poly: Absolute vs relative wealth

From: d.brin <brin@cts.com>
Date: Thu Jan 13 2000 - 16:40:15 PST

>Peter C. McCluskey Re: poly: Re: the economics of transition to nanotech
> bronto@pobox.com (anton sherwood) writes:
>>Damien Broderick wrote:...
>>Those who care more for absolute wealth than for relative wealth.
>>Is there any way to estimate how many such people are active investors?
> While most people prefer to claim that they want to maximize absolute
>rather than relative wealth, their behavior suggests that they aren't
>being very honest about their motives (probably not even to themselves).

This is a very old question that's related to (but not identical to) the
issue of altruism. People know they need for others to think well of them,
so they claim to be more cooperative and altruistic than they are.
Societies generally try to enforce cooperative behavior through
accountability (laws) and/or through exhortation (moral codes).

(My book The Transparent Society is about the accountability side of the
equation. More than enough people keep talking about the morality side.)

When both of these techniques are well-tuned to the times, you can generate
a society in which individuals may struggle for their own advantage
(relative wealth) while in so doing, engaging in activities that help cause
all boats to rise (absolute wealth). It's all a matter of tuning the rules
of the competitive game so that it is a positive sum game.

The socialist error is not recognizing the essential driver of relative
success. It is ingrained. No matter how wealthy we all become, we want to
be seen as better than our peers, because that will make us seem more
attractive as potential mates. The number of reproductive opportunities
does not go up with the GNP. Even if it did, our fantasies are insatiable.

The libertarian error is perceiving this selfish driver as adequate to
result in all boats rising. It is not. In human history there have been
essentially 3 cultures. Tribal pseudodemocracy, gangster feudalism, and
modern liberal society. Gangster feudalism erupted whenever and wherever
we developed both metallurgy and agriculture -- some group of guys would
organize themselves, pick up metal objects, and take other men's women and
wheat. It was effective (we're all descended from those guys) at enhancing
relative wealth, but miserable at causing rapid increases in absolute
wealth. Under gangster feudalism, it's often seen as zero-sum competition
between relative and absolute growth, so the latter loses.

Modern liberal society is a quantum leap from that tradition. It is
different in dozens of basic ways. (See my QUESTIONNAIRE at
http://www.kithrup.com/brin/) The most fundamental difference is its
emphasis on maximizing opportunities for absolute wealth generation.

One part of this approach is to offer high-achievers many symbolic rewards,
to set themselves above the hoi-polloi, without feeling it necessary to
reduce opportunities for the masses in order to get this sense of relative
wealth. So artificial are these symbolic rewards, that they no longer have
any discernable effect on reproductive success at all. I think one of the
Hunt billionaires tried to set up 3 mistresses to bear him extra babies.
That's the only example I can think of.... though in fairness, he was a
blithering idiot. That may be why we know of his project. Others may do it
far more subtly and secretively.

Question is then raised. What if repro success gains an entirely different
dimension in the context of nanoassemblers? If the 1st innovators get a
chance to somehow clone copies of themselves into the 1st wave of
successful nanites......

With cordial regards.

David Brin
Received on Thu Jan 13 16:39:04 2000

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