Monday, March 22, 2010

Non-Monetary Exchange and the Ascetics

There are few stupider sentiments than the ones implied by popular phrases such as “money can’t buy happiness” and “money isn’t everything.” As any good free-marketeer — but virtually none of our opponents — knows, money is simply an easily-exchangeable marker of value, a thing into which virtually anything else is fungible in order to make exchange easier. People who denounce money are usually not literally opposed to currency but are in fact struggling to express an even more emotive and even less rational sentiment: that we should live in a world devoid of trade-offs, calculations, or the necessity of paying (one way or another) for what you get. It is as irrational as saying (faced with difficulty traveling or combating tall, violent people) that “the world shouldn’t involve inches.”

This is not to say that one can’t engage in exchanges without actual currency, of course, and that’s where the more primitive system of barter comes in — disastrous on a broad, global scale between wholly anonymous agents, but downright fun in groups sufficiently small and intimate to have some awareness of each other’s needs and capacities, partially alleviating the need for some metric like currency. Take the participants in the annual Burning Man art festival, for example, some of whom I was socializing with last night — and who certainly provide non-currency rewards. They ostensibly eschew commercial exchanges during the two-week festival but certainly engage in a plethora of alternative voluntary, cooperative exchanges — ones that many of them probably imagine taking back to the streets of Chicago or Seattle or wherever they came from but would, in practice, find ungainly on a normal trip to the local convenience store.

Now, if small, intimate groups are best suited to non-monetary exchanges, then surely the easiest realm in which to gauge non-monetary incentives is individually, within one’s own mind. There are things I’d do just for the satisfaction of knowing I’d done them or because they fit aesthetically into my secret lifeplan — but that’s no way to run corporations and impersonal financial markets, of course (one great example of a personal non-monetary reward is the joy of learning, of course — far more effective, studies find, than teaching through threats of punishment, not that I’m knocking all use of punishment as a teaching tool; indeed, tonight at 7 I plan to attend a reading about how various historical figures including Abraham Lincoln defined a “good education,” at Half King bar, 505 West 23rd, so find me there if you’re similarly intrigued).


One reason people often find accounts of money or any other incentive scheme intuitively unconvincing, I think, is that many incentive structures may be bundled up together, while we tend to analyze only one sort at a time. In a recent article, ACSH advisor Sally Satel does a nice job of breaking down how this blinkeredness muddles our thinking about the phenomenon of addiction. People long for all-or-nothing answers in which something is either a matter of choice or wholly beyond our control and thus immune to incentivizing.

Half the reason people tie themselves into knots needlessly on these questions is their misplaced desire to find a shiny dividing line between determined, causal processes and some magical kernel of pure, utterly free choice-making, I think (something I discussed after a recent NYSalon event on genetics with materialist Ron Bailey, non-materialist Helen, and others). But human action, I think, is all causal — and shaped by incentives — including the important causal process we call choice. Stop trying to artificially bifurcate the universe (and the mind) into the caused and the mystically self-moved and it all gets a lot less muddled, which is to say, all causal, all non-mystical.

Like Hayek, I worry that our instincts are ill-suited to thinking in terms of abstractions such as econ, the scientific method, and, I would add, determinism. We instinctively want things to be tribal, obvious, and freely-chosen. We barely notice when, for instance, the President tosses math to the wayside and claims that his monstrous socialist health plan will not only reduce health insurance premiums but reduce them by an impossible “3,000%.” We instinctively disregard economic, monetary thinking and instead wonder childish things like “Is his heart in the right place?” and “Is he on our side or part of a rival coalition?”


A related topic: the wackiness of the ascetics. Example: Grothendieck.

The important German mathematician (expert on topological algebra and other areas) Alexandre Grothendieck turned down a prestigious and lucrative math prize (due to his radical pacifist-anarchist beliefs, many assumed, but more likely because he viewed math and science as rife with plagiarism and didn’t want to share the prize with his co-winner). He went into seclusion, where he spent years transcribing his dreams, convinced they were dictated to him by God.

Now, the fact that so many people who fast or head off into the desert or live in solitude (or simply get put in solitary confinement) end up having some sort of visions — seeing themselves as cosmically significant, or perceiving a lovable mind somewhat resembling their own permeating the universe, with time and space as we know them being illusory — might be taken as a sign that we should all try this, tossing aside the trappings of the material world and joining in this great Truth.

But might it simply be that humans tend to go the same kinda crazy when their brains are in unnaturally isolated conditions? As the evolutionary psychologist E.O. Wilson has argued, it’s not as if the human brain evolved to exist in solitary confinement — it evolved to react to an environment of stimulation from other humans. Absent that, it gets nutty and starts making up stimulation (auditory hallucinations are common among long-term solo travelers, for instance).

If these people came back down from the mountain, as it were, with one scrap of usable, replicable information about the real world other than how weird everything seems when they’re lonely, they might warrant further examination. As it is, I highly recommend humanity stop humoring the fasters, mystics, meditators, and pole-sitters by trying to eke some sort of meaningful insight out of their solitudinous ravings. Actually sitting in the desert for days might take effort, but treating those who do so as important is laziness on the part of people who’d prefer that reason and real intellectual rigor were unnecessary.

In short: get a job.

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