Sunday, December 20, 2009

How bad biology killed the economy

Frans de Waal writes an interesting essay, How bad biology killed the economy (summarized and brought to my attention by Mark Thoma. de Waal has an interesting point, but I have a few criticisms.

The first is a disagreement over terminology: de Waal contrasts self-interest on the one hand and altruism or mutualism on the other hand. However, I maintain that we ought to construe self-interest more broadly, mutualism is itself in the self-interest of people acting for their mutual benefit. Our conclusions are similar, only the political and persuasive characteristics of the rhetoric differ. Randians, Libertarians and others have made enormous strides by stressing that mutualism requires the individual to sacrifice his benefit for the good of society, when in reality mutualism requires the individual to sacrifice only the benefits of exploitation and oppression, losing also the drawbacks of resistance and rebellion.

The unfortunate contrast to self-interest drawn by advocates of mutualism allows critics of communism to attribute the errors of communist governments in the Soviet Union and China directly to mutualism; in reality, these errors were mostly* caused by exploitation of the people by the parties (or, according to some, "bourgeois elements" within the parties) when the parties became yet another ruling class. This contrast also allows critics of communism to simply ignore the substantial benefits — the improved status of women, democratization of health care, improved standards of living for huge numbers of people — brought to Soviet and Communist Chinese society, benefits that are difficult to imagine without an explicit philosophy of mutualism as an essential component of communism.

*Some errors were caused by bad luck, bad circumstances, and well-intentioned errors of judgment, problems that no abstract political system can completely overcome.

More importantly, however, is the tenor of de Waal's piece that false ideas about reality have caused people to act against their objective material self-interest; in other words, people's subjective self-interest has become in conflict with their objective self-interest because they have false ideas about reality and what constitutes their objective self-interest.

Clearly this is partly true: large numbers of working- and middle-class people have — to their own detriment — allowed (to the extent they could have prevented) the destruction of what little mutualist legal, political and social constructions created in the New Deal because they falsely believe that mutualism is objectively wrong. But de Waal seems to ignore (or does not stress) that there is a faction of the ruling class that benefits from this fallacy being widely accepted by ordinary people. This faction has a direct interest in heavily promoting this fallacy among ordinary people, and ordinary people will accept it just because it is heavily promoted regardless of its truth or falsity.

There is a faction of the ruling class for whom mutualism is in every sense contrary to their own self-interest. According to this faction, today's economy is not "ruined" — nor was it "ruined" by the Great Depression in the 1930s — the economy is, rather, being restored after Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic party ruined it in the 1940s.

For this faction, mutualism would require a true sacrifice, the sacrifice of their real material benefits — the benefits they derive from successfully exploiting working people — not just the pseudo-sacrifice of an abstract, theoretical benefit of exploitation they cannot actually effect for the tangible benefit of mutual cooperation. Hence we cannot persuade this faction to give up their power to exploit and the benefits they derive; it must be taken by force. They are not acting against their own self-interest because they have swallowed a lie, they are acting for their self-interest by promoting what they know to be a lie, or do not care one way or another for its truth.


  1. I disagree that this shit has anything to do with "biology". The human mind as a biological entity has the capacity to conceive of "self-interest" broadly enough to encompass a wide range of social groupings and time scales.

    The fact that some people are narcissistic greedy fucking douchebags who happen to be incapable of concieving of their own self-interest beyond give *me* my motherfucking cheesy poofs *now* and everyfuckingone else for allfuckingtime until infinity can go fuck themselves with a rusty stove pipe is a personal failing and not a biological limitation.

  2. I think de Waal's main point, which I pretty much agree with completely, is that narcissistic greedy fucking douchebags have successfully justified their douchebaggery by appealing to a doubly fallacious version of the naturalistic fallacy.

    It is false to say that biological evolution favors narcissistic greediness, and it would be the naturalistic fallacy to say that even if biological evolution actually did operate on such principles, that we must then adopt narcissistic greediness as an ethical principle. In much the same sense, just because things do in fact fall when you drop them, that doesn't mean it's good to push people out of high windows.

    de Waal gets it partly right, but he seems to get (or discuss) only a fraction of the big picture, and not the most interesting part of the picture. After all, it's hardly news that the ruling class lies to the masses to justify their exploitation: that's why the ruling class invented religion 10,000 years ago.


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