Thursday, February 10, 2005

Inefficient status seeking

It is pointed out that the desire to out-do the Joneses has bad externalities, in that it leaves us perpetually unhappy and unsatisfied. In addition it can also add the sin of inefficiency -- all of these efforts to one-up the next guy may lead to working more than 40 hours a week. Tragic.

Hey, I work more than 40 hours a week, so I can sympathise.

Therefore the solution to this is to tax effort radically, so the benefit we get from effort becomes so small we stop doing anything extra and become content with our lot, thus avoiding the collective madness that is zero-sum arms races over relative status.

One could argue that status competition may make people miserably overcompetitive but 1) maybe that's what people want and 2) do we really care about this sort of misery?

I am not sure why those who feel like keeping up with the Joneses in material possessions wouldn't simply sublimate those urges into keeping up with the Jonses in immaterial possessions. Who has better taste, who has more friends, who has a prettier partner, who is bigger and stronger, who is smarter, etc. etc. are all dimensions that we want to do better along. So now, instead of being unhappy because you have a smaller car than your neighbour, you are unhappy because you have lamer taste in music, fewer friends, an uglier partner, smaller muscles, and a dull wit. We are no happier, we are just unhappy (and envious) over different things.

The Greeks understood that humans were by their nature competitive. The question is how to channel that competitive urge into constructive acts, not destructive acts. Any attempt to eliminate that competitive urge is as doomed to failure as removing the wetness from water. I think that anyone who does not understand the competitive urge inherent in us all is a poor student of human nature.

As for the negative externalities of this zero-sum status-at-the-expense of others seeking, there may also be one or two positive externalities. Things such as, oh I don't know, better medicine, faster cars, bigger TV-sets, nicer food, safer planes, and all the "stuff" generally associated with Progress. In my mind this is an unambiguously good thing, and people who do not think so can go join some jungle tribe and stay there as the parasites get stuck in.

Our natures may doom us to a rat race, but they also bring us wonderful wonderful stuff. Those of us who can overcome our petty, status-seeking instincts get to leave the rat race behind, but get to keep all the stuff. Discouraging work leaves us with our petty instincts AND takes away our stuff. This is an unambiguously bad outcome.

[Finally, "Keeping up with the Jonses keeps everyone at the grindstone... we face a kind of a tragedy of the commons" misrepresents the Tragedy of the Commons. A tragedy of the commons is when the failure to make a good "rival" (ie. you own it OR I own it -- we can trade it but we can't share it) results in its overconsumption and thus, destruction. High status--the good being sought in this case, is in no way diminished by many people seeking it.]

I recommend reading through the comments on the original Stumbling Tongue post. The Tongue agrees that one cannot outlaw envy, but longs for a utopia where society offers "diverse scales of prestige and status, reflecting the diversity of human nature". Winterspeak does not understand how that Utopia differs from our fallen world, where Ivy-educated whizz-kids routinely pass up the lure and lucre of Wall Street to follow gentler pursuits. The Tongue feels a 21st Century Aristotle would become an Investment Banker. Winterspeak feels he would become an academic Philosopher. Winterspeak knows several academic Philosophers, and has now doubt that Aristotle would do fine in their company.

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