Saturday, December 31, 2011

On the Economics of Evil

Elsewhere, we have talked about how evil arises in the mind, and a little of how it is made manifest in the world.

One may wonder how one talks about evil in an economics blog. It is almost impolite. After all, evil is, in the end, irrational, and ignorance part of its nature. And economics is the domain of the all knowing, rational agent. One might say, economics is the study of the behavior of God, or gods, at least, anyway, under some of its more implicit assumptions. Perhaps this is one of the profession’s problems, then, when trying to explain the behavior of men.

Evil is as evil does. So what is as evil does? What is the economics of evil?

Evil sacrifices the greater good for its immediate gain. Since its own welfare is ultimately dependent upon the greater good, it thus consumes the foundation of its own wealth, and must look ever farther to feed its hungers, until it can no longer support itself, and collapses. But before it collapses, it may have consumed the substance of many. Those incapable, those inattentive, or those ineffectual in opposing it.

Eventually, good always triumphs. Good may triumph through might. But the reason, though, good always triumphs is because in the end, evil always fails. But it may succeed for a time, and the damage it may have inflicted be awful.

And when the good turns evil, it fails. Signs of turning evil are signs of failure. But not all signs of failure are signs of an internal evil. Failure may be imposed from above, inflicted.

It first seems as if we can talk about evil in terms of what are called discount rates. An individual with the lower discount rate is a person who ‘values the future more.’ He is a person more prepared to reduce consumption today so that he has more to consume tomorrow, and is held as somehow more virtuous, ‘more good,’ than someone who consumes more today, with perhaps less thought of tomorrow.

But we are living through a period where this virtue turns into exploitation, and destructive of the foundations of all wealth. An individual with a lower discount rate, exchanging with a person with a higher discount rate, will eventually come to possess all the other has, no matter how small the difference in discount rate. Even if the person with the larger discount rate is a person of relative virtue, he is not virtuous enough to retain his wealth. Is the gradual confiscation of the wealth of the less virtuous, then, itself a sign of virtue, or a sign of a lack of restraint, and of evil?

Or is instead the failure of the person with the higher discount rate a sign of his ‘evilness?’ For failure is what will result. He will lose his capital. Should he now be condemned to labor as a slave on behalf of the person with the lower discount rate, who now may consume the fruits of the labor of both, in perpetuity? Who is evil? The slave, who has become so because of his inadequate virtue, or the slaver?

The slaver, having consumed the wealth of his slave, is reduced to consuming the slave’s surplus, which it is in the slave’s interest to minimize. Having reduced the slave to subsistence, the slaver must then compel him to produce more.

So we see that commission of a lesser evil, what can be just a tiny difference in discount rates, by one, becomes, if not countered, the making of a greater evil, by the other.

Where is the happy median?

The accumulation of capital by a society is a great virtue. But so is its proper allocation. And this proper allocation is necessary, for when the wealth of a society becomes excessively concentrated, it can no longer maintain itself without the consumption of the capital of the rest of that society. Virtue pursued to excess has become Evil.

It justifies itself by its earlier successes still, yet its ends have changed. No longer is virtue seen as the pursuit of the common good. For the common man has proven himself to be without virtue, and dross, unworthy of the considerations of the powerful. What was Virtue turns to the fulfilling of its own now insatiable needs, and, at first just incidentally, the impoverishment of others. It goes too far, first blighting the lives and hopes of those less endowed, or less lucky, and then becoming corrupt and turning on itself, feeding on itself.

Evil is seldom pure. How do we recognize when virtue has turned evil, and harnessed to evil ends? How do we recognize the deterioration of our society, our nation, and our world? How do we recognize the infliction of evil, and the imposition of failure?

After all, Evil will cloak itself in virtue. Its agents may even, at first, imagine themselves virtuous. And what it imposes will not be called failure. It will be called something else. Evil deceives, doing one thing while saying it does another. And where it does what it says, its motives and goals are not what it says they are. But because Evil’s ends are irrational, as these become clear, irrational too become its justifications. Its speaking, and its actions, become increasingly detached from reality, and from each other. And its speaking and its actions become increasingly incoherent

Evil inflicts misery, whether or not it profits. And its profit is always less than the misery it inflicts. Evil provides no nourishment. What it seems to provide is never worth the price.

Evil does not create, except implements of destruction. It only manipulates, and takes. Indeed, creation is anathema to Evil, which opposes creation at every turn. It destroys what it cannot have, and pollutes, both what it does not possess, and what it does.
Evil cannot control its appetite. No amount of wealth is sufficient to its needs. And what to others are wants, mere desires, to Evil are needs, and needs that can never be satisfied.

Evil’s end is not what power can do, to the benefit of others, but power itself, and what it can do to gratify its needs. Evil considers itself to be justified in its extravagance.

We coddle the wealthy. We are told that they are the creators of jobs. Yet, there were more jobs when they were not so coddled. There was more wealth, and more creation of wealth, when the wealthy did not have so much. And now, we are told, we must give them even more. We, the people, must tighten our belts, and sacrifice of our own wealth, to feed the needs of the wealthy, the wealthy creditors who hold our debt, the debt of the people.

But ask the wealthy. Are they not virtuous? Do they not deserve the rents they extract from the people? Have the people, the debtors, through their inferior virtue, not embonded themselves to their creditors, the wealthy?

We will always have the wealthy. They will always extract their rents and fees from the people. But when are they too much? When are they more of a burden, than any benefits which the people might gain from them? Or are the rents and fees extracted from the people put to good use? Who, or what do they feed? If the wealthy would be the masters of the people, are they good to the people, or are they not? Are the extractions returned to the people, as the virtuous master would do? (But why should they be? Are not the people of inferior virtue to the wealthy, and undeserving?) Or are they not instead turned on self consumption, and the feeding of the worms of competing corruption which are now at the economic processes at the heart of the nation, and perhaps the world?

With the growth of the global economy, the reach of Evil is the ends of the earth, and, unless effectively opposed and contained, it will consume the sustenance of all else before it consumes itself.

But- perhaps we should look at the latest corruption in high places as- justice. Tolerating Evil, even perhaps, as some claim, inflicting it on others, Evil comes to us.

There are those who believe that, or say that, having achieved wealth and prominence, that this is evidence of moral superiority; that they are morally superior to those of us who have not. (Have we ourselves not said this? Have we not used our nation’s wealth and power to justify our- ‘Exceptionalism?’) Do the wealthy use this to justify their stewardship, or their extravagance? Is it become an instrument to do good, or wealth to conspicuously consume, resources denied to others, and wantonly destroyed. Do they nourish others, or deprive them of things they value, of the resources needed for the enjoyment of such liberty as they have?

The moral justification of those in high places can be rephrased: They rule for the benefit of the people, to shower them with the blessings of their making. Or, instead, they rule to inflict punishments on the people, who by their inferior virtue, come to deserve them.

The powerful cannot be merely indifferent. Then they are only self-serving, and there is no basis to their claims on wealth, and no reason for society to grant them.

Are the poor and undeserving supposed to accept these hardships, laid upon them by the demands of the wealthy, as justice served?

And what do we see, but the enforcement of this process, the reduction of debtor to slave, by our government. Are we surprised then, by reaction against the government, since it has become an instrument of compulsion, for the extraction of rent from the people, to the vast enrichment of a few. The protector of the people, having become enslaved by the wealthy, is despised by the people. Do the people, rather than seeking their government’s freedom, despair of their government, and turn on it, and seek its destruction?

Do those who tolerate evil deserve evil things to happen to them? Is it a form of justice that those who tolerate evil, though they do no evil themselves, should be punished? Is tolerating evil itself evil? Is being a bystander to a crime itself a crime? Is to allow evil to consent to evil?

Justification for government and regulation is seen by the behavior of the wealthy. Without a strong and free government, the wealthy cannot do other than they do, and that is to wreak great harm on the society that supports them, and their wealth. And we, the members of that society, may react one of two ways: We may accept the punishment, allow the destruction of our society and our wealth, and consider it just reward for our failures, or we may oppose the evil.

Finally, though man is limited in knowledge and rationality, the shape of the future is becoming increasingly clear. The earth is limited. The ends of the earth have been found, and been found to be not so very far. Consideration of and action to counter overpopulation, global warming, the depletion of resources and increasing toxicity of the environment, are all becoming more imperative. Will man pursue the course of evil, with evil consequences, or will he seek the course of rationality, and act accordingly?

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