April 11, 2007
The Robin Hood Within

Scientists keep finding more and more proof that we are hard-wired for egalitarianism. I sometimes wonder if the acceptance of market economics has been such an incredibly slow, painful, and always belittled process precisely because it cuts against this deeply rooted need we all seem to have to make sure everyone gets a share.

Like our hard-wired dietary preferences, these seemingly hard-wired social preferences simply don't "scale up" very well. While they obviously work when they involve very small groups, egalitarianism sets up precisely the wrong set of incentives required to make large, complex societies grow and prosper over time. For that growth to arrive, and stay, history has proven quite conclusively you need free markets, private property, and a strong rule of law.

Unfortunately the successful application of these conditions inevitably results in income disparity, often very large income disparity, which as noted above rattles the cage of our inner chimp something fierce. To me, this neatly explains humanity's constant, tragic, and utterly intransigent fascination with experiments in large-scale egalitarianism such as Christianity, Islam, and Communism. Even when each of these systems has proven completely (and, in the case of Communism, murderously) incapable of bringing real wealth to the masses, large swathes of us simply refuse to admit their failure.

We create societies so wealthy our poor drive to demonstrations because they're eating themselves to death, and people support them. Mass graves yawn open at the foot of every communist government ever created, and people still wave red flags. Fanatics state flatly their purpose is to dismantle and destroy the economic systems that have put the stars within our reach, and people promptly give them the money to do so.

It's almost enough to make one despair. But, as with our predilection for booze and donuts, many, perhaps even most, of us are now able to resist. It's taken some fifteen thousand years for us to create stable complex societies, but we seem now to have done so. There have been mighty setbacks, but the keys uncovered by Adam Smith and John Locke seem to have finally freed us of the chains we wrapped ourselves in for so long.

Was it fair? Of course it wasn't fair, that's the point. Harnessing greed and balancing ambition is how this game is played. Oppress these natural urges, and nothing moves. Let them run wild, and murderous totalitarianism always emerges. Deny they exist at all and the entire race ends up buried in a mass grave with a red flag fluttering atop it.

We are busy creatures, with large hearts and quick minds. Give us a lever, and a reason to try, and we will by God move the world. Take away that reason, and then try to guilt or force or frighten us into action, and we won't even bother picking the thing up. It really is that simple.

Which is not to say it's obvious, as anyone attending an anti-globalization rally, environmental protest, or Democratic fundraiser will plainly see. We must be careful to make sure our brethren drunk on the milk of their Utopian dreams aren't allowed to borrow or steal the keys to our free-market systems, but it is a care we seem able to take.

It won't stop them from trying, of course. After all, it's an urge we're hard-wired to feel. But as long as we pay attention, they'll fail.

You awake yet?

Posted by scott at April 11, 2007 03:06 PM

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At odds with this would be familial obligations. From what I remember, given a choice between feeding our family and others, family comes first. This desire can even be scaled nationally as our mind can view "our group" (be that a town, state, nation, county, race, high school, or whatever) as more important than another. I think it's the balance of these that lets our society be stable. Not so much greed, though it serves its place, but that simple hard-wired desire to better things both for oneself and one's family/group.

Aside from that, dead on.

Posted by: ron on April 11, 2007 03:45 PM
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