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January 24, 2004

Anti-Capitalism: With Us Always?


Aw, darn, you beat me to it again. I was going to say something about Barry Schwarz's article on how too much choice often reduces happiness, rather than maximizes it. (Mr. Schwartz's article can be read here.) I just want to say that I strongly suspect (based, of course, on nothing but gut instinct) that this trend is related to the topic of my recent posting, Do We Really Have a Market Dominant Majority? which can be read here.

That posting was about how rare it is, even in a thoroughly capitalist society such as our own, to meet people who make speculative investments or are entrepreneurs (the two activites that constitute what might be called 'Higher Capitalism.') Reading Mr. Schwarz's article, it feels to me as if the avoidance of unstructured situations in consumer life (i.e, too many choices makes us emotionally uncomfortable) also explains why so few people play an actively capitalist role in the economy (i.e., speculative investment and entrepreneurship imply too many choices and hence, are emotionally uncomfortable.)

Of course, this doesn't explain exactly what is about making unstructured choices something that turns people off. Nature? Nurture? I dunno. (Although I note that nurture, or culture, certainly seems to play a strong role.) You could say that it's simply a prudent genetically-based avoidance of risk, but if that were true, who would ever learn to, say, ski (an activity that is all about risk and its management)?

I think it is important to note that this pattern of avoiding unstructured problems is far more an emotional reaction than an intellectual one: I don't think that people can't solve unstructured problems, they just don't like to. In any event, this 'bias' may go a long way toward explaining the highly ambivalent feelings that people who live under capitalism have towards 'Higher Capitalism.'

Of course, I still think that anti-capitalism arises at the most profound level from the state of constant change engendered by the marriage of capitalism and advancing technology. This, I suspect, is the ultimate 'burr under the saddle' that makes capitalism (as useful as it is) somewhat emotionally repellant even to dedicated capitalists: it serves as a constant reminder of our mortality. And who likes to be reminded of his own mortality?

Like the poor, I suspect we will have anti-capitalism with us always.



posted by Friedrich at January 24, 2004


What you got me thinking most immediately was that my link-a-thons are 'way too long -- I've been overwhelming people with choice, and that's probably counterproductive, and a pain in the butt. So, as you've probably noticed, I did some pruning and spacing-out. Any reactions? Does it make the link-a-thon less of a too-much-ness?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2004 5:24 PM

From my professional "wisdom stash":
* Working on a color/materials scheme for a client,[especially financial client] don't give'em more than 3 choices. Even if you are given a cart blanche and could bring as much as 8, 3 is about as much as they can stand to choose from without getting irritated and blaming you for that.
* When selecting furniture for a client, don't bring them to a professional furniture showroom for a sitting test. They will see 20 other chairs besides the one you've selected in accordance with overall approved concept and budget, will select something totally hideous out of misplaced macho menthality and when furniture will finally arrive in painted and otherwise decorated room and look out of place they inevitably will blame you. Request furniture showroom to arrange for chair delivery to the client on a loan basis insted.

Oh, I can go on and on - these rules are proven times and again. Geese, I shouldn't have said that...
I hate to think this makes me an evil choice-snatcher, but here you go.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 24, 2004 7:32 PM

Friedrich- I agree that most people aren't comfortable tackling unstructured problems. I think that some of the contributing factors come from the properties of our educational system.

People can be learn to do many difficult things given the correct environment and support. In most educational situations, however, there's little emphasis on these skills. In fact, the educational system seems geared to produce obedient employess rather than people comfortable with the risk-taking necessary to be successful in "Higher Captialism." Sitting in classes listening to lectures all day long isn't a natural thing for most children, but they eventually become accustomed to it.

In my recollection, few courses require much independent thinking. In some classes, rote memorization of facts was all that was required.

I got most exposure to unstructured problem solving in doing research for a graduate degree, and from extra-curricular activities like undergraduate research and the math team.

Posted by: cks on January 24, 2004 10:51 PM

"Of course, I still think that anti-capitalism arises at the most profound level from the state of constant change engendered by the marriage of capitalism and advancing technology. "

Weird. I always thought that was one of its most endearing qualities.

"This, I suspect, is the ultimate 'burr under the saddle' that makes capitalism (as useful as it is) somewhat emotionally repellant even to dedicated capitalists: it serves as a constant reminder of our mortality."

Interestingly enough, it also serves as our only real chance of eliminating, or at least significantly diminshing, that very mortality.

Posted by: Ken on January 24, 2004 11:05 PM

Part of the problem lies in the fact we're not that good at focusing on a goal. Largely because we're not being taught how to focus. It seems that we -as a homicidal mini-lop once said of a hyperactive ferret- are more easily diverted than a toddler after a triple latte.

So when presented with many choices we let ourselves get overwhelmed and go dashing off hither and yon.

The belief that we must have everything or be considered failures doesn't help.

I'm reminded of a show dealing with money and happiness. A successful hip-hop artist was interviewed for the show and he revealed that he got the most pleasure out of using his money to help others. Supporting prospective talent, reading programs, so on and so forth. His view was that the hunt for wealth and the things that come with it is a dead end where even great wealth has no real meaning.

He had more to say on the subject, but my memory is fritzing out again.

The show, in short, was about how wealth really doesn't make one happy. Rather, it's what you do with what you have, and your interaction with others. How you deal with people, your relations with your neighbors and friends.

Remember, friends in a time of no money is better than money in a time of no friends.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 25, 2004 1:12 PM

George "Capitalism" Reisman's partner in crime, Edith Packer, is a shrink. I just ordered her lecture on The Psychological Requirements of a Free Society.

She seems to come from a Randian perspective: clearly defined values are the foundation of a strong personal identity, and a strong personal identity is the prerequisite for navigating what Jefferson called "the boisterous seas of liberty". People who either don't have or try to fake an identity will have trouble setting and steering a course of their own.

I don't know if that explains everything, but it explains a lot. So many prefer to have tradition or community standards or the state make up their minds for them. The creative destruction of the marketplace disrupts this, so they dislike it. Would people with a firm sense of who they are and what they want have this problem?

Anyway, if the lecture's a good one I'll give you a holler.

(Interesting that cks doesn't like lectures. When I was in school I would have killed to be lectured, because in a lecture you actually LEARN things. Information changes hands. I went to school in the early/mid nineties, and most of my time was wasted on phony baloney "projects" and "experiments" which taught little or nothing, but were easy on the teachers. Christ I was bored. So thorough was the taboo that often a teacher would start talking about something and, just as I was getting interested, they'd stop short and say "But I don't want to lecture you". I'd sigh and go back to looking out the window. "Learning to think" is important, sure, but in today's schools it's often a codeword for not learning at all. Thank heaven for The Teaching Company!)

Posted by: Brian on January 25, 2004 10:14 PM

Anti-capitalists fail to appreciate the moral point that free market capitalism is the only non-coercive economic system. Anything else has the barrel of a gun pointed at you (by the state or it's gangster-like equivalent, be it the local warlord or whomever). Of course in even the free-est capitalist systems that have existed the state is still pointing that gun at you for taxes, but at least they aren't telling you what to do with the rest.

As I put it to my wife once, who knows better if you happen to need a new pair of shoes for junior or a dinner out, you or some bureaucrat?

Some would say "oh, but that's not CAPITAL, just your spending money!" My reply is that it's merely a matter of degree and not one of kind. One is either free to spend their hard earned energy as one will, or they are not, full stop.

Posted by: David Mercer on January 26, 2004 3:31 PM

The free market is non-coercive? Ridiculous. Try telling that to Haiti. Rather, the free market is in most cases entirely coercive.

Posted by: Joe on January 27, 2004 2:35 AM


I think coercive is a relative term. For example, if people don't want to utilize the services of my company, I'm not aware of any mechanisms at my disposal to coerce them into doing so. Whereas state activities, like paying taxes, are somewhat less voluntary.

And not to be dense, but I don't get the reference to Haiti.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 27, 2004 11:55 AM

Joe, I used that term specifically to distinguish free market capitalism from the croney capitalism that prevails in most of the 3rd World.

Open contract bidding and such are not features of their systems, so they can hardly be called market capitalism at all, as there are no capital markets in such places (mostly do to the lack of strong titling and property rights, as De Soto so eloquently points out in The Mystery of Capital).

In a reasonably free system such as in the first world, you are free to invest your money where you will, and to quit your job at any time. Not so in countries with currency conversion and capital flow restrictions, and state mandated places of employment. The most extreme current examples of such states being North Korea and Cuba, which aren't doing well at all compared to the rest of the world.

Contrast this with the US, where per capita GDP is over 25% higher than the second-most-free tier of economies in Japan and Europe.

I am still waiting for any example of greater prosperity where there is greater control, rather than the converse. Anywhere.


Posted by: David Mercer on January 27, 2004 4:30 PM

Dang. Wrote a long post and lost it when I got an error trying to post it. But that's okay, I hadn't read David's latest response.

David: If you distinguish between "free-market capitalism" and "crony capitalism" then I'm mostly in agreement with you. In my post I had mentioned Haiti, where President Aristide set up a free-trade zone with the Dominican Republic in the northeastern part of his country (called the Maribaroux Plains) at the expense of the people who had farmed that land for generations. In this case, free-trade was entirely coerced and actually did come from the barrel of a gun.

Posted by: Joe on January 27, 2004 6:26 PM

One of the single largest problems with most developing nations economies is that almost all of their potential capital assets aren't titled.

That shack that a family has lived in for 3 generations? Title that land to them and they can mortgage it to build a small house or business. Building the social and governmental structures to allow this type of development has proven key around the world in stabilizing and expanding developing economies.

In a nation such as Haiti, the only assets that are firmly held are those held by force, by the thugs in the corrupt govt. There may be a market in such a place, in that one can buy and sell things there, but it is not by any stretch a free one.

Rule of law, and not by whim, with the rulers subject to the laws as well, is a pre-condition for a free market economy. Otherwise you do indeed have just another form of organized theft.

Posted by: David Mercer on January 28, 2004 3:52 PM

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