Karl does not like karma. Now obviously, being the anti-theist that I am, I don’t believe that there is a benevolent god dishing out karmic punishments and rewards…nor do I think there is a necessary causal link between actions in your social life, and haphazard physical consequences (i.e. helping an old lady across the street, and then finding five bucks…or yelling at your sister, and then stubbing your toe on a chair).

Karl is quite right that human lives are basically a fight against entropy, in which entropy always eventually wins. We strive to use energy inputs to create fit order (which of course, is called “wealth” in economics), in order to escape griding poverty. And in order to maintain such a regime, we need a constant influx of energy inputs and a constant outflow of waste. If these conditions aren’t maintained, everything falls back into a disorder and disarray…most of the population on earth dies, and all of our crowning achievements whither away.

However, this fact need not lay waste to the entire concept of karma. Due to the nature of our societal setup, there is ample opportunity for repeated interaction. This is what I view as the key to the concept of karma. In a world where there is no repeated interactions with people, then there is no need for the concept, as your past circumstances are unknown upon future interactions. Because our society offers ample opportunity for us to repeatedly interact with multiple groups and individuals. Thus, our past actions have a causal link to future interactions.

For example, imagine Robinson Crusoe and Friday are stranded on an island in which they are forced to interact daily. The probability of friendly our hostile interaction is directly related to the results of past interactions. Thus, if Crusoe stabs Friday, he increases the probability that Friday will respond with either violence, or avoidance. One can imagine extrapolating this simple model into a society with multiple complex interactions, and see how someone who always acts in a way that is hostile toward people would end up living in a world where he/she was either under constant threat of retaliation, or seclusion. This may seem like just desserts doled out by a just god…but it is really just the sum of all of the interactions people have.

Ostensibly, we are all perceived to be “mean” to some people, and “nice” to others…most people work to gather and groom a social network, and human interaction is of course very complex, so the probability distributions are never nice and tidy…and are generally always in flux. However, it is a useful way to think somewhat scientifically about a popular moral concept.

P.S. One note about the Tea Party’s notion of economic “fairness”. It is generally a conservative attitude that through grit, determination, and hard work; a person will be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps into a higher income and better life. However, as liberals like to point out (and often oversell), mobility is oftentimes lower than what intuition tells people. Tom Hertz of American University produced a study (PDF) of income mobility in America which is actually pretty good. What it shows is that mobility within the middle class is often exactly what intuition would tell you…but mobility out of deep poverty, and into the highest echelons of wealth are much, much less than popularly perceived.

That mostly happens to be a lottery, however in a study named “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree” (gated), the team of researchers found that there is a high correlation in pro- and anti-social behavior between parents and their children. It is my opinion that success is often attributable to the (often inadvertent) learning and second-nature understanding of social norms of behavior. These norms are not the same for each societal class…and to have any hope of breaking into a different class, these norms have to be mastered. I’m sure you’ve heard of the contempt of “old money” to the “newly-minted wealthy”. This gives people who have grown up imitating these values a home-field advantage. It is also why the “middle class” is a relatively mobile section of the income distribution — middle class is a very large range of incomes, for which similar values hold.

So in short, I tend to agree with Matt Miller (with whom I rarely agree) that the type of society we should try to build should give maximum equality of upside opportunity combined with a downside safety net. The idea being that (as a society) it is in our interests to have a lot of wealthy people…so it would benefit everyone to help the poor get rich, rather than economically punish the rich. The structure of private/public interaction in this setup is something that I’m sure I’ll differ from many on the left.

P.P.S. I’ve always struggled with the question of “fairness” of economic outcomes. Are there any “fair” economic outcomes? What would constitute such? Is the the completely wrong question to be asking? I kind of think so, but I’d be interested in hearing what you readers have to say on the subject.