Sunday, August 15, 2010

Making Galt

Over at Crooked Timber John Quiggin's post Not Going Galt has generated a considerable degree of debate.  The thrust of the piece is this: The hero of Ayn Rand's objectivist/libertarian opus Atlas Shrugged eventually decided that he was going to leave behind all the "moochers" in society, who clung to him (and men like him like parasites), and establish a sort of libertarian paradise in the wilderness he would call Galt's Gulch.  The reason that no state like this actually exists on the planet is that it is Utopian.  Structurally, its economic model is incoherent.
   "While our hero would never become disabled or unemployed, it’s bound to happen to some people. That means either budgeting for organised charity or putting up with lots of beggars. Randians might appreciate this daily testimony to their own superiority, but I suspect others would prefer that these losers move elsewhere.
   All things considered, it seems pretty clear that Libertopia would yield its residents a greatly reduced standard of living, compared to what they could get from a government. Of course, the ideal would be a nearby government jurisdiction that would provide the large-scale industry needed for a ready source of consumer goods, a home for contracted-in service providers, support for losers and so on, but would not be able to tax the Libertopians."

I would go further.  While from a strictly economic standpoint, I agree that it would be a farce.  But it would also be silly because of the faulty assumptions it makes about human nature.  Not necessarily because some humans are incapable of living in such a fashion, but that the nature of human development itself could not function in anything like an equal or free manner because such a system of government could not provide a sustainable level of social cooperation required to facilitate even current levels of civilization.  Society must be capable of providing its citizens with not only the opportunity to attain some level of social equity, but the means with which to take advantage of it.  The choice can be there, but the will must also be there to take advantage of it.  And because will is not free, society must establish certain structures that facilitate its use.

I always think this is the central issue between the right and left on economics, that is, the idea of what choice is and its relation to human social behavior. It's basically the free will debate, upon which rests all of our assumptions about the way society ought to be structured. 

So take the idea of choice and advertising.  It is not a gun to someone’s head, forcing you to make the decision to buy a certain product. But it isn’t nothing either. The fact that it works is evidenced by the billions spent on it every year. It functions in very coercive ways, in the sense that it operates in areas of the unconscious that, by definition, people can’t be said to be consenting. There are any number of examples, but as someone with bad neck pain, I always think of the example of acetaminophen: Tylenol costs 2x as much than the generic, which is exactly the same stuff, yet enjoys no million dollar advertising campaign. That’s coercion.

Now, coercion is a pretty negative word, yet I think that it is often quite benign. Just because advertising is coercive, it isn’t necessarily bad. Maybe it’s a net gain for the economy. Maybe people actually feel happier buying Tylenol. That’s a fascinating rabbit hole to go down, but I’ll just say right now that there is an empirical process happening, for good or bad.

Back to “free will”, choice, coercion, etc. There is very good research on human agency, or the ability for people to facilitate their own choices in life. If we were to create a life from scratch, there are optimal and sub-optimal structures we would want that individual to develop within. And our assessment of each is mostly based on how much agency it provides the individual. So things like parenting, culture, nutrition, education, peers, etc. would all be organized around providing the individual maximum efficacy. Another word for this is “freedom”. We want the structures to provide him the maximum development of his ability to facilitate his own freedom.

What liberals (and modern research) says is that citizens have great variation in this self-efficacy because of structures in which they have developed. Thus, in order to maximize freedom, we ought to structure society so that each citizen is guaranteed a minimal amount of freedom, or agency. So for example, an individual who inherits millions, comes from a stable home in a nice neighborhood, goes to school with similar children, learns the important cultural norms, etc. will be – in general – more more free, that is, have much more self-efficacy and agency. This is incredibly predictive. If you look at the numbers the pattern is born out in any number ways.

The counter example is the individual who grows up in poverty, from a broken family in a dysfunctional neighborhood, who goes to school with similar children, who does not learn the norms, etc. will be – in general – less free. He will have much more limited self-efficacy and agency. Again – totally born out in the data.

The standard argument against all of this is essentially absurd: people have free will and make their own choices. Hah! This hypothesis would thus predict that individuals in different circumstances would, on average – being essentially the same biologically (I won’t go into the logic that here begins to feed into racism on the right) – generally end up with similar levels of self-efficacy. Basically, we should see as many millionaire white children in prison as poor blacks. Its preposterous really, but this seems to have never quite been worked out by conservatives/libertarians in general. Like I said previously, this is not rational, evidence-based thinking.

So, in terms of coercion, or the ability of an individual to be free from it, in the sense that he possesses a high degree of consciousness about himself and the world, as Bob Marley put it “emancipated from mental slavery”, individuals all possess it in varying degrees. And it is entirely dependent upon biological and social structure. We all make choices, but upon what do we base those choices? And upon what is that basis itself based? This deterministic conclusion is indeed quite frightening to many. But it isn’t any less true. The facts are facts, no matter how much we wish they might be otherwise.
The real question is what to do about it.

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