Homo Economicus [4]: Enlightened Self-Interest

homo economicus

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest in a free market improves things for everyone. This belief powered Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” and finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”

What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of American capitalism in its current iteration. This is from a 2017 Atlantic article:

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”

Critics point out that there is no such thing as a free market or objectively rational self-interest, arguing instead that the market is inescapably skewed toward policy-makers’  beliefs and values — i.e., their particular interpretations of what “self-interested” behavior looks like.[1] As a result, economic policy always comes laden with ethical and moral beliefs about “good” vs. “bad” outcomes, which the not-so-free market then dutifully delivers:

“Milton Friedman argued that competition between big businesses suffices to safeguard the public interest, but in practice it is almost always insufficient, especially where there is collusion among the players to safeguard their market dominance – and their political influence.

“Free-market economists have an unwarranted faith in the capacity of price adjustments to produce technological changes in production and patterns of consumer demand. Their theories imply that the price system has infinite capacity to shape sustainable outcomes.

“But if the self-interested market behaviours continue to seek an unchanged goal – more personal incomes with which to purchase more material goods – ultimately they cannot be fulfilled.

 “Ultimately, the short-term self-interested economic arrangements are not sustainable anyway. As the US economist Kenneth Boulding once said: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.

“Economic inequalities also predictably widen where self-interested market behaviours dominate. Capital makes capital, while those without capital often remain consigned to poverty. Certainly, the very rich have become notably much wealthier during the last three decades while neoliberal ideologies and policies have been dominant. In the absence of strong unions and governments committed to some degree of egalitarian redistribution, the unequalising tendency is inexorable. The result is predictably unhappier societies that experience a higher incidence of social problems, as empirical research complied by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett clearly demonstrates.

“Something has to give. An economic system that rewards amoral self-interest creates economic instability, fractures economic insecurity, fosters concentrations of economic power, exacerbates economic inequality and violates ecological sustainability. So much for the self-regulating market economy!

“There is currently much talk of ‘social responsibility’ in business and of ‘triple bottom line accounting’ that emphasises the use of social and environmental criteria, as well as a financial criterion, in assessing business performance… Indeed, businesses developing reputations for responsible behaviours may reap benefits in the form of worker and customer loyalty. But unless and until ethical behaviours become integral to how markets function – by directly affecting ‘shareholder value’, for example – it is hard to see the overall effect as much more than window dressing for ‘business as usual’.”

Oh, The Morality: Why Ethics Matters In Economics, The Conversation (in partnership with the University of Sydney) (March 22, 2012)

More on ethics and economics next time.

[1] For more on whether the market is truly “free,” see this article and this one. Or if you prefer, here’s a short video and here’s a TEDX talk.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch — True or False?

free lunch - mIlton friedman

free lunch - steven hawking

We can assume that the pros and cons of a universal basic income (UBI) have been thoroughly researched and reasonably analyzed, and that each side holds its position with utmost conviction.

We can also assume that none of that reasonableness and conviction will convert anyone from one side to the other, or win over the uncommitted. Reason doesn’t move us:  we use it to justify what we already decided, based on what we believe. SeeWhy Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker (February 2017) and “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017).

History doesn’t guide us either — see Why We Refuse to Learn From History, from Big Think and Why Don’t We Learn From History, from military historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart. The latter is full of conventional wisdom:

“The most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophes of others.

“History is the best help, being a record of how things usually go wrong.

“There are two roads to the reformation for mankind— one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.

“I would add that the only hope for humanity, now, is that my particular field of study, warfare, will become purely a subject of antiquarian interest. For with the advent of atomic weapons we have come either to the last page of war, at any rate on the major international scale we have known in the past, or to the last page of history.

Good advice maybe, but we’ve heard it before and besides, most of us would rather make our own mistakes.

If reasoned analysis and historical perspective don’t inform our responses to radically new ideas like UBI, then what does? Many things, but cultural belief is high on the list. Policy is rooted in culture, culture is rooted in shared beliefs, and beliefs are rooted in history. Cultural beliefs shape individual bias, and the whole belief system becomes sacred in the culture’s mythology. Try to subvert cultural beliefs, and the response is outrage and entrenchment.

All of which means that each of us probably had a quick true or false answer to the question in this week’s blog post title, and were ready to defend it with something that sounded reasonable. Our answer likely signals our knee jerk response to the idea of UBI. The “free lunch”– or, more accurately, “free money” — issue appears to be the UBI Great Divide:  get to that point, and you’re either pro or con, and there’s no neutral option. (See this for more about where the “no free lunch” phrase came from.[1])

The Great Divide is what tanked President Nixon’s UBI legislation. The plan, which would have paid a family of four $1,600/year (equivalent to $10,428 today) was set to launch in the midst of an outpouring of political self-congratulation and media endorsement, only to be scuttled by a memo from a White House staffer that described the failure of a British UBI experiment 150 years earlier. UBI apparently was in fact a free lunch, with no redeeming social purpose; thus its fate was sealed.

As it turns out, whether the experiment  failed or not was lost in a 19th Century fog of cultural belief which enabled opponents of the experiment to pounce on a bogus report about its impact to justify passing the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 — which is what they wanted to do anyway. The new Poor Law was that era’s version of workfare, and was generated by the worst kind of scarcity mentality applied to the worst kind of scarcity. Besides creating the backdrop to Charles Dickens’ writing, the new Poor Law’s philosophical roots still support today’s welfare system:

“The new Poor Law introduced perhaps the most heinous form of ‘public assistance’ that the world has ever witnessed. Believing the workhouses to be the only effective remedy against sloth and depravity, the Royal Commission forced the poor into senseless slave labor, from breaking stones to walking on treadmills….”

From “The Bizarre Tale Of President Nixon’s Basic Income Plan.”

If UBI is a free lunch, then it’s an affront to a culture that values self-sufficiency. If it isn’t, then it requires a vastly different cultural value system to support it. The former believes that doing something — “making a living” at a job — is how you earn your daily bread. The latter believes you’re entitled do sustenance if you are something:  i.e., a citizen or member of the nation, state, city, or other institution or community providing the UBI. The former is about activity, the latter is about identity. This Wired article captures the distinction:

“The idea [of UBI] is not exactly new—Thomas Paine proposed a form of basic income back in 1797—but in this country, aside from Social Security and Medicare, most government payouts are based on individual need rather than simply citizenship.”

UBI is about “simply citizenship.” It requires a cultural belief that everybody in the group shares its prosperity.  Cultural identity alone ensures basic sustenance — it’s a right, and that right makes Poor Laws and workfare obsolete.

The notion of cultural identity invites comparison between UBI and the “casino money” some Native American tribes pay their members. How’s that working? We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Yes, Milton Friedman did in fact say it, although he wasn’t the only one. And in a surprising twist, he has been criticized for advocating his own version of UBI.