What is wealth?

In my last post, I made a few hefty speculations without a great deal of intellectual support. Among them was the notion than monetary wealth could be seen as “legitimized social defection”. I felt that I should say a little more about that, and explain what I meant.

First, let’s talk about ownership. What is it? Why do we have the notion that anyone owns anything? Our society is full of statements like “you can’t take it with you after you die”, and “life isn’t about money, it’s about love”, and yet the principle of who owns what continues to have a massive impact on our lives. Why is that?

I would argue that ownership exists because humans are a lot more dangerous together than they are apart. Consider tigers–they’ve very dangerous on their own, and so don’t have much reason to cooperate. By contrast, humans are pretty feeble on their own. However, put a bunch of them together and allow them to communicate about tool building, and you’ve got something that should scare the wits out of any tiger with half a brain.

In order for us humans, collectively very dangerous creatures, to work together, we have developed complex protocols. The most obvious one is language, but beyond language is the whole slew of secondary protocols that make up culture. Of paramount importance in any decent cultural protocol is the notion of resource allocation.

Resource allocation shows up all over the place–not just in culture. For instance, it’s vital in whatever software you’re using to read this post. In order to make changes to data without making terrible mistakes, operating systems need the notion of file locks. A file lock is what happens when one program says “I’m using this bit of data stuff, it’s off limits to everyone else until I’ve finished with it”. This prevents two programs from trying to change the same thing at once and messing everything up in the process.

Human beings need an equivalent to file locks because of the way their brains work. We think by making predictions about what’s going to happen next. Those predictions fit together in hierarchies to make plans. Those plans require that the components of predictions be reliable and consistent. Thus, if a person has a goal that requires the use of certain resources, so long as it’s not messing up the other humans in the group, it makes sense to let them use it. Thus, allocating specific resources to specific individuals is a cognitively cheap way of making sure that everyone can pursue their goals without conflict.

Similarly, trade arises because it makes sense to have a system by which resources can be reallocated without instant social friction. Thus, barter, or money, or whatever system you want to use, is essentially a nifty way of trading file locks between social agents. This system is so efficient, and so engrained, that we accept it automatically, even in societies where the notion of ownership has not been fully fleshed out. It would be an odd society indeed where an individual’s half-eaten lunch was not considered ‘theirs’, or that underwear or sleeping mat or spouse wasn’t considered somehow personally allocated.

Problems arise because this notion of personal allocation is subject to game theoretic exploitation, just like everything else in society. Because increased resources entails increased social standing, people have a tendency to accumulate stuff. Because human beings often limit their sense of justice to members of their own perceived group, theft occurs. Because we want the ability to pass allocation of a resource to our offspring, we end up with inheritance. Because people will often trade favors or services for resources, resources serve as a proxy for power. And so on.

Put these things together, and it’s natural to end up with societies that engage in the bizarre habit of perpetuating and magnifying unequal resource allocation for generations, regardless of the inevitable consequences.

Hence, while the concept of ownership constitutes a form of social cooperation, gaming the notion of ownership until you have more resources than you can possibly use while others are lacking, is transparently a form of defection. This is because effective cooperation, the original goal of the system, has been compromised for individual gain.

For reasons I alluded to in my last post, we’ve taken this form of defection and make a pseudo-virtue out of it, because of the implied collective benefit of tolerating highly effective cheats. This makes things complicated, because, in order to encourage those cheats to try out, we wrap the accumulation of wealth in positive social symbols. This ensures that individuals who aren’t psychologically locked in by empathy or fear will try their luck.

I’m not proposing that we change this system. I doubt we even could if we tried. And even if we succeeded, we’d be more likely to create a botched horror than something wise and good. However, a game theoretic understanding of what money actually is, and how it relates to mental and social function, is going to be an inevitable part of 21st century science and reasoning. Therefore, we might as well embrace that reality now, and start building compassionate, honest ideologies around it based on science, rather than pretending that this isn’t how society works. That option is a recipe for letting the understanding of money remain with those keenest to exploit its dynamics, which, in the long run, doesn’t benefit anybody.

 

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