A number of insightful recent books and articles point out various pieces of the following picture:
- People are fascinating bundles of benevolence and selfishness.
- A well-designed market can channel people’s selfish tendencies into actions which, in the aggregate, achieve beneficial social ends.
- Our economic theory models markets, not people, so only human selfishness is relevant. Homo economicus is entirely selfish.
- Because the conditions that nurture benevolence are invisible to market theory, an “optimized” market system may inadvertently poison benevolence. In other words, market theory may create the perfectly selfish people it postulates.
- For-profit corporations are artificial entities designed for the market. Consequently, they are defined to be the perfectly selfish, totally profit-driven players market theory postulates.
- “Good management” means training each employee to internalize the values of the corporation.
- Top managers are valued for their ability to “make the tough decisions”. In other words, they eliminate all human values other than profit from their decision process.
- Increasingly, all the rewards of the corporate system flow to those at the top.
Put all that together, and you see that we have created a system that trains us to be bastards, and rewards us according to how well we have managed to stamp out our benevolence.
When you put it that way, it sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?
Let’s start with the upside of this vision: If our economic system is making us into worse people than we would otherwise be, then we could be better people and live in a nicer world if we just stopped making ourselves worse. This is not the utopian vision of the “new Soviet man“, a society-centered being who will spontaneously appear (for the first time in human history) after the revolution. It’s the far more modest observation that human beings have benevolent as well as selfish tendencies, and that creative system-builders could figure out ways to make use of human benevolence and nurture it.
That’s the uplifting message of The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler. Benkler says that through most of history, big cooperative projects only happened through “the Leviathan” — the state, exercising top-down power to make people play their parts. (Picture slaves dragging blocks to build the pyramids.) With capitalism comes the alternative of “the Invisible Hand” — the market, in which many individual decisions can add up to something big. (Think about how we wound up with lots of personal computers rather than the “big iron” IBM originally offered.)
Most of our political debate is about the Leviathan vs. the Invisible Hand: Will we get things done through government or by manipulating the incentives of the market?
(One hybrid observation doesn’t get enough attention: A corporation or cartel can dominate a market to the point that it essentially becomes a government, usually an unelected and unaccountable one.)
Anarchists have long claimed that another choice is possible: voluntary cooperation. But until recently, it was hard to find examples on scales larger than a barn-raising.
Then came the open-source movement, which Benkler identifies with the Penguin, the logo of the open-source Linux computer operating system. The Internet grew up together with a host of open-source projects created and maintained by volunteers: Linux, Apache, Mozilla, and eventually Wikipedia. Each in its own way defeated corporate-sponsored for-profit competitors. (Some, like Linux, eventually drew in corporate support, but on their own terms. IBM pays employees to contribute to Linux, but IBM still can’t own Linux.)
Benkler doesn’t claim that we could live in a complete open-source utopia; only that the principles that make open-source projects work have unexplored potential. Many people in our society are starved for opportunities to express their inventiveness, skill, and creativity in ways that do not pay them money, but win them the admiration of a peer group that shares their values. Similar motivations could complement monetary incentives more broadly.
He reviews much of the recent research into cooperation, reaching this conclusion:
In hundreds of studies, conducted in numerous disciplines across dozens of societies, a basic pattern emerges. In any given experiment, a large minority of people (about 30 percent) behave as though they really are selfish, as the mainstream commonly assumes. But here is the rub: Fully half of all people systematically, significantly and predictably behave cooperatively. … In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.
The bulk of the book explores non-internet examples of how these principles play out in Japanese management, in community policing, in politics, and elsewhere. He concludes by offering principles for “growing a penguin” — designing a system that nurtures cooperation rather than incentivizing selfishness.
One of Benkler’s political examples — the get-out-the-vote strategy of the Obama campaign — is examined in more detail in The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It turns out that who people vote for may be determined by self-interest, but whether they vote isn’t. Nobody really believes their single vote will decide the election, so purely selfish people will stay home and pursue their other interests. The most effective method of motivating marginal voters, it turns out, is to appeal positively to their civic pride, while subtly reminding them that their non-voting will be a matter of public record. In laboratory experiments, this pride/guilt combination is more effective than paying people to vote.
Staying positive for a bit longer, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I have reviewed before, finds that online gamers hunger for the chance to be a respected member of a questing community. She reports that many gamers feel their online persona is a better person than they are in their offline jobs and relationships. Like Benkler, she examines ways that the design principles of games could be used to encourage cooperative and altruistic behavior in real life.
Now let’s look at the negative side, starting with a book that walks the line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek humor: Assholes, a theory by Aaron James. A sociopath is someone who lacks any moral core, but uses other people’s moral scruples to gain an advantage over them. An asshole, according to James, is different: He has a moral sense, but his moral vision comes with an unassailable sense of entitlement. So, for example, he understands perfectly why other people should wait their turn in a line, and is honestly incensed when they don’t. But he also feels — not occasionally, but constantly — that his special situation or status entitles him to cut to the front.
Like Benkler, James recognizes that most people aren’t assholes. (If they were, there would be no lines. We’d all just shove our way to the front.) But late in the book he considers whether a society can reach a tipping point, where there are so many assholes that the rest of us are driven to behave like assholes just to avoid constant exploitation.
From there he considers how capitalism can devolve into asshole capitalism. Suppose some social change causes the system to send
a powerful entitlement message, for instance, that having ever more is one’s moral right, even when it comes at a cost to others. As asshole thinking and culture spread and take hold, the asshole-dampening systems that used to keep assholery in check become overwhelmed. Parents start preparing their kids for an asshole economy, the law is increasingly compromised, the political system is increasingly captured, and so on. As some switch sides while others withdraw, cooperative people find it more difficult to uphold the practices and institutions needed for capitalism to do right by its own values. … Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more.
James applies this model to various countries and concludes: “Japan is fine, Italy already qualifies as an asshole capitalist system, and the United States is in trouble.” (One symptom of Italy’s trouble: Even Silvio Berlusconi’s supporters understood that he was an asshole. Nobody cared.)
And that brings us to Gus DiZerega’s blog post Capitalism vs. the Market. In some ways this belongs to the same genre as my own Why I Am Not a Libertarian — insights that begin with a critique of a simplistically appealing libertarian worldview. DiZerega views the fundamental libertarian error as upholding corporate capitalism because markets are good. DiZerega agrees that markets are good, but corporate capitalism is something else entirely.
Markets, he says, are ways that producers and consumers send each other signals about supply and demand. The market doesn’t tell you what you should do, just what it will cost you. For example, the slave market won’t tell you whether or not you should free your slave, just how much money you’ll be passing up if you do.
But in corporate capitalism the market usurps the decisions once made by humans.
To succeed in managing a capitalist institution a person must always try and buy for the lowest price and sell for the highest before any other value enters in. Any corporate CEO allowing other values to trump this principle will see his or her decisions reflected in lower share prices. If these prices are much affected the corporation risks the likelihood of being taken over in an unfriendly acquisition, its management ousted, and financial values once again elevated above all others. In other words, as a system of economic organization capitalism defends itself against richer human values by penalizing and expelling people who to some degree put them ahead of profit when making economic decisions.
In theory corporations are owned by people. But in practice you cannot remove your capital from a corporation. All you can do is sell your shares to someone else. By selling, you disassociate yourself from practices you may consider immoral, but you do nothing to end them. Think of slavery again: You can free your slave, even if it lowers your net worth. But if instead you own shares in Rent-a-Slave, Inc., all you can do is give or sell those shares to someone else. No slaves are freed when you do.
So if I don’t want to profit by addicting people to drugs that kill them, I can sell my shares in tobacco companies. But the tobacco companies themselves roll on. To the extent that they are profitable, the new owner of my shares will make money and gain power in society. Even individually, power accrues to people who have no values beyond profit.
The libertarian ideal is of people who are free to live by their own values, trading with each other without coercion.
Capitalism is different. It is the gradual overwhelming and destruction of all values that are not instrumental. … Once capitalism exists non-instrumental values are actively selected against, and receive little opportunity for expression. Human beings become profit centers for corporations, and nothing more. … Capitalism cannot distinguish love from prostitution.
I wish DiZerega had said “corporate capitalism” rather than just capitalism, but otherwise I agree. As I put forward two years ago in Corporations Are Sociopaths, we have created entities that embody all of our worst traits. James and DiZerega are pointing out what then happens to us and our society when those created entities are allowed to dominate.