The Spectre of Math

October 19, 2009


Filed under: Economics,Personal,Politics — jlebl @ 4:42 pm

I’ve been thinking about why it is hard to explain ones political views to certain other people. Especially people I think are smart and logical. I think the main point is motivation. If you are a person who’s main motivation for doing anything is some sort of material reward, then you will not understand how socialism works. On the other hand, if motivation by material reward is not the most important thing for you, then you have a hard time understanding the first kind of people (Let us call first kind the set of material-motivation people and second kind the complement of that set). And both will lead to the one side thinking that the other side is either stupid or evil.

The first kind of person will be unable to comprehend how anything could possibly work if there is no material compensation. And humans are very good at dismissing any objective evidence that doesn’t agree with their world view (whatever it is). So the first kind of people will try to look for other motives of the second kind of person who is suggesting something that requires people to work without material compensation (or at least sufficient material compensation). That there is ample evidence that a large proportion of the populace is not at all motivated by simple material compensation seems irrelevant. For example, take things like free software, wikipedia, any sort of volunteer work. But even cases when people take lesser jobs because the jobs are more fulfilling to them.

The second kind of person will, on the other hand, think that the first kind of person is just a greedy bastard who wants as much for himself as possible. And that’s not necessarily true. There are many of the first kind of people who are just plain scared that if you make a world where not everything is compensated materially, then the world will collapse. They do not necessarily lack compassion.

I think the problem for most economists is generally that they are the first kind of person. Capitalism in its pure form can only work if everyone is materially motivated. I will not improve my product to sell more if I truly don’t care about selling more. I would say the proportion of each kind of person is on some fuzzy scale about evenly distributed. So capitalism breaks down precisely because of the erroneous assumption that everybody is motivated by personal material gain. At the same time communism breaks down for the opposite reason. True believing communists, somewhere deep inside think that the majority of population is not motivated only by personal material gain, but that only a small set of greedy bastards are. So if you could just remove those greedy bastards, you could have a just society. That doesn’t work either (mostly because those greedy bastards generally ended up running the show).

I’ve had a tough time explaining my motivation for doing certain things. For example, working on GNOME at one point, or perhaps writing up my differential equations notes and letting them be freely distributable. I’ve had to resort to saying to the first kind of people that it was “for fame” and to “feed my ego” (and perhaps there is some truth in that). But that’s not primarily why I did both things. I did both things because I thought they should be done. Why do you clean up your desk? Why do you do laundry? Why do you mow the lawn? Because those things should be done. I wanted to have a decent desktop without having to keep paying a single company for delivering a crappy one. So I thought GNOME needed to be done. Lately I thought that buying moronically priced books leads to increase in the education spending, leading to a bigger barrier to education for lower income students and leading to larger debt (always a bad thing IMO) in the population because of student loans. So writing freely distributable textbooks needs to be done. I had the opportunity so I did it. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to save the world, I’m too cynical to try to do that. I also liked doing both of the things mentioned. But the motivation was not monetary gain.

I also did a lot of things for material gain. I have nothing against that. I don’t think capitalism is evil, just like communism also isn’t evil. Anyway … just rambling … I saw the latest Moore flick … maybe that’s why.


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