Nasty, British, and Short

Here’s a fun article sent to me by a friend: Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World. The author argues that the one big mistake of economists is that they omit culture. We can talk of “rational” human beings making this or that decision, but what counts as rational—or fair—is determined by one’s social (and, before that, natural) environment. These cultural differences were manifested in the way that people of different backgrounds play an “ultimatum game,” similar to the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma:

As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

The last sentence in this quoted section reminds me of the conclusion Marx himself came to when analyzing socio-political worldviews of people from different cultures: consciousness is shaped by the economy (productive forces) and its bolstering structure (the State), not the other way around. Hence the old quip I’ve heard from several old Lefties about Hobbes, who had a famously dim view of human existence, being “nasty, British, and short”—a play on his line about life in the state of nature being “nasty, brutish, and short” and it being only applicable to people in capitalist England—as if to say, people who work in factories will have a different worldview than people who fish off a riverbank.

I absolutely love this section of the article:

A modern liberal arts education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.

If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

I remember the theme for the entire four years of my undergraduate study, a theme made overt with the subtitle of almost every guest lecture, symposium, and even some sporting events, was globalism, posed as a fake debate about the pros and cons of the “international marketplace.” Of course the pre-agreed-to idea was that globalism is good because everyone is either like Americans already or aspires to be so as soon as possible. And, of course, what’s the most fair way to solve a problem? A market. The goal, we were told (but not in these terms), was to understand and appreciate that deep down, no matter what people look like or how they sound or what they eat, they all believe, as “we” do, that markets = fairness.

It’s probably terrifying to imagine that people around the world are different in very meaningful ways. Didn’t we see this same explanation used (after all other explanations were exhausted) for the invasion of the Middle East? Weapons of mass destruction? No. Global hegemony over dwindling resources? No. We’ll be greeted as liberators? Yes! Because deep down, everyone yearns for a marketplace. Once people are “ready for Democracy,” they’ll see that American culture is universal—and universally good.

I don’t see a solution to this problem, except that the American corporate-military oligarchy won’t be able to import marketplaces—let alone run their own—when water runs out.


One thought on “Nasty, British, and Short

  1. It might be useful not to think in terms of all economists believing that markets equal fairness, but rather that they simply serve to construct prices efficiently. So, market outcomes are not necessarily presumed to be “fair” in whatever normative sense an individual/culture might ascribe to the word, but that they are presumed to be the expected outcomes based on prices constructed with a reasonably high degree of efficiency, precision, and expectations. Therefore prices ostensibly reflect the costs associated with the good/service in question, along with the influences of the marketplace (supply/demand etc.). Now some people obviously believe this mechanism is more perfect than others, and that’s one of the things people fight about.

    So maybe the word “fair” could be used only in the strict sense of unbiased-ness.

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