A Brief Thought Concerning Economic Individualism
Posted by Graham Lister on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 11:23 PM
Given the ‘ecological turn’ recently in this corner of cyberspace I recalled a thought that I had some time ago on using ecological concepts heuristically in connection to political analysis.
Some time ago I enjoyed a correspondence with GW about the concept of statistically tracking the possible interactions between specific ideologies and public policies using the ‘scale of competition’ concept from evolutionary ecology.
Recall that from Hamilton’s work we have three zones of evolutionary conflict: between sexes/parents over parental investment in offspring; between parents and offspring over investment of parental resources now and in the future (inter-brood conflict); and lastly between siblings over division of parental investment within a brood (intra-brood conflict) that is also a form of parent-offspring conflict.
All three are really forms of intra-genomic conflict over life-history trade-offs. One cannot have a 1000 offspring and they all receive the same parental investment as a single offspring. Resources are always constrained in biology – not all optimisation criteria can be met – hence trade-offs exist. So an adult’s reproductive fitness maybe maximised by X number of offspring, but as a juvenile an organism’s direct (individual) fitness may be maximised by out-competing and/or the elimination of rivals for parental investment - hence the evolution of sibling rivalry (including fatal sibling rivalry) in both animals and plants (mostly, but not exclusively, in animals - birds and insects mainly). The ‘scale of competition’ in such systems can be both intense and heavily localised resulting in, for juveniles, on a cost/benefit analysis (including relatedness), that it evolutionarily pays to monopolise parental investment over and above the benefits of ‘inclusive fitness’, (particularly if the details of the precise ecologies/developmental biology involved prevents parental interference/control over such behaviours).
OK what does this have do to with multi-culturalism and free-market neo-liberalism etc.?
Well if we take the ‘dog-eat-dog’ world of rampant, cut-throat, individually conceived economic competition as a mechanism that decreases the scale of competition, thus making it more local and more intense, then it could create a broader societal environment that selects against altruists/co-operators and selects for selfish ‘siblicidal’ traits, attitudes and/or behaviour. In fact such behaviours might be entirely rational for those that directly benefit from them. Why be an altruist/co-operator (of any sort) if a hyper-competitive ‘free-rider’ is going to benefit at your expense with no gains for the altruist/co-operator? Free-riding (without mechanisms to punish the ‘selfish’) hollows out social-capital (at what rate is an open question), eventually resulting in a picture of the world in which people can only conceive of themselves as isolated units (the lonely robots in Adam Curtis’ pithy phrase). Atomistic individuals in, more or less, a socio-economic Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. And with this hyper-individualism inexorably come ideas of fungibility – well we are all equal players in this dismal ‘war of all against all’ why does it really matter as to the identity of my rival? After all if everyone (regardless of identity) are all equally dangerous and potentially cut-throat rivals in this game we ‘must’ play, why would any of your competitors secondary qualities actually matter (ethnic, linguistic, cultural etc.)? If someone, for their own advantage or profit, will metaphorically ‘stab you in the back’ at the first opportune moment does the ethnic background, religion etc., of the competitor really make any substantive difference in this situation? Thus the imaginative scope and empathetic idea of an ‘in-group’ and the collective differentiation with an ‘out-group’ is attenuated, as indeed are ideas of collective social solidarity/political-cultural subjectivities with regard to loyalty, mutuality, recognition and reciprocity towards (and within) your own in-group etc.
A regime of market Hobbesianism is the ‘universal acid’ that dissolves such ties that bind. After all only mugs don’t maximally look out for number one and only number one. Much of this view of the world starts in liberal theory and its implicit social ontology - as seen in Locke and all the other usual suspects etc., with the ‘unencumbered’ economic self which magically exists outside of sociality but enjoys all the possibilities, powers and goods (both personal and public) that the collective life of a particular community brings to it members. Lockeans and those of a liberal sensibility are free-riders in extremis.
So how could we measure the degree to which a society is a ‘dog-eat-dog’ one? Let’s assume the more ‘free-market’ forces are unrestricted the wider the distribution of wealth will be – that if there is more economic inequality (a proxy for the intensity/scale of intra-societal competition). Economic inequalities are measured by Gini co-efficients. Now if we could get the data it might be possible to explore the interaction between Gini co-efficients and levels of immigration both comparing different societies and the dynamics of such within recent history – say post-war or the start of 20th century until now. Of course there are subtleties involved. One might argue that immigration initially creates people ‘at the bottom’ so inherently ups the level of inequality in a society – but it might be possible to get Gini co-efficients corrected for such factors (that is a Gini co-efficient for the majority population) – if that was not possible too bad, but a statistical cross-societal and historical within-societal investigation might prove to be useful anyway. How does individualism, particularly of an economic sort, inequality and resistance (or not) to mass-immigration/multi-culturalism play out in the real world?
Both time and high quality data are required and a basic knowledge of how to use SPSS. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. But maybe not. Maybe such analyses are already out there in some form?
Perhaps the Gini co-efficient of nations that have had (or do have) high levels of migrants leaving them might also be part of the story?
In some policy circles the idea of a global minimal wage is being discussed by serious and well informed people. Firstly, it would boost overall global demand (the poor - in this context people existing on incomes as low as $1-$2 per day - nearly always spend any additional income on goods - the plutocrat typically, and unproductively, hoards increased income and/or buys assets like gold). But secondly is global poverty actually in anyone’s real interests? Most people are small-c conservative in their sensibilities and attitudes - if their material circumstances allow them to be. I seriously doubt that Mr. Ghanaian and his cohorts really want to come to London because of its wonderful weather, the fine English cuisine, or the aesthetic qualities of our capital city. Rather it’s predominantly to secure a much better standard of living. Ditto Mexicans in the ‘land of the free’. It is the economy that is attractive and the key motivating factor at work.
A baseline global minimal wage, with appropriately set regional minima, might - just might - take some pressure out of the scramble to get into the developed world from those in the developing world. Notice that not many South Koreans really have a burning desire to pitch up on mass in Sidcup and ‘destroy’ Europe. If the Miracle on the Han River hadn’t occurred the situation might be quite different. Obviously in terms of the really ‘poorest of the poor’ the precise level at which a ‘reasonable’ income needs to be pitched in order to change the incentives involved might be relatively small beer. Again if, in there own terms, Africans, Arabs, and yes even Mexicans could enjoy a reasonable, and reasonably secure, standard of living ‘at home’ many more would be inclined (indeed happy) to precisely do that and stay put.
Then again that’s the ‘greedy leftist’ in me coming out and any such interference in the Holy of Holies - the global ‘free-market’ - is but pie in the sky and might well be too ideologically difficult and/or impractical to successfully coordinate, implement and enforce. If nothing else, rhetorically, such a policy stance would disorientate the usual political narratives. (“What? I didn’t expect that type of outlook from those nasty scum – maybe they aren’t quite such ‘scum’ after all.”) As well as starting to chip away at the nebulous feeling that somehow mass-migration from the developing world to the developed world represents ‘justice’ for the any of societies involved in the exchange.
In fact, on reflection forgot all that ‘scale of competition’ stuff - let alone global minimal wages etc., it would be much better to eschew any thinking of that sort in favour of much more realistically grounded objectives such as getting a “this applies only to whites” clause in the US Constitution, or restoring the absolutist temporal authority of the Papacy. Yes that’s hard-headed realism at work, for real!