Incentives

Fans of capitalism claim that money is an incentive for people to do something useful, something for which other people will pay them. They’re mistaken (or lying).

Our present system of private property is a system in which you have incentives to lie, cheat, and steal. You can try to persuade other people that what you are doing is useful, when it really isn’t. You can cut corners, underpay your employees, pollute the environment, create harmful products, in any way that will save you a buck or two. You can do a job that you hate, because you can’t find any other way to make a living. You can spit in the soup. That’s what your incentives are. Market prices are far from true costs, because unmeasured side effects are externalized. Pollution and global warming will continue as long as Exxon can profit from it — or until we’re all dead, which might be before long; global warming is accelerating due to feedback loops.

Fans of capitalism claim that people are basically greedy, and the market is a way to harness Satan. But it’s you who will end up in the harness. If you sign a contract with the Devil, you’ll eventually learn that all the loopholes are in his favor, because he has better lawyers than you do. The only way to outwit Satan is to avoid him altogether. And people are not basically greedy; rather, our present economic system trains people to be greedy.

hunter-gatherersIn place of capitalism, consider the alternative: a system in which all property is shared, and everyone is cared for by the community. In such a system, what are your incentives? Well, you might want to do something useful, because you care about the community you’d be helping, and you might even be praised or thanked for your work. You’d want to grow food or make furniture or whatever is needed — but only in ways that are good for the environment, because there’s not much point in polluting the ecosystem when it’s your ecosystem.

Fans of capitalism claim that people would be lazy, and would not do their share of the work if they didn’t have to. That’s an overly pessimistic and simplistic view of human nature. You might take a vacation for a while, and you might take sometime to figure out what you want to do, and you might take some time to learn some skills. But ultimately most people want to be useful, and want to have something meaningful to do with their time. Except maybe the people who have no idea what meaningful work is, because they’ve never seen it. Our present system is structured so that very few people ever get the opportunity to do useful, meaningful work.

And even if a few were lazy, it would be only a few, and they wouldn’t consume much. They would consume far less than the people of Wall Street, the people who have gamed the current system.

Fans of capitalism claim that what we need is more privatization. For instance, they say that the atmosphere would not now be filling up with carbon if the atmosphere had been owned by some profit-making company that could have sued Exxon. But I’m sure that if the atmosphere were owned by some profit-making company, that company would be involved in some profit-making enterprise that had a side-effect of polluting the ocean, or causing some other major destruction. As long as the economy consists only of entities pursuing their own private profits, and not concerned with the bigger picture, someone will get screwed. Probably someone who can’t afford extremely expensive lawyers.

Fans of capitalism point to modern technology, such as cellphones, and they say “see, capitalism made this.” That’s nonsense. All our fancy technologies came from science, not from capitalism. In fact, all our fancy technologies originated in research labs, either in universities or in the military, but in either case paid for by taxpayers in a socialist fashion — not paid for by the profit system.

Sociologists have found that, once you have your basic material needs met, having more material objects does not increase your happiness. Having better connections with other people does increase your happiness. On the other hand, when you point at some material object and say “this is mine, not yours,” that separates you from other people.

At any rate, freedom is not possible in a market society. A voluntary trade may benefit both traders (or else the trade would not happen), but generally it does not benefit them equally. Generally it gives greater benefit to the trader who is in the stronger bargaining position, and thus it makes him stronger still, and increases inequality. In the long run it divides us into poverty and plutocracy. The 2014 research of Gilens and Page showed quantitatively that, regardless of our formal mechanisms of democracy, regardless of what complicated methods our society uses for arriving at its policy decisions, the outcomes of that decision-making consist of policies that have almost 100% in correlation with the preferences of the rich, and almost zero correlation with the preferences of the general public. Moreover, power corrupts, as the Stanford Prison Experiment proved; people with power over others begin to see those others as undeserving. Wars for lies will continue as long as Halliburton and Raytheon profit from them.

Private property has been going on for 10,000 years, but it is one gigantic mistake. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken,” said Stephen Dedalus. Private property is being perpetuated by propaganda from people who have taken control, but we don’t have to keep listening to them. The first step toward change is to get more people thinking and talking about it; John Lennon sang that the first step was to “imagine” it.

I’m not urging you to invite a homeless person to share your home personally (I tried that, and I didn’t like it); these sort of things are better done by society than by individuals. For instance, the state of Utah and several cities are giving housing to all their homeless people, and it seems to be working well. Bernie Sanders is advocating universal healthcare, which might seem radical in the USA but it has been working well in Canada and Europe for years — yielding better results for less cost, in fact. Right now all I’m urging is that you think about it and talk about it.

[30 Sept 2017, version 1.04]

 

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