Re: One humanity, all in the same boat

From: Chris Hibbert (
Date: Tue Jan 22 2002 - 00:42:13 MST

I wrote:
> >I agree that
> >many people are driven by envy and care about relative standing. I don't see
> >that that gives the argument moral weight. Some people are doing very well at
> >improving the lives of others, and they're being compensated very well for it.

And Peter responded:
> A society in which a large fraction of rewards go to a handful of people
> who become the best tennis player or the best movie star is a society in
> which in which a large number of people take big risks to become one of that
> handful, and it is a society in which most of the people who make that
> attempt fail to achieve what they want.

And who do they hurt when that happens? And who benefits?

I think the answers are that some people are sad that they didn't become the
best, and most enjoy the pursuit. Many people benefit from the side effects
of the competition. Entertainment, improved products, better prices, etc.

> > That's why life is so much better for everyone, including the worst off.

> Everyone? Do you deny that there are people who have lost their job
> security due to economic change?

When I said everyone is better off, I didn't mean compared to their neighbors,
as that is clearly impossible. I meant compared to anyone 200 years ago or
500 or 1000. I don't deny that people have lost job security. But the poor
in this country are filth rich by any long term measure. The poor in other
countries that are relatively free have access to tremendous resources because
other people are doing their best and being rewarded for it.

As an aside, do you think that job security is an asset that someone can own?
Why is it relevant to this discussion?

> Do you deny that there are people whose
> pristine view of lake Tahoe has become less valuable because someone else
> became wealthy enough to build another house within that view?

No. Why do you ask?

And in the middle of Peter's message, he said:

> That's why the arguments in Luxury Fever imply that there are negative
> externalities associated with celebrity-worship. Since I don't see any way
> to internalize those externalities, I therefore believe that a moral system
> which creates social pressure to make choices that reduce inequality will
> produce a nicer society than a moral system that claims inequality doesn't
> matter. Most of the choices that affect inequality aren't as simple as
> choosing whether to worship celebrities, but that doesn't make them any
> less important.

I'll grant that there is something to this argument. It doesn't seem like it
makes the case for much more than subtle social pressure. The pressure to do
well, the desire to be the best at what one does have positive externalities
as well. We don't encourage people to do their best by pushing for outcomes
to be less dependent on results.

Convincing people that they don't need to be as rich as Croesus to be wealthy
by any reasonable measure seems a fine meme. But this line of argument
usually seems to be pushing toward convincing those who are relatively wealthy
that it's their fault that other people are unhappy. That seems mistaken to me.


It is easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup, but not so easy to turn 
fish soup back into an aquarium.
-- Lech Walesa on reverting to a market economy.
Chris Hibbert

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