Friday, August 20, 2010

Non-Monetary Compensation

My fellow Film Bulletin alum Jenny Foreit notes that an Ayn Rand fan drove across North America tracing out the giant message “Read Ayn Rand,” and thanks to Google Earth and the guy’s GPS system, you can view the results.  This is a reminder of a phenomenon that gets sarcastically commented upon with some regularity: libertarians doing things that obviously are not profitable in the conventional monetary sense (perhaps the GPS guy has a bright future in advertising, but let’s assume for the sake of argument he’s just in it for the sake of getting the message out and helping to save the world). 

In a similar vein, I recall a column a year or so ago that mocked young libertarians for lamenting how little money they were making at their thinktank and magazine jobs, as if this showed something was horribly awry with the profit-driven system they espouse.

In truth, of course, money is just one of many ways — arguably the most efficient one in many situations but not the only one — of (1) keeping track of who owes what to whom and (2) of gauging how much benefit you’re reaping from your investment in an activity.  There are countless situations in which a widely-recognized, stackable, countable medium of exchange is not necessary, though: if you can gauge the quality of your jokes by the size of your best friend’s resultant smiles, if your family repays your kindness with love and entertaining anecdotes, if your work as a volunteer webmaster gives you the deep satisfaction of knowing you are part of a noble project (one that helps put your name in the public mind in a positive light), and so forth.

Free-market ideology (to my mind, though I’ve lately encountered dissent, of course) merely suggests that property rights adherence is more efficient (and thus more happiness-enhancing and thus more humane and thus more moral) than property rights violations.  Free-market ideology alone does not dictate what you should prefer to do once your property rights are secure.  Ayn Rand has a specific, narrower vision of the good life that does seem to imply one should be seeking profit, creating businesses, etc., but a free-marketeer or libertarian in the broader sense is behaving in accord with his philosophy so long as he does not violate property rights and thus could, with perfect consistency, devote his life to tilling one small (owned) plot of vegetables in the woods and playing ultimate frisbee all day while trying to expunge egotism through meditation. 

It’s a very flexible philosophy, and I should perhaps have made it clearer in my Reason pieces about left-libertarians over the past couple years that I’m not saying free-marketeers need be culturally-right but rather that they can be anything they want, even adherents of a sort of “conservatism for punks” (at least without violating free market groundrules — there may be countless other reasons that they should be Henny Youngman fans instead of Robin Williams fans, Mozart fans instead of NKOTB fans, etc., but they aren’t free-market reasons per se).


So, having accepted the logical possibility of being a proper market-adherent without looking outwardly like a businessman, we shouldn’t be much surprised — especially in local, informal, highly personal settings — by the fact that people negotiate reality and gauge reward through such non-monetary means as praise, party invitations (of which I could use more nowadays, it occurs to me), critical acclaim, fame, affection, sex, the satisfaction of showing up rivals, and the greater satisfaction of ceasing to care about petty things like showing up rivals. I also enjoy being on a dog’s good side when possible. 

And let us not forget maintenance of reputation as a big motivator.  Adam Smith wrote about it, and it seems to be the concept that bridges the gap between his econ writing in Wealth of Nations and his moral writings in Theory of Moral Sentiments.  More recently, the somewhat left-libertarian-sounding sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling toyed with the idea of “reputation servers” that replace money by keeping constant track of who can be trusted to help out when needed.  Not a bad idea — assuming you think money is a problem in the first place, which I don’t.

If any of the above sounds contradictory, I think it is only because of the deeper, more complicated question of altruism — which is a problem for ostensibly anti-altruistic Rand followers (like the ones I plan to see at a conference here in New York City on Sept. 14) but not for free-marketeers per se.  If you accept that altruism is rational and good, there’s no difficulty explaining phenomena like those young wonks I mentioned earlier who are toiling to save the world without making much money.  Of course, the mystery is a complete non-issue if you simply dimiss the idea that altruism is their motive and instead say, in econ-class fashion, that their utility functions, properly understood, include non-monetary rewards such as the satisfaction of seeing the world remade to their liking. 

But much as I believe in that particular form of satisfaction (my career, mostly spent working for two libertarian TV correspondents and a pro-science organization, would be tough to explain absent at least some such satisfaction), I think there really is altruism — and contrary to the Randians, I think it’s a good and rational thing.  Of course, this risks bogging down in semantics very quickly, since I concede one has to at least feel some initial motivational attachment to morality and making the world better instead of worse in order to act altruistically, and those keen to disprove the existence of rational altruism can always argue that I’ve thereby smuggled self-interest into the picture. 

But if you’ve ever met a sociopath — and I fear I recently have, but the less said about that the better — you will understand that there is a real and palpable difference between someone behaving a in truly selfish fashion, which is usually harmless but can also be quite ugly, and someone who (consciously or unconsciously) declares his intitial allegiance to a system of the world because he recognizes it as good and then, admirably, proceeds to behave in ways that clearly cost him dearly but shore up that system because it is good, the right thing to do, the utility-enhancing course of action for others, even if not for himself

(The notion that utilitarians act only for their own individual happiness is, as I’ve complained before, almost exactly the opposite of what the philosophy actually recommends, which is that we strive to think of the happiness of the world as a whole.  As a practical matter, this will often mean being more easily able to intervene in the lives of people we know well — including ourselves — than in the lives of distant, hard-to-understand people, so utility can be reconciled with paleo-traditionalist and localist notions or mainstream ideas of self-reliance as easily if not more easily than with either global-utopian schemes or selfish hedonism.) 


I should also add that non-utilitarians are behaving altruistically and thus in some sense admirably if they are genuinely working to make the world better instead of worse — they are simply mistaken, sometimes tragically and dangerously so, about the proper means.  We should’t childishly pretend that they aren’t sincerely altruistically motivated, though.  Hardly anyone wastes time pushing unpopular political ideas, for example, unless he really want to help the world.  There are simply too many easier options for those who are just trying to be jerks, though actual officeholders, as opposed to ideologues, are often no doubt little better than self-interested con men (even they probably tell themselves rationalizing stories about being on the side of good most of the time, though). 

The traditional Christian notion that private charity is the most noble form strikes me as true and insightful, whereas the more Objectivist vision of placing giant gold statues of oneself atop every hospital one endows (if one even endows hospitals) strikes us as tacky for a reason — though as a utilitarian consequentialist, I think the important thing is that the hospital get endowed one way or another, not that anyone sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice or suffer in silence.  I want hospitals, not “redemptive” suffering.  So, once more, as long as no property rights are being violated, charitable giving, like non-monetary compensation, is perfectly compatible with markets, even if it doesn’t look like “business” in the narrow sense.

Indeed, we can — and should — have endless conversations about what modes of life are best (and for whom, since the answers may vary radically with circumstances) all without violating property rights and thus overriding one person’s preferences for the sake of others’.

And on that note, around the time this entry posts, I’m off to have lunch, despite my atheism, with a friend at the NYC HQ of the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, before starting a sorely-needed one-week vacation during which I do not intend to suffer or sacrifice (let alone punish myself in hope of achieving redemption) one damn bit, except as needed to enhance subsequent net increases in happiness.  After that, a return to duty.

1 comment:

Sean Dougherty said...

Agreed. My Dad lives in Maine and is constantly frustrated that some days businesses just close for no reason because the owner decided to take the day off and go fishing, arguing that it is one of the reasons Maine in general is a poor state. My answer is that means the owner won. He works when he wants to and goes fishing when he wants to and is willing accept not having as much money as a consequence. That isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.