Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, August 08, 2016

Our Social Peace with Capitalism and the Role of Self-Control

Just a quick thought, which I will elaborate on by updated this post in the future.

Capitalism and free markets (I will use the terms interchangeably) are conceptually difficult, and to reach well-supported judgments everyone would have to specialize in economics.  To cut to the chase, the "case for free markets" that is taught to freshman college students is grossly incomplete and doesn't address the best opposing arguments.  You might say that it's a "straw man" argument, in the sense that it assumes the critics of capitalism are making a crude, almost incoherent argument against it.  (In fact, there is no scarcity of crude, incoherent arguments against capitalism, so in that sense it is not a "straw man."  But it would be nice to conduct the dialogue at a higher level.)

Anyway I won't get into that now.  I'll just observe that we have thoroughly absorbed capitalism into our social contract.  We expect that people who want to earn money will expose themselves to the labor market.  We have basic market norms about the products that we buy.  We would have no patience for an argument along the lines of, "The government should compel Grey Poupon to make their mustard spicier."

On the other hand, we (rightly) see the market as a means to an end, and we don't fear to bend it to our purposes.  The government has no business regulating the spiciness of mustard, but it has an extensive role to play in organizing the market, softening its sharp edges, and overruling it when other values are at stake.  College students often take a class in introductory economics and then are aghast at the existence of, say, national parks.  Most people intuitively understand that we are not about to abolish public parks to implement some demented vision of a purely capitalistic society.

All of this has been very vague, and intentionally so.  To the extent the free marketeers have a point, it is this:  there are many different ways to weave the market into society, and different approaches will produce different winners and losers.  The possibility of wasteful political arms races, fueled by the profits from government intervention in the economy, is very real.  This isn't really an argument against government intervention—there is no any feasible way to renounce regulation altogether, and nor is there such thing as a "neutral" or "objective" or "optimal" set of regulations—but it suggests that the political determination of economic outcomes should be limited in scope.  Basically we have to establish a higher-level set of rules that foreclose certain disputes before they arise.  It goes without saying that these higher-level rules also have distributional consequences, and are not handed down from above but rather must be hammered out politically, and so you can imagine an infinite regress toward a depressing conclusion.  However, many societies have established successful constitutional orders and shared norms that support widespread prosperity, happiness, and liberty.  So it is not impossible, though it may be more contingent and serendipitous than we like to think, and our self-congratulation may be somewhat unwarranted.  By the same token, our scorn for less successful social orders may be uncalled for.  Much of our success was accidental.

Now having set the table, I want to discuss a particular issue in an advanced capitalist society like ours.  Who are the big losers in our system of capitalism?  The ones getting the attention lately have been the disaffected white blue collar workers who allegedly form the core of Donald Trump's support.  And it is true that globalization and technological change have together led to massive disemployment in the manufacturing sector.

However, while conceding that life is hard in the declining industrial areas of the country, I think more attention should be paid to a different (overlapping) category of people who suffer under our system:  people with poor self-control.  It seems to me that, more than anything else, we are turning into a society that is built by and for two-marshmallow people at the expense of the one-marshmallowers.

Imagine someone who does not struggle with addiction, who finds it easy to resist the temptation to eat unhealthy food or to make impulsive purchases, who doesn't gamble.  Who exercises regularly, who is diligent at school, who always uses birth control (except when trying to conceive), who saves a prudent fraction of his or her income.  Of course there are no guarantees, and this person could still end up impoverished or in poor health.  But I think that even in relatively poor parts of the country, such a person has a decent shot at a good life.

Now I'm cheating, of course.  I've described someone who is hyper-disciplined, more so than I am, more so than most people I know.  On the other hand, I haven't given this person any special intelligence or talent beyond self-control.  What I think is remarkable is how decisive self-control is by itself.  (To be fair, I am merely asserting that the individual I've described would do well.  You can disagree, and certainly it's not hard to think of categories of people who are doomed no matter what, or who labor under severe externally-imposed burdens.  But I think it's fair to say that many people's lives are derailed specifically by poor self-control, and that someone who is impervious to that sort of failing possesses an important protection against some of the biggest threats to living a good life in this country.)

To put it another way, our social order is hugely punitive for people with limited self-control.  We have decided to allow the wolves to lie in wait for anyone who stumbles.  You may say that this isn't a policy issue, that people with poor self control inherently do worse in any society, and there is nothing we can do about it.  I don't think that's true.  Fifty years ago, where could you legally gamble other than Las Vegas?  (I am talking about casino gambling, not horse racing.  I admit horse racing may have been a big problem.)  Even then, plenty of people lost their life savings in Vegas, of course, but going to Vegas was a discrete, planned-out action (unless you already lived there).  On a daily basis, someone who lived anywhere else in the country didn't have to exercise very much self-control not to gamble.  Today, I bet the vast majority of the population lives within 50 miles of a casino.

An important aspect of these kinds of political decisions is that the one-marshmallowers are less likely to be politically active and they suffer from distinct rhetorical disadvantages.  This is because (for complicated reasons that may be justified in non-political contexts) we generally favor personal choice and expect people to exercise that choice responsibly.  We have little patience for arguments along the lines of, "If you offer me a 64-ounce cup of sugary soda I won't be able to help myself."  Since we don't grant any legitimacy to some of the most genuine arguments against the status quo, people are deflected into dubious economics or reprehensible white nationalism.  (Of course many people are eager to embrace these ideas in the first place—I don't mean to suggest that Trump voters were trying to frame their arguments in terms of marshmallows until Trump came along.  My point is that the truth about our system is inconvenient for almost everyone, and so we spend a lot of time talking about things that are, in my view, tangential.)

The big exception to this trend is smoking, which has been subject to a large degree of paternalism and punitive taxes (as well as social stigma).  But I can think of no other area where similar pressure has been brought to bear in support of people's self-control.  Instead, self-control is now constantly under assault.  We seem to be moving inexorably into a two-track world where the two-marshmallow elites profit from, and scorn, the one-marshmallow masses.  (Hence the ubiquity of "stupidity taxes" such as state-run lotteries.)  One-marshmallow people can do okay when they operate within a supportive social group—a family, a church, caring friends—but when left to the predations of modern capitalism and a largely uncaring government, they are pigs to the slaughter.  This is the society we have built, and the costs (and shame) that we pile onto the "losers" are enormous.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is a pretty good framework. It’s not a new or unique insight, but I do think it’s a trueish one. A lot of traditional social frameworks and rules that have been dissolved by modernity did somewhat serve to constrain those who would grab the marshmallow and so doom themselves to misery. But those frameworks were dissolved for a reason, they had a lot of awful aspects and seriously infringed on people freedom to live meaningful lives.

Any network of social control that is comprehensive and pervasive enough to prevent an individual with poor social control from making bad decisions is also going to be powerful enough that whoever is sitting atop the network and directing it can amass a huge amount of power and wealth by including some rules that are less about protecting those without self control and more about protecting their own interests.

8:31 AM  
Blogger James said...

So where do you fit ubiquitous gambling into this analysis? Is it intolerable as an encroachment on freedom? In other words, even if we constrain ourselves to the blunt tools of public policy, I think there's a lot of room to make our society less punitive of people with poor self-control.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there is something to be said for putting gambling where its inconvenient enough that random addicts are unlike the walk by it on the way to work or to dropping their kids off at school or the like. Like most things there are tradeoffs; to really form a good sense of where the trade off should be made you’d need to know the number of people with gambling problems, the number of people indifferent to gambling, the number of people with a healthy and well management enjoyment of gambling and some estimate of how much the last group enjoyed it vs. how devastating it would be to the first group. My gut feel without actually knowing any of those well enough to be sure is that you probably want gambling to be far enough away that people need to actually go there and not have it where people live.
My point was that social control isn’t a free lunch. (very few things are free lunches). The major period of Catholic control over all of European society may have been a good time for gambling addicts, but it wasn’t a good time for women or gays, or the poor, or serfs, or conscript soldiers, or scientific advancement, or even landscape painting.

8:49 AM  

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