Evil Doesn’t Mean Irrational

I was singing the praises of rational choice theory to a friend – telling him it can help people understand cause-effect relationships in the world and navigate better towards their goals, rather than just getting bitter – when he posed an objection.  Sure, he granted, most people are acting to get what they want and not just to torment you for its own sake, but what about those few people who may be genuinely evil, and truly revel in your misery?  How can rational choice account for this?  Don’t they destroy this worldview?  Isn’t it impossible to understand what they’re aiming at and negotiate to avoid pain?

I asked for a specific example.  He mentioned a friend of his who gets angry at people and immediately assumes evil motives.  When someone says they’ll show up at 10 and comes at 10:30, she thinks it’s because they’re simply a terrible person, and there’s no rationality behind their selfish tardiness, therefore there’s nothing she can do to cope with or avoid being the victim of it.  It’s a very helpless, disempowering way to look at things.  It’s also patently false.

Even if we grant that the person is pure evil, hell bent on her discomfort, this theory has provided no explanatory power for the particular actions taken.  Why didn’t the person just key her car or slash her tires if inconveniencing her was the goal?  Why did they show up 30 minutes late, instead of 60, or not at all?  What accounts for the particular choices made?  Clearly, some kind of calculation was involved.  If being a jerk was the goal, the person must have reasoned that showing up 30 minutes late was the least costly way to exact the most jerkiness.  In other words, they looked at costs and benefits, and made a rational choice given their preferences.

Once you strip away the emotion and realize that, evil or not, people still make rational choices about what means to employ in seeking their ends, it tends to melt away the anger and helplessness a bit.  If the person was rational enough to choose whether to be late and by how much, does it seem probable they did it just to tick you off?  Not in most cases.  Far more likely, they had a phone call, or forgot to get gas ahead of time, failed to account for traffic, or any number of other things, and they determined sacrificing 30 minutes was the least bad solution.  But even if they wanted to cause trouble, knowing they have a cost/benefit calculation just like you do can help you see possible work-arounds.  How might you change their incentives to improve the chances of punctuality?  The onus is on you to accept their preferences, whether you like them or not, and learn to get what you want anyway.

It’s much easier emotionally to just call them evil and irrational and propagate the myth of your own helplessness.  It might feel good in the moment, but it’s a terrible way to reach your goals, and it fails to explain the real world.  In fact, the vindictiveness that can result is likely to make them truly angry with you, whether they were at first or not, and want to exact revenge, perpetuating the conflict.

Worry less about the morality of others or their motives, and put more focus on what caused them to choose what they did and how you might alter what they view as in their best interest.  You’ll enjoy life more, and you might find people around you aren’t as bad as you think.

Ask Where Things Come From

Yesterday, I came across this quote:

“America: Less than 5% of the world’s population, consumes over 25% of the world‟s resources.”

This is meant to shock and shame.  How selfish of the people living within this geographical area to consume so much!  That sentiment may be warranted if life were some kind of reality TV show with everyone stuck in a house with a fixed pool of resources, but it’s not.  If we really want to understand the world, we need to ask a key question: where do those resources come from?

They come from production and trade.  Everything that is consumed must first be produced.  There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.  In order for people in the borders of America to consume stuff, they must obtain it.  They can produce it themselves or trade something else they have produced for it.  In a free market, every exchange is voluntary.  In order for both parties to agree to trade, both must consider themselves better off after than before.  Because economic value is subjective, both walk away wealthier than before because they gave up something they valued less than what they got.

Now that we know some basic economics, what does the statistic about consumption tell us?  It tells us that, in order to consume a lot, American’s must have produced a lot.  It means what they produce must be more valuable to their trading partners than what they consume.  In other words, it means they are creating value for the world.

There is an exception to the rule that more consumption happens after more value creation.  Consumption can also happen after resources are taken by force, outside the operations of the market.  This fact is illustrated by another quote I came across yesterday on a list of common economic fallacies.  The commenter said a common fallacy is,

“Not asking where ‘G’ comes from.”

In macroeconomics, wealth is often measured (somewhat dubiously) in GDP.  The typical formula for measuring a nation’s GDP is: C+I+G+(X-M).  In this equation, C means private consumption, I is investment, G is government spending, X is exports and M is imports.

There are plenty of problems with this formulation, but leaving those aside, the math tells you that increasing any of these addends increases total wealth.  This is what leads many to advocate for increased government spending as a way to grow the economy.  To the true believers, any spending will do.  John Maynard Keynes famously suggested that the Treasury should stuff jars with bank notes and bury them in abandoned coal mines to be dug up again.

But where does G come from?  Government produces nothing, it only takes.  Every penny in the G category was taken from C or I.  This would not seem problematic at first for the economy as a whole, much as individual taxpayers may not like it, because the sum would remain unchanged.  Except that, as we have been reminded, economic value is subjective.

A dollar taken from someone and spent on her behalf is less valuable to her than keeping that dollar.  If this were not so, she would have given it up voluntarily.  People put their resources to their highest valued use, according to their own scale of value.  Any time resources are taken by force, value is destroyed.  Further, the choices people would have made would send signals rippling through the economy, telling entrepreneurs and producers what to produce more and better of.  When government puts resources to their uses, it signals entrepreneurs and producers to create more of what government wants, which diverts production and innovation away from the areas most valued by the citizenry.

The common problem in both scenarios – assuming the a high rate of US consumption means less for everyone else; and assuming an increase in government consumption means more for everyone else – is a failure to examine causal connections.  Static snapshots of data – whether a percentage of world consumption or GDP – tell us nothing about the ongoing relationships in our world.

These relationships have patterns and feedback and adaptations.  The data comes from somewhere, and it’s more than a simple path; it’s the result of a complex and constant churning of causes producing effects.  Freezing this dynamic process in time and measuring where a bunch of stuff is can’t tell you whether the process is just or efficient, or what the results will be over time.

Before you make data-based judgments about systems in the world, understand where the data come from.  What does the process look like that produced it?  What are the causal relationships?  What happens to the data through time?  Citing a lot data might make you feel smart, but if you accept data alone as proof of cause, it’s only a feeling.

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