Against Admirable Activities, Again

When my kids were young and played a new game, the pattern was clear: If they won, they liked that game and wanted to play it again.  If they lost, they didn't like that game.  Tyler Cowen once told me how this generalizes; the essential question of ideology is: who should be admired?  We tend to think it would be good for the world if policies and culture tilted a bit to more admire the activities that tend to make us look good. 

Such disagreements, however, shouldn't distract us from the fact that societies often agree quite a bit on what kinds of activities they admire.  For example, Frank and Miller's instinctive fear that the love of stuff obtained from distant soulless others corrupts one's soul is ancient.  Greek historian Herodotus ~430BC:

The Egyptians are divided into seven distinct classes—these are, the priests, the warriors, the cowherds, the swineherds, the tradesmen, the interpreters, and the boatmen. … Whether the Greeks borrowed from the Egyptians their notions about trade, like so many others, I cannot say for certain. I have remarked that the Thracians, the Scyths, the Persians, the Lydians, and almost all other barbarians, hold the citizens who practice trades, and their children, in less repute than the rest, while they esteem as noble those who keep aloof from handicrafts, and especially honour such as are given wholly to war. These ideas prevail throughout the whole of Greece, particularly among the Lacedaemonians. Corinth is the place where mechanics are least despised.

I'm not exactly sure why traders have been so consistently disliked, though I suspect it has something to do with loyalty signaling.  But I am pretty sure that while societies consistently prefer to encourage more of the activities they admire, such choices often make them on net worse off.  I said two years ago:

Admirable activities help us to develop and show our admirable qualities.  But since admiration is in part relative, my looking more admirable comes in part at the expense of others looking less admirable.  So there is in part an arms race quality to admirable activities, which suggests we do too much of them from a global point of view.

Unfortunately, our minds were not built from a global point of view.  We are instead built to admire admirable activities, in addition to admiring the people who do them.  We admire drawing, singing, sporting, writing, joking, helping, and so on, and we support policies that encourage these activities.  We like our families, churches, clubs, companies, cities, and nations to subsidize such activities.  Parents push their kids toward more admirable activities, such as music over video games.  And nations subsidize science, sport, and arts that will impress other nations.

This support urge can make evolutionary sense.   A group that coordinates to help its most noticed members look more admirable may be more admired as a group, to the benefit of all group members.  But at a global level we all suffer from admiring admirable activities, much like trees suffer by working to grow tall enough to see the sun past other trees. 

Yes trade and traders are often not admired, and so societies often discourage trade.  But if we economists know anything it is that overall societies tend to hurt, not help, themselves by discouraging trade.

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  • such displays can be beneficial when they reflect an actual increase in admiral things. the problem is that they go hand in hand with “signal hacking”, finding a cheaper way to signal some expensive quality (see: the history of the USSR).

  • Shmuel

    You have kids? That wasn’t very rational.

  • Kevin

    I’ve noticed this anti-mercenary instinct before in my history books. Traders/merchants are somehow historically even less trusted than hereditary nobles, who seem like a classic case of a truly unhelpful group.

  • “Worse off” by what standard? If we value “drawing, singing, sporting, writing, joking, helping, and so on” most highly, then it isn’t clear by what standard you are judging there to be an excess of these things. (It isn’t clear that an informed person with these values would be forced to conclude that there was “too much” art and singing in the world.)

    I agree that the anti-trader bias is silly and unfortunate. But, unlike the other examples, this one is not plausibly a terminal value.

  • A random thought – anti-trader bias seems so common across cultures that it would be surprising if it didn’t have any rational basis. Any guesses what that basis might be?

    Here’s one guess – Was a typical trader an oligopolist abusing his position, with morals of a stereotypical used car salesman? Perhaps this anti-trader bias is simply expression of a healthy level of mistrust – you could rely on most of your fellow neighbours, but with a trader you should be very cautious or he’d take advantage of you (the ones that abused their position the least would be the first to fall out of business, in the typical capitalist race to the bottom).

  • It doesn’t have a “rational” basis; as Robin pointed out it has a fairly obvious evolutionay basis, having to do with loyalty and power. See also Jane Jacobs’s “Systems of Survival” for a rather different view of “Guardian” versus “Commercial” “syndromes”.

  • TGGP

    Tomasz, I am hard pressed to think of any traders who were more oligopolist/monopolist than their “warrior” neighbors. I would add though that distrust for “middlemen” seems nearly universal, and even occurred among WW2 POWs with an economy purely based on Red Cross packages. Thomas Sowell discusses it in “Are Jews Generic?”, which you can read from here.

    Off-topic, but Robin Hanson’s “futarchy” idea has been vitriolically attacked here, perhaps not so much on its own merits but as a synechdoce for the author’s complaints about modernity. It’s excessively long-winded so I haven’t really read it all.

  • If anyone is inclined to read the attack on futarchy TGGP notes, I can save you some time.

    The author makes one valid but noncontroversial point about decision markets: that the US Government is unlikely to be very receptive to them, so Robin’s efforts to peddle the idea to them (e.g. PAM) was probably destined for eventual failure. I did like this quote:

    “After all, those who know USG know that daring procedural innovation is not exactly its strength. If futarchy or predictocracy is truly an effective new way to make decisions, don’t you think our good professors would have better luck in marketing it to, say, Apple?” (nb: both Google- with help from the awesome Hal Varian- and Microsoft claim to use predictive markets internally for decisionmaking, so if Apple is not, perhaps they are falling behind their industry competitors)

    The rest of the article, unfortunately, is big on bile and rhetoric and short on reasoning. The author understands nothing about prediction markets, does not even seem to wholly understand elementary probability. He uses a lot of words, many of which he clearly does not understand the meaning of. There may be a brilliant critique of futarchy out there worthy of serious attention, but I have not read it, and this is not it.

  • as per Paul Graham’s Essay “Mind the Gap”, the well to do are looked down upon because until very recently the only way to gain a fortune of considerable size was through rather unpleasant means.

  • redbud

    so make sure our kids enjoy and succeed at appropriate skills 😉

    is this that hard? cannot any adult design learning opportunities?

    or should life be fully reactive? as in, oh, cr*p, did Christmas come again?

  • nazgulnarsil: The “until very recently” disclaimer is not really necessary. Abusive behaviour and luck are still two main ways of getting your hands on a large fortune, it’s hard to point at many people who got theirs without either of the two being very significant factors.

  • Richard, valuing the people who do something well is different from valuing doing the thing.

  • Robin – “valuing the people who do something well is different from valuing doing the thing.”

    Does that mean your evaluation/advice is merely targeted at people who don’t actually value art, singing, sport, etc.? That is: “Don’t admire artists if you don’t value the production of art!” Good advice, as far as it goes, but I assumed you were going for something a little less obvious…?

  • Daniel Griffin

    At the end Robin Hanson says: “But if we economists know anything it is that overall societies tend to hurt, not help, themselves by discouraging trade.”

    …tend to hurt…
    But what are the metrics?

    Didn’t the discussion in Capitas Vs. Per Capita show that the metrics are unclear?

    Or: economies (whatever that means) tend to hurt themselves (whatever that means) when they discourage trade (whatever that means).

    The above is akin to saying that if economists know anything it is they know their model.

  • Richard, I’m claiming that the details of our behavior are better explained by us valuing the people who do admirable activities than us valuing the products of those admirable activities. We love the art because we love the artist, not vice versa.

  • “But if we economists know anything it is that overall societies tend to hurt, not help, themselves by discouraging trade.”
    In regards to this notion of economists, it seems to be somewhat contradicted. Human beings as primitive hunter-gatherers were probably happier, less stressed and had a lot more free time. There weren’t many of them, and there were a lot of things they couldn’t do anything about.
    As they increased their horizons, integrations and developed some form of household (and eventually exchange) economy, the vastly increased resources allowed further proliferation as well as assertions of dominance and benevolence.

    Societies which discourage trade and commerce are not necessarily hurting themselves, IE impeding the actual sense of well-being of their members. What they are hurting, though, is their competitiveness and sustainability. Because if you make 35 cents a day, the guy who can pay you $10 an hour is going to be able to reshape the cultural environment with some efficacy.

  • When it’s hard to find the cause for something, you may be looking for causality in the wrong direction.

    Most societies control access to all desirable occupations. High-status jobs are available only to people from high-status families. Only those of high birth and/or wealth could be knights, much as today, only those who have gone to Harvard can get the high-paying jobs on Wall Street. Craftsman positions were often controlled by guilds, by inheritance, or by master craftsmen. Trading has for a thousand years been the best occupation available to social outcasts. (Banking is only available to well-off social outcasts.)

    So it may be that people who were looked down on became traders, rather than the other way around.

  • MZ

    When my kids were young and played a new game, the pattern was clear: If they won, they liked that game and wanted to play it again.

    Reminds me of how teacher evaluations tend to be evaluations of student’s own performance. Teacher evaluations are anonymous, but you can see how the instructor’s average score rises and falls with the class average. If I could peer into the data, I suspect there would be a nontrivial correlation between individual student grades and their teacher evaluations.

  • Stan

    Robin, is there some reason we can’t both love some art, and love some artists? I see no reason it can’t be both. Much of the art I like I value because seeing or hearing it elicits emotions. If I’m in a groove, there’s no need for more convoluted explanation than liking being in a groove. Similarly, if I’m considering the value after the experience, I’ll place most of the value on the groove. If I’m hearing a performance where a musician adds more to the work, I’ll see additional value the musician.

    Isn’t there plenty of support for an alternative argument: that we value most those activities which elicit an emotional response? That we are using them to prime, stimulate, and experience emotions?

    Another consideration: could admiring trading reduce our trading effectiveness? Wouldn’t the thinking associated with admiration make us more likely to trust the trader, and be taken advantage of? Disliking the middlemen can be taken too far, but it’s also beneficial if our distaste leads us to strive to eliminate them, or make them as lean as possible.

    Vichy, I don’t know of any evidence that supports primitive hunter-gatherers being any happier, less stressed, or more free for leisure. Do you know of any?

    Plenty of evidence of violence, from Cro-Magnon on, has been found as marks on bones, lodged flint points, etc. I’d be willing to make the claim that just general trends of reduced violence over time are enough to suggest that happiness has increased overall. Likely, stress too. Gathering meals is long, hard work. If you’ve ever picked wild berries, such as huckleberries, consider how much time that takes and how much you get. Now consider that you’re picking them at a time of food abundance. There’s good reason we specialized gathering and hunting until they became agriculture.

    Phil, interesting point. I think that meshes well with my explanation, but what’s your take?