Bob Frank has an essay in the NYT adapted from his new book The Darwin Economy. The thrust of it seems to be that many goods are positional.
When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, all bets on the efficacy of Smith’s invisible hand are off. As Darwin saw, many important aspects of life are graded on the curve, and in such cases, individual incentives often lead to mutually offsetting efforts.
The rat race is rent dissipation.
This is an idea I used to push strongly, until Justin Wolfers convinced me otherwise. I used to think happiness was largely zero sum and that the benefits of great wealth came only from the relief of great misery: infectious disease, deformation, major depression, etc.
Yet it seems real happiness does come from greater levels of consumption even if you don’t beat out your neighbors. Still, your neighbors do matter, interestingly enough for things we wouldn’t think of like, longevity.
All of that being said, the larger point I want to make is how evolutionary thinking is taking hold into everything we do.
Sometimes, I read articles from maybe 20 years ago about love or ambition or beauty that are rooted concepts other than in evolutionary psychology. It feels like reading an article on Wicca and its use in treating pneumonia.
As I have mentioned, to me the idea of the firm as some sort of conscious maximizer seems naive if not outright silly. The large scale failure of corporate strategic planning, an obvious inevitability.
No, there is one idea that rules them all – selection. Things are what they are because the world culls out the other possibility. Existence is the art of the possible and science is the study of selection, on one level or another.
The world around us is filled with three kinds of particles, not because there are only three but because the others decay to fast. Molecules “seek” low energy states because in the ever present jostling that is reality they are much more likely to fall from a high place to a low place than the other way around.
Even time itself has the arrow that it does because there are more high entropy states than low ones. Watch long enough and the low entropy ones are bound to dominate your observation.
That’s why I describe the effect in different terms – we will tend to observe those things which are highly observable. To understand our world then is to understand the rules of observation.
What are we likely to be able to see. That is what is likely to be.
I think this can reduce some great mysterious to absolute simplicity. Why for instance are we all alone. How can it be that we are the only intelligent species we know.
How can it be otherwise? There were once many species of homo, now there is but one. The same will be true for intelligent life in general. The average intelligent creature will look out into the world and see only others like her, because for her to exist the others must either have been killed or not have arrived to kill her yet.
Every thing about our world has been selected for. The unstable particles have decayed. The unstable species have gone extinct. And, the unstable economies have collapsed.