A common folk explanation for the triumph of capitalism over communism goes along these lines:

Communism has some lovely notions about sharing wealth between people in proportion to their needs and ideally we would indeed live that way. But people are not motivated to work under such egalitarian conditions. Humans are somewhat pro-social and do make some sacrifices for others, especially close friends and family. But that just isn’t enough to keep people working hard and productiviely in big, anonymous, industrial economies year in, year out. The economic system has to go with the grain of human nature and appeal to people’s greed by offering private rewards for work hard and risk-taking. That is why market economies have become rich and centrally planned ones have stagnated. Communism was a triumph of idealism over the realities of human nature.

If this really is the reason capitalism has been so successful, I’m afraid the future doesn’t look so good for capitalism.

In that caricature, capitalism is only the best economic system given the constraints imposed by human nature. Human nature has turned out to be harder to mould than 19th century idealists had hoped, but it will not remain fixed in that way forever. Over thousands of years evolution can and will change human nature, leaving us free to choose from a broader range of social structures.

Long before ‘natural selection‘ has much impact I expect that ‘human directed selection’ will take off. Initially children will be chosen for things like beauty, intelligence and health, but eventually our personalities will also become a parental or social choice. It will then be within our power to take the pro-social behaviour that humans currently display to only a small in-group of close friends and family, and direct it towards larger groups of our choosing. Communism could get a second run, only this time it wouldn’t have to work against a human nature that evolved to serve our hunter-gatherer ancestors!

Communist communities whose members are selected to cooperate selflessly among themselves could turn out to be more productive and gradually out-compete individualistic or capitalist communities. These communities might resemble hyper-social super-organisms like ant or bee colonies.

The competitive dynamics of such a scenario are a challenge to imagine. There would be lots of ways such cooperation could be undermined but it might also be possible to sustain. Excluding and punishing free-riders within the community will be an option for people as it is for insects.

Such communities might still choose to use markets and prices to solve the economic calculation problem but then redistribute what they produce in a very egalitarian way. Or future technologies might allow them to dispense with markets altogether.

Though I am personally quite an individualist and enjoy the classically liberal way of life, I am not so horrified by the thought of human or post-human societies being very different in the future. The members of such a future ‘communist’ society would not necessarily share my individualistic preferences and so might not suffer to live as slaves to giant communities as humans today do. The desirability of this scenario was discussed by Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen a few years ago:

Cowen: Let’s try some philosophical questions. You’re a philosopher, and I’ve been very influenced by your writings on personal obligation. Apart from the practical issue that we can give some money and have it do good, there’s a deeper philosophical question of how far those obligations extend, to give money to other people. Is it a nice thing we could do, or are we actually morally required to do so? What I see in your book is a tendency to say something like “people, whether we like it or not, will be more committed to their own life projects than to giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint”. I think we would both agree with that, but when we get to the deeper human nature, or do you feel it represents a human imperfection? If we could somehow question of “do we in fact like that fact?”, is that a fact you’re comfortable with about human nature? If we could imagine an alternative world, where people were, say, only 30% as committed to their personal projects as are the people we know, say the world is more like, in some ways, an ant colony, people are committed to the greater good of the species. Would that be a positive change in human nature or a negative change?

Singer: Of course, if you have the image of an ant colony everyone’s going to say “that’s horrible, that’s negative”, but I think that’s a pejorative image for what you’re really asking …

Cowen: No, no, I don’t mean a colony in a negative sense. People would cooperate more, ants aren’t very bright, we would do an ant colony much better than the ants do. …

Singer: But we’d also be thinking differently, right? What people don’t like about ant colonies is ants don’t think for themselves. What I would like is a society in which people thought for themselves and voluntarily decided that one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things they could do would be to put more of their effort and more of their energy into helping people elsewhere in need. If that’s the question you’re asking, then yes, I think it would be a better world if people were readier to make those concerns their own projects.

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