Ghaliban

    The paragraph about how the author works so hard because the value created in his firm is all social is a bit comical in its contradictions! If the value created were largely social, then additional individual effort would yield highly diminishing returns. So there should be no reason to work long hours. A basic 9 to 5 should be more than enough (even that is 40 hours a week, which is a lot for say a single magazine article per week). The reason the author works so hard is not that the value created by the firm is social, but that his bargaining position as a writer is weak. As he notes, the Economist can afford to replace him very easily, since it carries no bylines, has a standard house style for all articles and its readers only engage with the brand, never directly with the writers. And so the only way to stay in the job is to work longer hours than others are willing to (which is another way of accepting a lower real wage than others are willing to in the labour market). Compare and contrast this with say a journalist at the Financial Times or the BBC, and you can see the difference. There, journalists are allowed to create individual brands by directly engaging with their audience in their own name, and therefore command greater market power in the labour market than those who work anonymously for the Economist.

  • jothwu

    Thanks to the author for an insightful article. The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century is now on my reading list.

    If squirrels had relied on capitalism as
    it is defined today, where a few stored most of the acorns for the
    winter, the species would have experienced the kind of fate we are
    facing today.

    With the proper amount of political will, we can redistribute wealth and minimize gross income inequality by way of a sufficiently progressive tax code and use the power of
    capitalism to benefit us all . . . to include the one-percenters.

  • familyguy

    I concur with the sentiments of equality within limits. How to get there is the big question. That is where the article leaves off. Let’s have some rational articles on that critical and imperative process.

  • Some excellent stuff in this article, and in the following comments, particularly those of Ducan Cairncross & Noel Darlow.

    And yet I am still left with the impression that the article does not explicitly go deep enough into the incentive structures of the very complex systems present in modern society to give us useful insights on making powerful choices for our shared future.

    Unless one can understand human behaviour (including all of the many complexities of economics) in the multiple contexts of evolutionary theory, games theory, complex systems, quantum mechanics, and probability, then something very important is missing.

    Perhaps the single most important insight from the combination of those five disciplines is that, to a good first order approximation, all major advances in the complexity of living systems are characterised by the emergence of new levels of cooperation, and to be stable, all cooperative systems require active attendant strategies to prevent invasion by cheats. In a very real sense, all levels “moral sentiments” can be seen as levels of such stabilising strategies.

    Maxifixer notes we are all animals, which is true, and that some animals do eat each other, which is also true, but not all animals eat each other in all contexts, behaviours can be very context sensitive, with even many of the most violent of predators having their social side in appropriate contexts.

    Human beings have very complex natures, which include both competitive and cooperative aspects, and which of those possibiities gets to express depends very much on the context perceived.

    In contexts of genuine scarcity, competition tends to dominate.
    In contexts of genuine abundance, cooperation will always out perform competition.

    We live in multiple levels of simultaneous contexts.
    Which of those levels we get to “see” and experience depends very much on what we look for.

    There are two insights not mentioned in this article that are key to the possibilities inherent in our future.

    1/ Technology is on an exponential growth path that far exceeds our population growth. Information processing is doubling in under a year. That ability to automate systems is making tentative steps into manufacturing, and molecular level manufacturing envisaged by Drexler some 30 years ago is rapidly approaching. We can do it now, but only in limited contexts at present. That context set will expand rapidly. As it does so, the set of goods and services potentially available in universal abundance without need of further human labour will expand exponentially. Our ability to do more with less is growing far faster than our population. Universal abundance of all reasonable needs is a real option in the relatively near future, and it will never be the natural outcome of any market based system.

    2/ Markets are a scarcity based measure of value, and all the many levels of information processing done by markets have the characteristic of valuing universal abundance of anything at zero. That was fine when the only important thing truly universally abundant was air, but it becomes critically important as the set of things potentially universally abundant expands on a double exponential. Right now, most of those things are in the realm of information. Energy and material objects are both on the start of that curve.

    All of the many levels of information generation and processing now done by market mechanisms can now be done much more efficiently by other mechanisms, if we choose to make it so.

    Markets require scarcity to work. That is the major reason for Intellectual Property laws.

    We have the ability to produce material abundance for every person on the planet, and doing so will break the market based system. Logic demands it.

    Doing so is, to my understanding, clearly in the long term interests of everyone, as everyone benefits from the security delivered by the levels of cooperation such abundance makes possible.

    Seeing that every person has the potential to live on indefinitely is very much part of the bigger picture. Such thoughts are still beyond the bounds of credibility for many, even if they have been beyond any reasonable doubt for me for over 40 years.

    Individual life and individual liberty are and must be the prime human values, and both must exist in contexts of social and ecological responsibility.

    Complex systems have complex and very context sensitive boundary conditions.

    And the price of such liberty must be eternal vigilance against new levels of cheating strategies, and for new levels of effective risk identification and mitigation, and anti cheating strategies.

  • chris goodwin

    This article pops up two months late ! Still, here’s my ha’porth.
    The author makes the same mistake as many others, (like Obama e.g.) – in assuming that there is a real organisation that can be acalled “society.” This is codswallop. Socialists and sociologists have agreed to analyse the human world in such a way, forming a society here, a sociaety there, and endowing them with rights, and principles, and structure – but this is all theoretical. There is no ontological realiity behind the words. The closest organisation that you can point to is one or more structures of government – political or commercial, national, regional or parochial, industry wide, corporate or divisional, – lots of organisations, which are real enough and have legal standing as “bodies corporate” or state institutions, charities, what have you. But “Society” is just political flim flam, the attempt to identify the “original” signatories to the famous but mythical “social contract” – the great coming together of all men of good will in one great deliberative body of clever clogs, who made the basic decisions to which we must all now submit.

    Crep? Crip ? Crop? Crup ? Cryp? (or something like that,) on stilts.

  • Patrick cardiff

    Or did my wealth come from my knowledge, skills, and abilities to recognize what society wanted from me? Or did it come from other traits I have?
    I’m with Chris Goodwin. The word “society” is a human-manufactured term referring to mean behaviors, is all. Unless one repudiates society, in a sense, one is a go-along with the mean and the mean is arbitrary. Society can say “kilts are in!” one day “cravats are in!” the next. It is senseless. Instead, be your own heterogeneous self. But be empathetic if you want. And wear sunscreen.
    The problem with aggregates is that they do not measure you and me. In fact, aggregates tell you nothing about the real world. The bias in aggregation is the loss of individual traits which make life worth hanging out for. Variance should be the emphasis in Economics. Nature is diversity, not a point estimate.