Archive for May 5th, 2009

Gavin Kennedy’s blog, Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, reproduces an article (h/t Thoma) written by Nicholas Gruen. Gruen writes,

The internet boom involved companies using the net to broadcast to customers — like ads on TV — or to automate the sales process: for instance, with customers booking their own airline tickets or ordering books. Today Web 2.0, or collaborative web, is enabling armies of volunteers to build a better world. Some are building and giving away public goods such as open-source software (Linux and Firefox) and reference resources (Wikipedia). Others provide expert analysis and commentary on blogs, often surpassing professional journalists. Others, such as Facebook, connect people with something in common.

These phenomena can’t be easily explained within economists’ standard framework, in which economic decision-makers are reduced to the ideal type known in the trade as homo economicus…

Enter Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, published 250 years ago last month, a book he intended partly as a theoretical foundation for his later economics. As Smith sees it, we begin our lives as blobs of infantile egoism — infans economicus, if you like. But from then on Smith sees the process that we now call socialisation deepening and transforming us…

In modern economics, the attraction of great power, fame or wealth is simple greed for more. Smith’s richer psychology offers a more plausible explanation. “(T)o what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world?” Smith asks. What human drive lies behind avarice and ambition?…

Smith was an advocate of self-interest in human affairs, but in a much richer, more interesting way than is usually thought. In advocating a larger role for self-interest, Smith identified the public goods that are prerequisites for self-interest becoming socially constructive. Within economics the invisible hand only works in a peaceful, lawful society, and with strong, free competition.

Within society more generally, self-interest becomes a rich ethical meal, not the morally anorectic egoism of homo economicus. Our natural sociality enriches and educates our self-interest. Craving esteem and imagining ourselves as others see us, we gain some objective appreciation of our own moral worth. And this is ultimately a spur towards virtue as we strive to be worthy of the esteem we crave (although, of course, as we are mere mortals there is much stumbling on our journey).

Web 2.0 is scaling up the scope for human sociality and opening up new vistas for the expression of self-interest. And yet profit-seeking is only a small part of how that self-interest is manifesting itself…

Even Smith’s description of a market was inherently social — he toyed with the idea that the fundamental human drive behind bargaining was the desire we each have to persuade others to see it our way. Smith would have understood the foundational proposition of an early Web 2.0 credo, “the cluetrain manifesto” — “Markets are conversations”.

As Web 2.0 burgeons, its denizens pursue their interests like the merchants in Smith’s Wealth of Nations, posting and commenting on blogs, making and exchanging programming code and mash-ups of each other’s content, making connections based on social or practical needs. Some serve practical needs — perhaps they need some software bug fixed. Others are “know-alls” proving their superior knowledge. Some express their love of a subject.

And just as the miracle of a healthy market enables the merchant’s self-interest to serve the common good, so this new alchemy of the web aggregates individual efforts into freely available public goods.

The article pretty much stands for itself as an application of Adam Smith. I suppose Smith would be proud that this richer notion of self-interest is manifesting itself in places like Wikipedia. On the other hand, you have instances like Google trying to claim exclusive rights to orphan books, claiming it is in the best interest of society that Google digitize the information. I would say the jury is still out on whether truly public goods come out of the second Web boom.


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The Onion (h/t CK): “Nation Ready to be Lied to About Economy Again”:

“I know when he’s telling the truth, and it bothers me,” recently laid-off schoolteacher Mary Hanover said of Obama. “He gets this serious expression on his face and says things like, ‘This is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.’ Who needs to hear that? For Christ’s sake, smile a bit and say we just found a diamond mine under Montana that’s going to pay for everything. I’ll believe you.”

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Daniel Little has an excellent post on the “subsistence ethic,” tracing the moral values of peasants that can lead to widespread social action. You should read the whole thing. Little writes,

Thus the subsistence ethic functions as a sense of justice–a standard by which peasants evaluate the institutions and persons that constitute their social universe. The subsistence ethic thus constitutes a central component of the normative base which regulates relations among villagers in that it motivates and constrains peasant behavior. And the causal hypothesis is this: Changes in traditional practices and institutions which offend the subsistence ethic will make peasants more likely to resist or rebel. Rebellion is not a simple function of material deprivation, but rather a function of the values and expectations in terms of which the lower class group understands the changes which are imposed upon it.

Little then analyzes how James Scott, who theorized about this ethic, links this ethic causally to rebellion:

We may now formulate Scott’s causal thesis fairly clearly. The embodied social morality (ESM) is a standing condition within any society. This condition is causally related to collective dispositions to rebellion in such a way as to support the following judgments: (1) If the norms embodied in the ESM were suitably altered, the collective disposition to rebellion would be sharply diminished. (That is, the ESM is a necessary condition for the occurrence of rebellion in a suitable limited range of social situations.) (2) The presence of the ESM in conjunction with (a) unfavorable changes in the economic structure, (b) low level of inhibiting factors, and (c) appropriate stimulating conditions amount to a (virtually) sufficient condition for the occurrence of widespread rebellious behavior. (That is, the ESM is part of a set of jointly sufficient conditions for the occurrence of rebellion.) (3) It is possible to describe the causal mechanisms through which the ESM influences the occurrence of rebellious dispositions. These mechanisms depend upon (a) a model of individual motivation and action through which embodied norms influence individual behavior, and (b) a model of political processes through which individual behavioral dispositions aggregate to collective behavioral dispositions. (That is, the ESM is linked to its supposed causal consequences through appropriate sorts of mechanisms.)

As Little points out, this explanation makes no account of organizational features that lead to rebellion. I think that the idea of subsistence ethic emphasizes the challenge of social action in the developed world. We are no longer a country with pitchfork rebellions. In fact, most everyone I know (and obviously this is a function of my upbringing), who has engaged in social action has first engaged at an intellectual level. Can there be massive transitions from this- will enough people engage that way? I wonder if we can come up with a parallel ESM for American society and determine the conditions necessary to move it to widespread action. Of course, these questions might be better answered by a budding anthropologist- cough (Sean) cough.

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