Traditional Capitalist Values

by Eliezer Yudkowsky5 min read17th Oct 2008102 comments

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Ethics & Morality
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Followup toAre Your Enemies Innately Evil?, Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided

"The financial crisis is not the crisis of capitalism.  It is the crisis of a system that has distanced itself from the most fundamental values of capitalism, which betrayed the spirit of capitalism."
        -- Nicolas Sarkozy

During the current crisis, I've more than once heard someone remarking that financial-firm CEOs who take huge bonuses during the good years and then run away when their black-swan bets blow up, are only exercising the usual capitalist values of "grab all the money you can get".

I think that a fair amount of the enmity in the world, to say nothing of confusion on the Internet, stems from people refusing to contemplate the real values of the opposition as the opposition sees it.  This is something I've remarked upon before, with respect to "the terrorists hate our freedom" or "the suicide hijackers were cowards" (statements that are sheerly silly).

Real value systems - as opposed to pretend demoniacal value systems - are phrased to generate warm fuzzies in their users, not to be easily mocked.  They will sound noble at least to the people who believe them.

Whether anyone actually lives up to that value system, or should, and whether the results are what they are claimed to be; if there are hidden gotchas in the warm fuzzy parts - sure, you can have that debate.  But first you should be clear about how your opposition sees itself - a view which has not been carefully optimized to make your side feel good about its opposition.  Otherwise you're not engaging the real issues.

So here are the traditional values of capitalism as seen by those who regard it as noble - the sort of Way spoken of by Paul Graham, or P. T. Barnum (who did not say "There's a sucker born every minute"), or Warren Buffett:

  • Make things that people want, or do things that people want done, in exchange for money or other valuta.  This is a great and noble and worthwhile endeavor, and anyone who looks down on it reveals their own shallowness.
  • Your competitors are your loyal opposition.  Usher them toward oblivion by offering a better product at a lower price, then dance on their graves (or buy them out, if they're worthy).  An act of violence, like punching them in the nose, is as absolutely forbidden as it would be to a scientist - violence is reserved for the thuggish lower classes, like politicians.
  • Plan for the long term, in your own life and in your company.  Short-term thinkers lose money; long-term thinkers get to pick up the remains for a song.
  • Acquire a deserved reputation for honesty and reliability - with your customers, your suppliers, your subordinates, your supervisors, and the general community.  Read the contract before you sign it, then do what you said you would.  Play by the rules, and play to win.
  • Spend less than you earn.  Keep a cushion for rainy days.  Fear debt.
  • Pay your shareholders a good dividend - that's why they originally gave you their money to invest, to make more money.
  • Don't fiddle the numbers.  The numbers are very important, so fiddling with them is very bad.
  • Promote based on merit.  Being nice to your nephew-in-law will make less money.
  • Give someone a second chance, but not a third chance.
  • Science and technology are responsible for there being something to trade other than stone knives and fruit.  Adopt innovations to increase productivity.  Respect expertise and use it to make money.
  • Vigorous work is praiseworthy but should be accompanied by equally vigorous results.
  • No one has a right to their job.  Not the janitor, not the CEO, no one.  It would be like a rationalist having a right to their own opinion.  At some point you've got to fire the saddle-makers and close down the industry.  If you want to reward loyalty, give them money.
  • No company has a right to its continued existence.  Change happens.
  • Investing is risky.  If you don't like it, don't invest.  Diversification is one thing, but stay far away from get-rich-quick schemes that offer easy rewards with no risk or hard thinking.  Trying to vote yourself rich falls in this category.
  • A high standard of living is the just reward of hard work and intelligence.  If other people or other places have lower standards of living, then the problem is the lower standard, not the higher one.  Raise others up, don't lower yourself.  A high standard of living is a good thing, not a bad one - a universal moral generalization that includes you in particular.  If you've earned your wealth honestly, enjoy it without regrets.
  • In all ways, at all times, and with every deed, make the pie larger rather than smaller.
  • The phrase "making money" is a triumph in itself over previous worldviews that saw wealth as something to steal.
  • Create value so that you can capture it, but don't feel obligated to capture all the value you create.  If you capture all your value, your transactions benefit only yourself, and others have no motive to participate.  If you have negotiating leverage, use it to drive a good bargain for yourself, but not a hateful one - someday you'll be on the other side of the table.  Still, the invisible hand does require that price be sensitive to supply and demand.
  • Everyone in a company should be pulling together to create value and getting a decent share of the value they create.  The concept of 'class war' is a lie sold by politicians who think in terms of a fixed pie.  Any person of wealth who actually, seriously tries to exploit those less fortunate is a bully and a heretic; but offering someone a job is not exploiting them.  (Though bribing politicians to pass laws that transfer wealth, definitely could qualify as exploitation.)
  • In countries that are lawful and just, it is the privilege and responsibility of a citizen to pay their low taxes.  That said, a good billionaire wouldn't ask to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.
  • People safeguard, nourish, and improve that which they know will not be taken from them.  Tax a little if you must, but at some point you must let people own what they buy.
  • The fundamental morality of capitalism lies in the voluntary nature of its trades, consented to by all parties, and therefore providing a gain to all.
  • In countries that are lawful and just, the government is the referee, not a player.  If the referee runs onto the field and kicks the football, things start to get scary.
  • Unearned gains destroy people, nations, and teenagers.  If you want to help, go into the dark places of the world and open stores that offer lower prices; or offer employment to people who wouldn't have gotten a chance otherwise; or invest capital in worthy recipients who others shun.  Plow your gains back into the operation, if you like; but if you don't make at least a little money in the process, how can you be sure that you're creating value?
  • Wise philanthropy is a privilege and responsibility of achieved wealth.
  • Making money is a virtuous endeavor, despite all the lies that have been told about it, and should properly be found in the company of other virtues.  Those who set out to make money should not think of themselves as fallen, but should rather conduct themselves with honor, pride, and self-respect, as part of the grand pageantry of human civilization rising up from the dirt, and continuing forward into the future.

There was, once upon a time, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling Ford a "traitor to his class" because he offered more than the prevailing wages of the time.  Coal miners trying to form a union, once upon a time, were fired upon by rifles.  But I also think that Graham or Barnum or Buffett would regard those folk as the inheritors of mere kings.

"No true Scotsman" fallacy?  Maybe, but let's at least be clear what the Scots say about it.

For myself, I would have to say that I'm an apostate from this moral synthesis - I grew up in this city and remember it fondly, but I no longer live there.  I regard finance as more of a useful tool than an ultimate end of intelligence - I'm not sure it's the maximum possible fun we could all be having under optimal conditions.  I'm more sympathetic than this to people who lose their jobs, because I know that retraining, or changing careers, isn't always easy and fun.  I don't think the universe is set up to reward hard work; and I think that it is entirely possible for money to corrupt a person.

But I also admire any virtue clearly stated and synthesized into a moral system.  We need more of those.  Anyone who thinks that capitalism is just about grabbing the banana, is underestimating the number of decent and intelligent people who have put serious thought into the subject.

Those of other Ways may not agree with all these statements - but if you aspire to sanity in debate, you should at least be able to read them without your brain shutting down.

PS:  Julian Morrison adds:  Trade can act as a connective between people with diverging values.

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This is something I've remarked upon before, with respect to "the terrorists hate our freedom" or "the suicide hijackers were cowards" (statements that are sheerly silly).

I think the terrorists et al. probably do hate our freedom -- e.g., our freedom to watch DVDs of people having sex. This fact may not be particularly useful in keeping from being attacked again (I for one am not willing to give up the right to watch DVDs of people having sex).

On the other hand, I agree that "the suicide hijackers were cowards" is sheerly silly, and I think it's pretty stupid that Bill Maher lost his job for saying the same.

6Aurini12yYou'd be wrong there. The Muslim world doesn't like* our lax sexual morals, but as long as we stay on our side of the pond it's not something they'll get that worked up about. What angers them are legitimate moral grievances: exploitative "inherited from kings and politicians" capitalism, and political undermining of their states. In no way am I condoning their actions - but it is a desire for freedom, not a hatred of it, which drives them. I'm currently involved in editing a book on the matter, www.tremblethedevil.com if you're interested. *Little known fact, the night before the 9/11 attack the terrorists all sat around in a hotel room jacking off to porn they'd ordered on the TV. Seriously.
3Carinthium10yIn what way is the West capitalistically exploiting the Muslim world?

Not capitalism - neo-colonialims, or American imperialism, or Corporate Welfare & the Military Industrial complex or whatever you want to call it. During the Cold War, part of the CIA's containment strategy invovled the Americans toppling any government which didn't do what they said - democractically elected or otherwise - and replacing them with leaders of convenience.

This is what put Iraq into Saddam's hands; this is how Iran got turned into a Theocracy.

They're angry at the US for subversively undermining their governments, for their own political ends, or to provide contracts to Haliburton - you notice that right now it's mainly Western Companies profitting off of the Iraq oil? Usually the same companies that are profitting off of the war itself. However, these legitimate grievances against the US are hard to explain to somebody without an understanding of history. There's a general sense that the US is to blame - and though their actions might have been justified by the Soviet Threat, it doesn't change the fact that they were the agents - but most of them are too damned stupid to understand what this means.

So they settle for "The US is powerful, and non-muslim - ALLAH ACKBAR, DERP DERP!"

1Carinthium10yIf that's their rhethoric (I haven't really looked into the subject), then why are you so certain the real cause is historical exploitation?
9Aurini10yShort answer - the same reason I believe that WWII was inevitable, given the harsh penalties laid on Germany at the end of WWI. Long answer - it fits into a historical approach I'm familiar with, and which has proved effective across different periods. I haven't read many primary sources on middle eastern history (my focus was enlightenment-modern), but the occurrences there aren't too dissimilar from what we see in other places. I've read other's analyses of the situation, and the facts which I've double checked have been accurate. Essentially, this explanation fits into a Historical Theory which I haven't seen disproven, and it matches all of the facts. It also contains the innate 'symmetry' that good theories usually have. [History - when it's done properly - is a Scientific discipline. Historical theories should be able to make predictions, which can be tested by (either) deeply unethical Lord of the Flies experiments, or by comparative History. Historians and Archaeologists are in the business of finding new information to support/deny old ideas. Compare to the pseudoscience of Psychology, which doesn't actually want to examine its innate assumptions; thank goodness Neurology is beginning to overtake it.] What is that theory? Bah, it's been years - essentially, I am distrustful of any arguments which cite 'culture' as a primary influence. From everything I've seen, culture matters very little, except in how it affects the resource base (a tribe which practices cannibalism may be more prone to disease, for instance); aside from that, culture adapts to the situation - I view the "Xtianity gave us a history of institution, narf narf" as another "Just So" story. You topple a popular leader, and install a totalitarian, you get a vicious, misogynist theocracy - doesn't matter which religion you start with. Compare North Korea, Iran, and the USSR. Probably some Catholic examples from South America, too (presumably split from the central church).
6Carinthium10y1- Why should a good historical theory have an innate 'symmetry"? 2- Since I haven't seen the justifications for myself, could you actually link me to some of the relevant research? 3- The U.S.S.R was not popular as of it's overthrow, nor was the government it overthrew. North Korea was the sucessor state to Japanese rule of Korea, and thus did not (as far as I know) replace a popular government. 4- If most people are too stupid to understand, you are presumably saying that it is the "elites" of Muslim societies who are responding based on exploitation. Post the Cold War, shouldn't they have been smart enough to see it would happen less? Things which could be called exploitation in a broad sense exisited (troops guarding Mecca if I remember right, Israel, western-installed governments), but they should have realised that with the end of the Soviets it would be toned down. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was opposed by most of the Muslim world, so it wouldn't count. (pointing out in case you argue that) EDIT: 5- Come to think of it, individuals are probably no more free under a traditional Middle Eastern government then an American puppet. Presumably you are talking about the nationalist sense of freedom?
4Aurini10y1 - The same reason that a good Physics Theory, or Mathematical Theorem has an innate symmetry and beauty. When something feels 'ugly' there's usually a reason why. 2 - I don't have any of the relevant documents at hand; it's been a while since I focussed on History specifically. www.tremblethedevil.com, however, does an excellent job explaining the roots of modern terrorism (you may have to web archive his stuff). 3 - If the theory I outlined above was my be-all-end-all theory of history, I would be going against what I wrote about history being scientific; in science there's more than one way to make a flying machine, it's magic where only one incantation works. The overthrow of the Czar was an internal matter, so it doesn't apply - and the USSR wasn't viciously theocratic or misogynist. It was a lot of other things, but it wasn't the two I listed above. As for North Korea - which is not a history I know - from what you said, their previously, presumably popular, government was toppled by imperial powers and a vicious theocracy (which I would expect to be misogynistic) took its place. 4 - It's not the elites 'manipulating' the masses out of some sort of historical understanding, it's a broader gut instinct amongst the plebs. There are historical events which led up to it, and which form legitimate grievances. The plebs just know that they hate the west. There's no reason for them to realize that, with the withdrawl of the Soviets, that things would be toned down. The plebs aren't that smart, first of all, and second of all, it's arguable that - if anything - it's been escalated. 5 - eing a slave under your home-grown dictator is preferable to being a slave under a foreign invader. As I saw it put, once, "I hate the US government, but that doesn't mean I look forward to the Chinese 'freeing' me."
0Carinthium10y1- A good theory can feel "ugly" simply hecause it is counter-intuitive. 2- Checking up now, so not deciding to agree or disagree yet. 3- You listed North Korea, the U.S.S.R, and Iran as examples- I was refuting them. 4- Muslim Middle Eastern commoners aren't that well educated- what signs would they have of American influence? And what reason would they have to delude themselves. 5- Why should it be preferable? I don't see a good reason. Even your example doesn't work- the U.S government is in many ways bad, but is better then the Chinese.
0ata10ySource?
1Aurini10yhttp://tremblethedevil.com/?p=732 [http://tremblethedevil.com/?p=732] He's an interenet-friend of mine, used to work for the CIA doing information-analysis. My agent's met him in person, and given the body of work he's presented I have no reason to suspect him of dishonesty. Particularly with that fact - his site is full of brilliant analysis on contemporary event, I don't see him having the need to make up one story when the rest is factually based.
0TraderJoe9y[comment deleted]
0TimS9yYou might check the 9/11 Commission Report [http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/pagedetails.action?granuleId=&packageId=GPO-911REPORT&fromBrowse=true] . Sorry that I don't have a more specific cite. Edit: I reviewed chapter 7, and it doesn't appear to make the claim.

the terrorists et al. probably do hate our freedom -- e.g., our freedom to watch DVDs of people having sex. This fact may not be particularly useful in keeping from being attacked again (I for one am not willing to give up the right to watch DVDs of people having sex).

A witchhunt tells us a lot about those doing it but little about those who are the target of it.

Eliezer: I regard finance as more of a useful tool than an ultimate end of intelligence - I'm not sure it's the maximum possible fun we could all be having under optimal conditions.
Perhaps under optimal conditions you're able to compensate for the lack of buying power of n dollars, where this is the amount that can buy everything that's for sale, i.e., everything that everyone else combined can generate.

Good post. I don't think that #18,

"Create value so that you can capture it, but don't feel obligated to capture all the value you create. If you capture all your value, your transactions benefit only yourself, and others have no motive to participate. If you have negotiating leverage, use it to drive a good bargain for yourself, but not a hateful one - someday you'll be on the other side of the table."

is a real capitalist value. I think that the capitalist value is to strike the best deal that you can, no matter what. In game theoretic terms, t... (read more)

2[anonymous]8yStipulating your assertion--which I don't think is true in general--there's also the fact that people with whom you deal once can communicate with one another, leading to the concept of 'reputation', which is another kind of asset. A strict but enlightened portfolio-maximizer should prefer, under fairly general circumstances, a combination of money and positive reputation to somewhat more money but negative reputation.
1RichardKennaway8yThere is this reason to assume repeated play: in fact, almost all business is a game of repeated play. There are very few businesses that can survive without either repeat custom or word of mouth (which is indirect repeat custom). The ones that do are things like airport taxis ripping off incoming tourists, and spam fraud.

What Aaron Brown said.

Anyone who wants to make blasphemy a crime is probably guilty of "hating freedom".

8Oligopsony9yNo, just hating blasphemy. Almost everyone wants at least some things to be crimes; hating freedom won't tell you anything as specific as making blasphemy (but not other random acts) one. Banning blasphemy is hating freedom like legalizing blasphemy is misotheism.
1komponisto9yThe word "probably" is key: this is a Bayesian inference based on the actual state of the world. There is enough disagreement about how bad blasphemy is that wanting to ban it is significant evidence of placing a low value on freedom.
9Oligopsony9yOh, obviously they place a low value on freedom. But if we elide between "cares a lot less about x than me" with "cares negatively about x," I think we've missed Eliezer's point here. The modal capitalist ideologue doesn't hate equality or piety or whatever.
1MBlume7y"Anyone who wants to make disturbing the peace a crime is probably guilty of 'hating freedom'" No, they have different priorities from you.
2blacktrance7yNot mutually exclusive, and can be a nicer way of saying the same thing.

The post wasn't narrow enough to make a point. Elizier stated: "I regard finance as more of a useful tool than an ultimate end of intelligence - I'm not sure it's the maximum possible fun we could all be having under optimal conditions." Are we talking pre or post a nanotech OS running the solar system? In the latter case most of these "values" would become irrelevant. However given the world we have today, I can confidently say that capitalism is pretty awesome. There is massive evidence to back up my claim.

It smells like Eliezer is tr... (read more)

0Kenny8yIf capitalism is the "best we can come up with", with what is it a compromise and why would we want to compromise the best option?

"Maximise profits by competing on the margins of price and quality" is a useful moral rule just like "keep promises". We can deviate from these rules when we have excellent knowledge of local conditions, but the less local knowledge we have of the consequences of our actions, the more closely we should follow them.

"It smells like Eliezer is trying to refute a strawman."

PK: Elizier isn't really refuting anything, he's just saying that personally he's not sure this is the best system, without going into too much detail as to why he thinks that.

PK, I thought Eliezer's post made at least one point pretty well: If you disagree with some position held by otherwise credible people, try to understand it from their perspective by presenting it as favourably as you can. His worked example of capitalism might be helpful to people who are otherwise inclined to think that unrestrained capitalism is obviously bad and that those who advocate it do so only because they want to advance their own interests at the expense of others less fortunate.

I agree that he's probably violating his own advice when he implies that capitalism amounts to treating "finance as ... an ultimate end".

Capitalism IS a win-win, at least it would be in the absence of coercion (And coercion is not part of capitalism). And government is the main source of coercion in the modern world. I am of two minds as to whether eliminating government would reduce coercion overall - that is, I do not find "Machinery of Freedom" really convincing.

2Larks10y"Capitalism IS a win-win" This is not true, or at least not obveously so. Individual deals in a Capitalist system might be win-win, but the system as a whole doesn't obveously make absolutly everyone better off than they would have been otherwise. For example, I personally would be better off if we had capitalism, but with a massive subsidy for mathematics students.
8Desrtopa9yCapitalism is win-win assuming no coercion and no negative externalities. In practice, you need some sort of overseer with coercive power to prevent negative externalities (and lots of coercive power to prevent all negative externalities,) so capitalism isn't win-win in any realistic formulation.
0Luke_A_Somers8yCapitalism isn't airtight against all cases of win-lose or lose-lose in any realistic formulation, but there are many, many real specific cases in which it is win-win.
5Desrtopa8yJust because it contains specific win-win cases doesn't mean it's win-win in the grand scheme. You can get win-win scenarios in a strict command-and-control economy, even in cases where capitalism performs poorly (it provides better footing against tragedies of the commons, for one,) but that doesn't make it a particularly viable economic model overall.

One you missed: free trade is the only known means of creating a positive-sum game with no need for mutual benevolence. This means it can act as a connective between people with wildly diverging values, providing neither is in a position to wield superior force. Capitalism and trade is a universal meta-cultural microkernel. Pebble-sorters and humans could trade.

It may not sound like much of a quibble, but there really is a difference between regarding capitalism as a virtue-in-itself powerful enough that we ought to be doing it - that any future in which, say, money fades and people go back to ad-hoc barter, is therefore sad regardless of whether standards of living have otherwise gone up or down - versus regarding capitalism as a powerful tool suited to current conditions.

Think of the virtues of rationality. I'd be therefore sad if no one ever had cause to resort to them again, post-nanotech, regardless of whether standards of living had gone up or down.

This firmly identifies me as a member of the Bayesian Conspiracy rather than the Capitalist Conspiracy.

Post-nanotech, the nanotech practices the virtues of rationality or it fails to achieve its goals.

Doesn't count unless the nanotech is having fun.

2ialdabaoth7yThis is something that I've been confused about - you mentioned the same thing in another article, talking about "not becoming a mere wanting-thing". Our cognition is made up of modules, not all of which (as of 2013) exist inside our own skulls anymore. If we can augment our rationality by offloading it onto interdependent systems, in what way are those systems not part of "us"? Instead of having a prefrontal cortex doing our System II thinking for us, we have a pansolar nanotech OS. Instead of having a limbic system doing its desire and motivation, the pansolar nanotech OS has fleshy meatbags. We're only reduced to a "mere wanting-thing" if we lose the pansolar nanotech OS, which is identical to saying "I become a mere wanting-thing if I have a sufficiently massive anyeurism and/or multiple lobotomy". It seems to me that part of keeping my identity small, is keeping it modular - any system which I rely on to enhance my capabilities, is as much a part of me as my flesh is, if not more.
0hyporational7yI suppose the difference is experiencing effort and getting the rewards associated with expending effort. You won't get that without wireheading if you outsource everything. In my better moments, my identity resides in a tiny part of my brain, just observing different faculties doing their thing. In these moments it wouldn't matter if the work was outsourced. Then some scumbag faculty reminds me I'm a human and I should indentify with all kinds of processes I don't understand and suffer as a consequence.

Sarkozy's quote should be placed in a context of his typical statements. What he's probably referring to are high CEO wages, lack of "socially responsible" practices, etc. Sure, taken by itself, it's a great quote, but it's most emphatically NOT directed to evil capitalists mingling with the state, which he encourages.

I have yet to see a satisfactory definition of fun applicable to minds (or agents or optimization processes) very different from mammalian (or vertebrate) minds. And I suspect I will not be seeing one any time soon.

"..people refusing to contemplate the real values of the opposition as the opposition sees it..."

Popular news and punditry seems saturated with this refusal, to the point that I desire to characterize the media's real values in a wholly unbecoming and unfairly generalized manner. It would be a nice evolution of society if we introduced a 'rationality' class into the public school curriculum. Or perhaps developed a 'Bayes Scouts' with merit badges.

haha - damn - you beat me to it: http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2008-March/042369.html

0Document10yThe link makes no sense - did it point somewhere else in 2008 for some reason?
1ata10yYeah, pipermail URLs seem to change once in a while for no obvious reason. (Bad design even if, say, messages are getting deleted; URLs should be permanent whenever possible.) Here's [http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2008-March/042364.html] the message that link was probably referring to.

"""Make things that people want, or do things that people want done, in exchange for money or other valuta. This is a great and noble and worthwhile endeavor, and anyone who looks down on it reveals their own shallowness."""

Yes it is a noble and worthwhile endeavour. Unfortunately (as I noted some time ago) there are in general two ways that firms can make profits: by making something people want, or by rent-seeking. The former is usually beneficial: it increases the sum of human happiness and welfare. The latter is usually h... (read more)

Ian C: Where on earth do you live that people keep what they earn and there's no public charity?

Richard: Humans are pretty cool, I'm down.

Ok, maybe my last post was a bit harsh(it's tricky to express oneself over the Internet). I will elaborate further. Eliezer said:

"So here are the traditional values of capitalism as seen by those who regard it as noble - the sort of Way spoken of by Paul Graham, or P. T. Barnum (who did not say "There's a sucker born every minute"), or Warren Buffett:"

I don't know much about the latter two but I have read Paul Graham extensively. It sounds like a strawman to me when Eliezer says:

"I regard finance as more of a useful tool than an ul... (read more)

1taelor9yAs a matter of fact, Graham explicitly denies [http://paulgraham.com/gap.html#f7n] that the universe is set up to reward hard work. Then again, we know what Eliezer thinks about the universe:

Thanks for the thoughtful post Eliezer.

A recent economic novel on this topic is The Price of Everything by Russell Roberts. It's about how our economy is a self-organizing system, which works pretty well without a single central authority. And, it's an enjoyable read.

A few more sources for the economic thought behind this are:

Hayek, Friedrich A., "The Use of Knowledge in Society" available online. "What is the problem we wish to solve when we try to construct a rational economic order?..." I suspect readers of this blog would find this ... (read more)

Do many people see capitalism as an end rather than a very good means?

If you can summon up just one moment of empathy with those awful, awful people, you will realize that Osama bin Laden would be far more likely to say, "I hate pornography" than "I hate freedom". Which makes him not much different from a Western politician, in that sense.

Eliezer: I simply KNOW numerous people for whom the phrases "Real value systems - are phrased to generate warm fuzzies in their users," and "They will sound noble at least to the people who believe them." are simply untrue. In such people, there is often a DIRECT conflict between "generating warm fuzzies" and "not being mocked", as they consider the generation of warm fuzzies to be sufficient grounds for mockery. Do you want me to call them and get THEM to post on the comments thread?

Seriously Eliezer. You have NO IDEA how the main bulk of the finance industry thinks about life. I have been there, you have not, and you are mistaken about this. Hitler and Stalin did get warm fuzzies from their ideology, so that creates a lot of confusion. One CAN be a bastard AND like warm fuzzies. That doesn't mean that every bastard does so. It's pretty clear that the Marquis de Sade was NOT after warm fuzzies. Much more normal, neither is Genghis Khan or the typical "most popular girl in school".

8Carinthium10yI'd very much like to see some of these comments for their perspective on things (as well as their credentials). Could you call them, please?

Not all people are constructed so that the word-concept 'noble' is linked to notions of desirability and value. Such people will reject the idea that their chosen ideological positions appear 'noble' to them, or were selected because of their properties of 'nobility'.

'Virtuous' would be a better choice of words, but it renders the statement near-tautological. As it should, because the concept that ought to be expressed here is tautological: any consistent system of values will, upon evaluating itself, perceive itself to be the perfect manifestation of virtue.

Bin Ladin would be FAR more likely to say "people who use pornography should be killed and then tortured forever" than a Western politician, even if the latter endorses an ideology that says the same thing.

People who write about their ideologies are a VERY select sub-set of those who associate with those ideologies. The Paul Graham's and Warren Buffets of the world do like capitalism and think it benefits everyone. So do I relative to most plausible alternatives. That doesn't mean that the people who actually work in the day-to-day jobs as traders etc think that they are doing anything productive or care whether they are.

http://www.theonion.com/content/opinion/just_this_once_lets_stay_up_all is MUCH more common, and IS what they really believe in.

Michael, I hadn't intended the generalizations here to cover all capitalists, or all "value systems" in the sense of minds with motivations - just those people who would regard themselves as having a morality in the first place.

Do those to whom you refer have actual anti-moral moral systems, or are they just doing whatever? If there are people out there with actual antimoralities - not just "virtue of selfishness" Randian types who are actually around as decent in their private lives as the average - but people who do actual evil deeds... (read more)

Isn't part of the point of capitalism that people don't have to want it to produce valuable outcomes for society as a whole for it to do so? That people don't have to be willing to sacrifice for those valuable outcomes (although they might have to restrain themselves if they want to be successful), and that society doesn't need to burn through a limited supply of altruistic people to remaining functioning if it uses capitalism to run itself?

The "virtue of selfishness" Randian types actually mean a lot like what you posted, Eliezer. Ayn Rand just sounded really really angry when she wrote it, and used "selfishness" as a technical term where someone else might have said "enlightened self-interest." If you have not seen it, she wrote an essay about virtues that reads a lot like the virtues of rationality, except she tended to package it with her version of the "if you do not live up to nature's demands, you die" essay. And then the angrier parts about how partial success is still death by degrees, and anyone against those values was a mystic of meat or muscle, a below-human creature richly deserving of its inevitable doom. (Or am I mentally combining several of her essays in the book of that title?)

With respect to "warm fuzzies": I interpreted that broadly. Believers in the importance of manly honor and martial virtue would never call their sense of righteousness "warm fuzzies," but they still have that warm glow of "I believe this, therefore I know The Good."

@Caledonian

How can you ask this question "What is actual evil?"? You must know. Perhaps not definitively, but surely well enough, that we others would recognize it and agree.

What is the function of this false barrier that is no barrier?

May I suggest that the asking of this question is an example of the answer, (whilst I accept, that evil done, does not have to be intended)?

you will realize that Osama bin Laden would be far more likely to say, "I hate pornography" than "I hate freedom"

There's a difference between hating freedom and saying you hate freedom. There's also a difference between hating freedom and hating our freedom; the latter phrasing rules out Bin Laden misredefining the word to suit his own purposes. And thirdly it's possible to hate freedom and hate pornography more than freedom.

I, too, am down with the mammals. I don't mind seeing whole galaxies transformed into clouds of superintelligent matter and energy and dedicated to mammalian happiness and mammalian preference.

I've raised this before when Eliezer made the point, and I'll raise it again:

There most certainly is truth to "Suicide bombers are cowardly". Someone who chooses to believe a sweet, comforting lie, and go to the grave rather than face the possibility of having to deal with being wrong, is cowardly, or the term has no meaning. They might have been less cowardly with respect to their lives, but they were absolutely more cowardly with respect to their intellectual integrity. And FWIW, American soldiers who meet all of that are just as cowardly.

Mo... (read more)

AFAIK the 9/11 people didn't believe they would die in any real sense.

Or to put it another way, I think I understand why good people might pretend to be evil, and why evil people might claim to be good is obvious enough; but I'm not sure I really do understand why evil people would admit to being evil.

@Eliezer: what 'evil' person has ever admitted to being 'evil'? I'm not talking about the petty thief who is sorry for his actions, but the bin ladens or stalins of the world who are convinced that the end justify their means and they are really doing good for their people/country/future/god/whatever.

Rand's objectivism and capitalism are criticized by people who reflexively see 'selfish' and equate that with greed and all the problems with capitalism. But those critics are delusional or they just don't understand human nature and our built-in modules fo... (read more)

There was, once upon a time, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling Ford a "traitor to his class" because he offered more than the prevailing wages of the time. Sounds made up to me. A lot of stupid people think he did it so his workers could afford his cars. That's asinine. The marginal amount of money they'd send back to him directly would be negligible. The real reason was that he had a high turnover rate and it was costing him too much to keep training new employees. His retained more people after he raised wages.

1David_Gerard10yIt is a bit of a "citation needed".

Not related too much to the topic, but this post made me realize that the Russian word val'uta (currency) is cognate with value. I'd heard the word for most of my life, but I never made the connection.

The tenets of the Way of capitalism are sensible and admirable (not, in my opinion, the most sensible and admirable by far, but even so), but for many human beings it's difficult to keep such a diverse moral philosophy in your head - the result being that for some, even some that rise to the top, everything collapses to "make money at all costs".

Would that other systems get the same favorable treatment that Elizar advocates for capitalism. How about looking at the virtues of Communisms from the inside, as Elizar would have it. Anybody feel motivated to do more than a superficial hack job? How about Socialism? Monarchy? Plutocracy?

Speaking as someone who has no problem with capitalism, I'd say that people's reaction to it have a lot more to do with the people who promote it. Sort of like most people who don't care much for Heinlein turn out to have an appreciation of his writing, but absolutely detest the fanboy adulators who surround his remains.

So, I always found one thing strange about the comments in this article - that no-one even considered a 'Traditional Socialist Values' post.

So I, no fan of socialism, did.

9[anonymous]10yThese are pretty good and it's a good exercise. I would also add (being friends with some self-described socialists) that solidarity is a traditional socialist value. "It's easy to offer an "opportunity" that in practice goes to a few; the hard and serious task is to ensure the means of flourishing to all." The folks who created Drinking Liberally summarized liberalism (in the U.S. sense of center-left) as follows: "It is better to live for others than only for yourself." I liked that because I think that's probably the best, most succinct statement of a core liberal value; and it's so stated that it could either be the ideal that drives someone's life, or the opposite of the ideal that drives someone's life.
4Larks10yThanks, and added

It worries me that I am not at all sure how to write the analogue of this list from the perspective of a devout mormon without something along the lines of "premarital sex is bad because I despise all that is good and joyful in life, bwahaha"

I mean, I think it might have something to do with the solidity of families, but there's still some steps I'm not seeing (ie fully sex-positive families in scandinavia seem to do just fine)

I have had the privilege of seeing a healthy, functional, devout Mormon extended family in joyful motion. There is something thrillingly aesthetic about the pattern they all fit into together, and it's so pretty that I can see how someone would understand it to be a moral rather than an aesthetic pleasure to enact or observe the script. They match, they fit.

All the other Mormon families I know (including those related to this one by marriage) have flaws in their execution or are hampered from the get-go by intrusive circumstance, and the one I'm talking about might be imperfect too, beneath the surface - but insofar as they perform their dance happily and in sync, it has a loveliness to it.

6MBlume10yI want to point back to the "it works fine if everyone's sex-positive" part, but I suppose that's like saying "gosh, that's a beautiful oil painting, but why didn't you do it in charcoal?" -- you may well get a thing of beauty, but it's a wholly different thing. Which makes me wonder how much inter-cultural conflict can be reified in terms of individual cultures optimizing into local maxima and incremental movement in the direction of another culture looking like a destructive slide into a valley.

I think at least a chunk of this can be explained away by different levels of focus on sex as a Major Life Thing, a sine qua non for excellent living. There are all kinds of folks, and some of them aren't going to share your opinion on the importance of sex positivity, just like some of them aren't going to share my opinion on the importance of eschewing cake mix.

0Kevin10yI knew a reasonably devout Mormon who had one of those "everything but" attitudes with regards to pre-marital sex.
3Desrtopa10yRemember that the values that sound like a standard to rally around to them are not necessarily ones that you would find compelling. I suspect that some tenets would rest on appeals to the value of purity [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Haidt].

Orson Scott Card, from whose works my username sort of comes, is a devout Mormon who seems to work a non-religious explanation of why premarital sex is bad into a lot of his stories (often phrased as "like all intelligent people, XX and XY understood that..."). The explanation is completely different each time, and it's never where the conclusion really comes from, of course. Card can speculate as to why God commanded something, but he doesn't need the rationalization in order to believe in the commandment.

Orson Scott Card's arguments (the ones I remember) include:

  • Breaking taboos means you're either a "wolf," who disregards social conventions whenever it suits you, or a "sheep" who can't restrain your own impulses. Both of these are bad.

  • Your parents are probably lying to you about sex in some way, which means you might have some dangerous misconceptions. Don't do it until you can be sure of the consequences.

  • Unless you've had a long courtship and are now married, there's probably an undetected power imbalance in your relationship, which means any premarital sex is actually rape.

  • Unless you've had a long courtship and are now married, how do y

... (read more)
9Alicorn10yOh, and don't forget: * If you don't have the social publicity of your relationship that extended courtship and marriage provides, how will anyone know to warn you that your childhood caretakers drugged you with substances that make orgasm torturous? That one doubled as an "argument" against homosexuality.
4Nornagest10yWhat story was that? In any case, that's rather remarkably bizarre. I'm trying to think of a real-life condition for which it'd work as an allegory, and coming up with absolutely nothing -- at least without involving some of the more extreme forms of genital mutilation, and I doubt Card's trying to defend those.
5Alicorn10yThat was "Songmaster".
3TheOtherDave10y(blink) The idea that part of a guardian's responsibility is to prepare their charge for the painfulness and unpleasantness of sex on their wedding night was relatively pervasive in the social media I grew up around, and I can imagine what Alicorn describes being an allegory for this (though I read "Songmaster" too many years and too many perspective-changes ago to remember it usefully, so I have no idea whether Card had anything like this in mind).
0Nornagest10yI suppose that makes a twisted kind of sense. I'd been exposed to the idea before (though I wouldn't have called it pervasive in the cultural milieu I grew up in), but didn't make the connection -- possibly because Card's setup doesn't seem to work if sex/loss of virginity is ordinarily painful or unpleasant. It's odd to write an allegory which implicitly rejects the real-life idea it's supposed to point to (ETA: as opposed to tactfully ignoring it). I suppose Card might be trying to write for an audience that he assumes to have already rejected it, but now I feel like I'm making too many speculative leaps to be confident of my predictions.
5[anonymous]10yFor several years my best friends were religious and socially conservative. In general I think that poses a challenge for relationships, but I did know one happy, successful couple. I can understand the mindset a little bit; they tend to see premarital sex as random, chaotic, loveless, and brutal, which does sound bad. One way of thinking about it is that premarital sex is sex that's not in a family and therefore doesn't involve the same kind of security and loyalty. Sex with someone you don't trust to be your family is more uncertain, more guarded.

I think that one of the most valuable things I got out of my legal education is that I learned conservative (fiscal and social) political and legal theories from people who believe it themselves, not from people who were treating it as a caricature or a strawman. (And liberal ones too, but that's not so uncommon an experience. I identify as a "liberaltarian" myself.)

I live in the nonprofitiverse, where "capitalist" is usually a slur. (With some notable exceptions.) It's pretty hard to get people to listen to you once you've said the word "capitalist"--but if you bring up some of these points without naming them many of even the least sympathetic to "capitalism" would agree. (Similarly, I've seen Tea Partier signs that could have come straight from liberal talking points.)

I find it a lot easier to read about economic systems I don't agree with than social systems I don't agree with--I may think someone proposing an economic policy I find wrongheaded is wrong, but not immoral. Whereas there are many social policies I find not just wrong but abhorrent, enough that I have a hard time taking their proponents seriously.

I must say, I find it really helps matters that the particular nonprofit we find most eating our lives was founded by not just a libertarian, but an Objectivist. It seems to explode people's heads nicely.

I am well aware that this is an old article now, but I was reading it and found that the positions mentioned in this article are close to my own. Not exact, but close. I personally cannot conceive of a more virtuous way to distribute the goods produced by society, than by the personal vote of each individual member deciding upon the value of each other in material goods, weighted in infinite recursion by society's determination of those people making the decision in the exact same way.

Nothing about this is greedy, or heartless. It merely relies on people... (read more)

I think of capitalism more as the idea that, even when everybody is selfish, it still works out surprisingly well. You could come up with a set of values that would do the most good in a capitalist system composed mostly of selfish people, and call them capitalist values, but I don't think that's really the point.

I don't think there's some capitalist value that it's intrinsically moral to grab all the money you can get. There is instead a capitalist belief that if you do try to grab all the money you can get, you will have to help more people than you hurt... (read more)

[-][anonymous]9y 0

These base points of capitalism I agree with, but alas there are a thousand fallacies out there which corrupt some of them. Notably in historic time: every economic bubble bursting into crisis since ever. This is not fault of capitalism, this is a fault of human civilization being a rather poor medium to implement capitalism in.

So, given the global crisis and every crisis before it such as the Tulip bubble in the first half of the 1600's, is it a simple solution is to implement some additional rules in the vein of meta-consequentialism?

In countries that are lawful and just, it is the privilege and responsibility of a citizen to pay their low taxes. That said, a good billionaire wouldn't ask to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.

Since when is this a traditional part of capitalism? Apart from the definitional problems with "a good billionaire", who is it who says that a billionaire who pays 40m in tax and wants to pay less is somehow immoral?

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