Friday, October 07, 2005


I have been meaning to write about this excellent Tech Central Station piece for a few days now (hat tip: Brian Sullivan):

Many people think that we should look down on "economic man," who rationally calculates costs and benefits. They believe that people should have higher motives.

Instead, I suspect that the most likely alternative to economic motivation is a worse motive: status-seeking. I believe that is more important to curb our lust for status than our lust for goods and services.

The drive for economic gain helps the individual, and, as Adam Smith famously showed, helps others. Trade and economic growth are positive-sum games, in which there can be winners without losers. Moreover, when people seek economic gains, this is usually transparent. You usually understand when you and others you transact with are trying to improve your economic well-being.

Status, on the other hand, is typically a zero-sum game, in which one person's gain comes at the expense of others. Adding to the evils of status-seeking is that people often deceive themselves and others into believing that they are doing something for a higher motive when in fact they are seeking status.

Understanding the ill effects of status-seeking could lead us to revise our views on some issues. For example, I believe that colleges and universities would be better off if academicians were more focused on monetary incentives. For the most part, the alternative is not the "higher calling" of science or knowledge for its own sake, but the baser motive of status-seeking.

The ultimate kind of status is where you have not only the adulation from your adoring public (e.g., in the case of Hollywood and Rock stars) but also ultimate power of life and death over them (e.g., totalitarian dictators). Note in the latter case how the dictator goes to extremes to promote the adulation (Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein come readily to mind).

A desperate seach for status demonstrates a serious defect in the Self. It has been said that money is the root of all evil, but the only time money may lead to truly evil behavior is when it is being accumulated to obtain status and power over others. Democracy is very humbling for those seeking status and power precisely because it can withdraw both at a moment's notice from any individual desperate enough to use it for either. That's why people whose underlying motivations are driven by status and power look to totalitarian systems to optimally achieve their goals.

The desire for status in moderation is hardly pathological and may even be a positive and motivating force for some people (any bloggers out there who obsessively look at their sitemeters or TTLB rankings?). But beyond a certain point, it almost always leads to behavior that is taken at the expense of others.

There is nothing intrinsically evil about Capitalism -- contrary to what many think. On the contrary, economic man is superior in every way to status man.

And healthier psychologically. Read the entire article!

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