Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Objectivism v. Determinism

I am a capitalist. I believe that people have a right to consume the same amount of economic value that they produce. No one is owed a living, though people have the right to make a living if they have a product/service to sell, someone to buy, and no third party gets injured.

At the same time, I think free will is an illusion. Just as 90%+ of all communication is non-verbal, many of our decisions are emotional and subconscious and we often decide and then rationalize using our thought. Because ultimately, everything that we do has a chemical pathway. The words I type now can be traced from my finger to my motor neurons to the brain, where it goes through millions of pathways that actually forms the thoughts I'm typing.

So, how do you reconcile these two? People should have the freedom to buy what they please if they can afford it. But the act of buying itself is not a free act. Either way, I don't want the government telling me what I can and can't buy.

So, there has to be a middle position.

Despite his cluelessness of genetics, Brooks has an interesting column in the nytimes about how supposedly rational people get into debt.

First, I'll let it be known that some people are just stupid and don't know what they're doing. Sure, you can call them exploited, but future-orientation is a key component of the mental capacity needed for responsibility.

In short, these predatory companies swooped down on a vulnerable woman, took what they could and left her careening toward bankruptcy.

But also,

Free societies depend on individual choice and responsibility, those in this camp argue. People have to be held accountable for their indulgences or there is no justice. As McLeod herself admirably told Morgenson: “I regret not dealing with my emotions instead of just shopping.”

The two dueling visions I'm talking about, though I blame chemicals more than predatory companies.

Here is the reconciliation attempt:

Decision-making — whether it’s taking out a loan or deciding whom to marry — isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from parents and neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.

According to this view, what happened to McLeod, and the nation’s financial system, is part of a larger social story. America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.

Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.

Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

McLeod and the lenders were not only shaped by deteriorating norms, they helped degrade them. Despite all the subterranean social influences, there still is that final stage of decision-making when individual choice matters. Each time an avid lender struck a deal with an avid borrower, it reinforced a new definition of acceptable behavior for neighbors, family and friends. In a community, behavior sets off ripples. Every decision is a public contribution or a destructive act.

So, the shift has to come from society. We have to stop rewarding frivolous conspicuous consumption. We have to stop treating the mediocre girl with the Gucci purse like a hot girl. We have to stop giving social standing to people with fast cars (that are probably giving oil money to the Muslims too). We have to stop this ridiculous conspicuous consumption culture that is threatening to take over the globe.


Rory said...

"many of our decisions are emotional and subconscious and we often decide and then rationalize using our thought."

Speak for yourself, brother.

Anonymous said...

You are having trouble reconciling Determinism and Objectivism because they are irreconcilable.

In a universe where free will is an illusion, then free markets are also an illusion. It is impossible for man to truly know anything, because everything that he knows is the result of myriad outside influences of which he is not aware (especially if he persists in thinking that those decisions are made of his own free will).

The "heroic" man cannot exist in a deterministic universe.