Re: One humanity, all in the same boat

From: Peter C. McCluskey (
Date: Thu Jan 24 2002 - 21:39:33 MST (Chris Hibbert) writes:

>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?

 They hurt mainly themselves. Whether others benefit depends very much on
the nature of the competition.

>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.

 The extent to which people enjoy the pursuit is very dependant on the
perceived chances of success.
 Competition to serve consumers or to serve voters produces incentives that
are better than the complete absence of those incentives or any alternatives
which don't involve free markets, but there are plenty of costs associated
with competition, and I think it is often possible to reduce the costs without
much effect on the benefits.
 And not all competition is competition to serve people.

>> > 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.

 We can easily observe that some people are worse off than they were 10 or
20 years ago, by observing the efforts they make to avoid changes. I don't
know of any method of similar reliability that would enable us to say
what fraction of people are better off than they would have been centuries
ago, but I suspect that many aristocrats of previous centuries would not
prefer to have been born in this century.

>As an aside, do you think that job security is an asset that someone can own?

 There are many possible definitions of property rights. There are probably
people with a consistent concept of property rights that treats job security
as a property right. I don't want job security to be a property right, but
I suspect some people who believe it should are rationally serving their
personal interests.
 The average voter seems sufficiently uncertain about whether to treat
job security as a property right that there is no objective answer to
the question of whether it currently is a property right.

>Why is it relevant to this discussion?

 It isn't very relevant to the rest of this discussion, but it seems to
be a symptom of the belief that because free markets are better than the
alternatives, we should ignore problems associated with them.

>> 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.

 Social pressure is the only strategy that I am optimistic about. Asking
politicians, most of whom benefit from inequality of status and power, to
reduce inequality rarely produces a genuine effort to produce more egalitarian
results. But I think there are many political issues on which it ought to
influence voter opinions. For example, I would guess that the duration of
copyright protection that would maximize material wealth would be about
4 years, but that to maximize what people actually value (i.e. adding in
the benefits of equality) would require a copyright duration of a year or
so less than that.

>Convincing people that they don't need to be as rich as Croesus to be wealthy
>by any reasonable measure seems a fine meme.

 If by reasonable measure you mean measures that society ought to encourage,
then yes. In the absence of social pressures, I doubt that a purely selfish
measure would cause someone to loose interest in further wealth.

> 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.

 Agreed. Blaming a few scapegoats won't change incentives that result
from widespread attitudes and policies.

Peter McCluskey          | Free Jon Johansen! | 

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