Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Jonathan Haidt

I stole this link from MR but only now got around to watching the video (below). Jonathan Haidt is one of my favorite scholars, someone who is so reasonable it hurts and has really interesting things to be so reasonable about.

I have two motivations for sharing this video. First is to make a point; I lived in the most politically extreme city in the US for six years and have an ongoing argument about the merits of capitalism with my dad-the-stereotypical-extreme-left-humanities-academic, so there are quite a few people in my life who I wish would watch this. And I emphasize again: it's almost annoyingly reasonable, with absolutely no party-loyal antics, so yeah, watch it.

The second is out of contrition. I'm on average right down the middle in American politics* so New York was the only place I've lived where I didn't feel constantly attacked for my political views**. I left Oklahoma when I was 16 convinced that I was an extreme lefty, but moved to California, and was treated like a crazy reactionary for so long there that now I barely identify as liberal at all.

But the explanation for the phenomenon isn't really an excuse for the phenomenon that I tend to ignore the truth in the left's story about capitalism. (See this page for the genius 1 minute videos of the two stories, if you really really can't spare 20 minutes for this fantastic talk.) Capitalism does lead to unparalleled improvements in quality of life for society overall. But as Jonathan says, the constant incredible innovation of capitalism includes innovation in methods of exploitation. I agree completely, and "dynamism with decency" seems like a perfect way to put it. With government to some extent, and with social pressure and demand-side pressure (e.g. boycotts, or buyer preference for humane products) to a large extent, we should absolutely insist on decency along with capitalistic dynamism.

*I'm not so centrist on most individual issues, although a lot more than you would expect from reading this blog because I don't write about the many things I am on the fence about.
**As far as I can tell, there is so much diversity in every dimension in New York that people are numb to differences and you can't feel broadly attacked for anything... It's wonderful :)


JohnRaymond said...

A very interesting talk, so well delivered. However, I'm sure critics of capitalism could poke all kinds of holes in it, like his attributing the improvement in quality of life (using per capita $ earned) purely to capitalism. Certainly many other factors contributed as well, like the enlightenment and Reformation (Luther, et al.) who taught/trained the human mind to think differently about the human condition and to liberate oneself in all kinds of ways (most concretely from feudalism). The elimination of feudalism, in part by capitalism but certainly not entirely, because the mental/psychological/intellectual dimension of humanity played a huge role, was the biggest factor of all. Feudalism wasn't just an economic system; it was primarily a social-religious system that legitimized the oppression of the masses. Yes, once the serfs were freed, they had the opportunity to earn a better living, but they needed a complete mental/psychological turn-around to accomplish that.
Another area he totally ignored is the rapid increase in the last 30 years in the divide between the rich and poor in capitalist economies, with the most capitalist ones showing the greatest rate of increase. Since the crash of 2008, the percentage of wealth created in the U.S. that goes to the wealthiest 1% has increased at a much faster rate than before the crash, and since the removal of regulations and constraints in the 80s, the rate has shot up. This is one of the main points that T. Piketty makes, backed up by all kinds of data that Haidt doesn't hardly touch on but which is the main reason people from all walks of life, including many economists, have become much more critical of capitalism. Many very intelligent people in Europe don't believe that capitalism in its current form has a future. So Mr. Haidt is going to have to spell out in much more detail how he intends to make capitalism more decent. The basic principle is laudable, but how do you implement such a thing? Customer surveys alone aren't going to cut it. There is way too much wealth, which translates into way too much political power, to overcome before capitalism will be more decent and the huge divide between the 1% and the rest gets bridged.

Anonymous said...

You might also enjoy Roger Scruton's recent book "How to be a Conservative." You'll find in it a chapter called "The Truth In Socialism," and another called "The Truth In Capitalism." Other chapters include "The Truth in Liberalism" and "The Truth in Conservatism." In my way of thinking Scruton is reasonable along the lines of Haidt. He sees the virtues and the downsides of each topic he covers.

Vera L. te Velde said...

That sounds great, thanks for the recommendation!