Pandemic and Prosocial Strategies

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley published an interview with Paul Atkins on principles of prosocial action that will help us to maintain community during the pandemic. The principles and prescriptions are sound. I had a few points to make regarding historical interpretation.

Adam Smith wrote on the tragedy of the commons in “The Wealth of Nations.” His prescription was that government must ensure the well-being of specialized workers made unnecessary by changes in technology. This is an aspect of his humane judgment omitted by the neo-conservative economists that coined the phrase “greed is good” in the ’80s. As Smith was the authority they cited, I think that it is important to honor his opinions.

What is cited as Asian “collectivism” is typical of all agricultural societies. It is evaporating under the opportunities for rapacity allowed by rapid industrialization and centralized political control.

Both phenomena are supported by the original form of “social distancing”: the creation of gated communes for the wealthy that enable them to avoid confrontation with those suffering the consequences of their narcissism. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great leveler of those privileges, as will be the consequences of global climate change. Their preserves, often sited in the most desirable of environments, will suffer the greatest disruption.

Response to “Are Christianity and Capitalism Compatible?”

Source post is here.

Thanks for the link back to my post.

A comment on the history of economics (see Nasar’s “The Grand Pursuit”), motivated primarily by the principle that just as we should not hold Christ responsible for all the terrible things done in his name, so we should not hold Adam Smith responsible for all the things done in his name.

At the beginning of the 19th century, economic thought was dominated by Malthus. The “dismal science” held that there was no escape from widespread poverty, because the growth of systems of production appeared incapable of keeping pace with population growth at the subsistence level. This meant that, no matter how freely owners distributed profits to the workers, population would continue to grow until poverty imposed a constraint on lifespan. This justified much of conservative thought of the era, which held that sustaining the institutions of the state in the face of ravenous poverty was essential, lest the entire body of humanity be reduced to barbarism

Capitalism found a way out of this dilemma, essentially by supplementing the productive capacity of individual workers with machinery. The upshot was that, while wages per piece produced fell (as decried by Marx), the cost of goods fell even faster. This instituted an era of enormous growth in the global standard of living and average life span.

Unfortunately, this boon comes largely from our harvest of the bounty of the Earth – in the West, each of us consumes energy equivalent to 200 man-years of labor. This has been indulged without a mind to sustainability, so it looks as though we are likely to return to Malthusian economic outcomes in the near future.

I would note that the economic practices of the early Christian communities did not focus on the mechanisms of production or the issues of sustainability. These were beyond the ken of all except the most sophisticated members of society. In fact, the Fall of Rome and the ensuing deurbanization and decay of the social order was so traumatic to the Church fathers that they spent the next 1500 years trying to reestablish the Roman Empire, which they saw as the first Christian nation and therefore “God’s kingdom on earth.”

So I would suggest that capitalism, with its hopeful, rational and scientific view of productive processes, is not incompatible with Christianity. We are still left with two problems to confront: maturity regarding procreative opportunity (each of us needs to ask “can I actually love a child into the future he/she deserves?” and discipline ourselves accordingly), and fairness in the distribution of wealth, which currently is seriously out of whack in America.

Capitalism: Friend or Foe

This is a response to Kiss Me On a Burning Barricade and other recent post at Gods and Radicals. I do sympathize very much with the intentions and energy of this forum. I would just hope to see it focused more precisely on human behavior, rather than abstract ideology.

A speaker at a recent conference exhorted liberals to reclaim Adam Smith, whose concerns regarding abuse of workers under the system of capital have been ignored by the “Greed is Good” and “Invisible Hand” libertarians that took over the Republican Party during the Reagan era. Smith saw capitalism as simply the use of wealth to invest in technology that would amplify the effects of labor. It was this process that finally overturned Malthusian poverty (see The Grand Pursuit) because while the cost paid per shirt went down, the cost of a shirt fell even faster.

Under your definition of productivity, the core problem in the situation that you describe is psychopathy, which is subtle and seductive and has infected many of our institutions. In Smith’s work, this is articulated as the problem of the Commons: well-meaning people create value for one another, accumulate wealth, and then the psychopaths come in and steal it from them.

For example, the sleepy Savings and Loan industry of the ’60s and ’70s allowed the middle class to pay itself interest at 6% while borrowing at 7%. Reagan deregulated the industry, allowing raiders to take the assets it had accumulated and transfer them to high-risk instruments. Now the middle class borrows at 18% and gets interest on deposits of 0.2%.

Regarding the specific situation you outline, there is a movement among the restaurant workers to establish humane working conditions in an industry that exploits mercilessly. Among the industry’s crimes include lobbying against a general working wage increase in order to protect an extremely low minimum wage for their industry. As agitators document, in many states the tips we leave are in fact the bulk of the worker’s wage.

Abstracting from Smith, the theory of Capitalism and productivity is a means for organizing information about economic activity, including work practices. While proponents of capitalism cite the benefits in increasing productivity, the information they gather can also be used to identify psychopathic behavior. The reason that you have the numbers to criticize the workplace practice is because of that theory. Don’t blame the messenger – attack the root cause.


What do you do about a disease that affects the entire human race? Testosterone is linked to aggression in both men and women.

When I was growing up, aggression was the measure by which girls were considered to be “defective boys”.  Although the tide has shifted in educational circles, I wish that I could report that things have changed, but the focus seems to have shifted from physical aggression to psychological aggression. My son got F’s on his first few science labs in eighth grade because his female lab partners simply froze him out of the discussion.

But to say that aggression is wrong because it hurts people does not do justice to the damage it wreaks. Aggression manifests the attitude that the energy invested in creating something does not confer ownership. Value is determined only by the aggressor’s need: “How can I benefit by consuming this thing?” That the creative community is impoverished or even destroyed by the reallocation is immaterial.

This is the problem of the commons described in Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism. The socialist prescriptions of his later writings are not heralded by the neo-conservatives that subscribe to the magic of “The Invisible Hand”. Smith’s prescriptions includes intervention by government in labor relations to ensure that families are not ruined when, after spending his life tailoring his skills to the specific practices of a corporation, the employee is made redundant by advancing technology or a decline in demand.

Unfortunately, government as a counterbalance simply defers the crisis: There is no institution in existence that can claim to be immune to the defects of aggression in its leadership. By their very nature, institutions concentrate power, making them obvious plums for those that seek power. Worse, institutional infrastructure provides terribly effective tools for propagating rapacity.

Modern libertarianism and nihilism is a manifestation of the inevitability of institutional corruption. The attitude is that large institutions should be avoided, and where they cannot be avoided, they should be made to go away through political practices. Of course, this is delusional: Institutions will come into existence, because they serve a useful purpose in allowing people to coordinate productive activity. By failing to subscribe to the challenges of managing institutional power, the nihilist simply abandons the field to the aggressors.

It is time, then, to consider the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. They held that the only protection against tyranny was in a balance of powers, and they recognized that the only way to maintain stability in the distribution of power (as in engineering) was to establish a triangle.

So what should we hold up, as the third leg of the stool? I would propose that religion is ideally suited to the task.