Monday, April 4, 2011

Economics and Human Morality

Once again, I depart from my usual themes of atheism, religion, and how silly everyone is to ramble on about other things I've been thinking about.

I have been reading a lot of Vonnegut lately (as everyone should), and it has helped me fill out some thoughts that I was already tossing around:

Endless debate concerns the ideal system of economics.  Alarmed cries of "socialism!" rise from the conservative crowds, many of whom have no idea what they're talking about.  However, a few of them actually do know a thing or two about economics, and their advocacy of a purely market-driven economy is reasonably defensible.

Pure capitalism is superior to socialism in terms of its respect for property rights.  Property rights include the assumed right that my future self has to control anything my present self has and does not willingly give up.  In addition, they include the assumption that it is my right to decide what happens to "my" things when I kick the bucket.

What are the ethical origins of property rights?  They seem to be inherent to human beings, and they seem to be a good idea from an evolutionary standpoint.  The cleverest/sliest human beings accumulate the most property.  To propagate one's genes, one would be well-advised to accumulate wealth, reproduce, and then make sure that one's offspring receive that wealth so they, too, can successfully live and reproduce.
However, property rights don't have much else going for them in the ethics department.  It is horrifically unfair that some children should be born into great privilege while so many more are born to circumstances so poor that their chance of survival to adulthood is significantly reduced.  It may well even be unfair that someone who works hard early in life can become rich and slough later in life, and someone who sloughs early in life must work hard later in life just to survive.

However, because of how human beings are built, we don't really function without property rights.  The socialist experiments of the 20th century were not very successful for various reasons, and one of these reasons is the innate desire to claim what one is holding as one's own.  In fact, the human race is so attached to property rights that we are more than willing to suspend our other moral intuitions, like that we shouldn't kill people, in order to retain or accumulate more property.

Socialism, on the other hand, is quite disrespectful of property rights... it is built around the idea that wealth should be distributed, or jointly-owned, or some other such scheme that means that I do not necessarily keep the economic value that I manage to create.  It seems unfair in relation to property rights.  However, socialism is built around ideals serving other moral intuitions, like the consideration of the implicit costs to society incurred by society's allowing certain members to go without many very basic needs.  Very few of us could honestly say that we feel that the situation of malnourished children born into filth and poverty is just, and may even feel a little guilty as we cram down doughnuts in front of our wide-screen TVs.

Can these two desires, the altruistic desire that everyone have enough and the desire for "just" property rights where value created is kept by the creator, ever coexist?

Probably, they can never perfectly be reconciled.  We can do what we've always done, which is argue about it and sort of shoot down the middle somewhere, and somewhat satisfy both.  Or we could try to argue that if the haves were more philanthropic, the have-nots would become have-enoughs, and both principles would be served.  However, this does not seem to be the case; many people have unnecessary luxuries like pools or exotic pets or sports cars when people all around them can barely afford shelter, much less education, insurance, or decent medical care.  Philanthropic giving hasn't ever covered the wide disparity between the wealthy and the desperately-poor.

So I am forced to conclude that, in our present situation, there is not ideal system of economics.  Human beings hold to both of the mutually-exclusive desires for property rights and the humane treatment of fellow humans.  We are contradictory beings who want to have our cake and eat it, too.

Lest I end on a terribly-depressing note, however, I will concede that certain circumstances could remedy this dilemma.  A post-scarcity economy, where essentially anyone can have anything they need and much of what they want for very little effort, might remove the problem.  Basically if we find a way to make replicators from Star Trek and also unlimited energy.  Space is still a problem, of course, but the situation is much improved, and if birth control is also widely available, that problem might diminish.


  1. In spite of your blog title, I am going to endeavor to provide an answer. What if we continued to maintain individual property rights but did away with corporate property rights? It seems like all the short-sighted abuses stem from this situation of limited liability. If we could also somehow mandate total ownership of private corporations by all the employees of said company, I would think this would be a big step in the right direction. The result would be smaller organizations with a much greater emphasis on community rather than profits. Of course speculative industries like the stock markets would be significantly diminished, but that's not really a problem. The real challenge is the make up of our entire political system has been built around protecting the status quo that it seems like the only viable method of bringing about meaningful change is through revolution. The other problem is the people of this country have grown too comfortable and too complacent to stand up and correct the problems. I fear the inevitable outcome will be a collapse. Hopefully it isn't too costly.

  2. Very interesting thoughts. I am not convinced that money would not pool in certain families and with certain individuals if corporate property rights were abolished, but I do not doubt that the situation would be significantly approved.
    Do you think industries that require a huge amount of capital (airlines, mining operations, etc) would survive such a change? I'm not saying a definite no, by any means, but I'm just not sure how such endeavors would adapt; they don't work well on smaller scales.

    I agree that collapse seems likely. But every civilization has to die sometime. So it goes.