Monday, April 30, 2012

Don't care too much for money

There was an informative juxtaposition of C-Span programs over the week-end, with  After Words featuring Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy; the Moral Limits of Markets and Brian Lamb's Q&A interviewing Seattle author Blaine Harden, who discussed his recent Escape From Camp 14.  From the transcript of the latter;

LAMB: How did he get inside this [prison] camp in the first place?
HARDEN: He was born there. His crime was to be born. And his parents were there for reasons that are almost as flimsy. His father was in the camp because his father’s brothers after the Korean War had fled to South Korea. And after the authorities heard about that, his father and his father’s many brothers and parents, were all rounded up and taken to Camp 14. And that’s where Shin was born. He doesn’t know why his mother was there. She never told him and he never asked. They didn’t have the kind of relationship where they would talk.
His parents, his mom and dad, conceived him because they were chosen by the guards for something called a reward marriage and Shin was bred like a farm animal in the camp and raised by his mother. And he was physically his mother gave birth to him but he was raised with the values and the rules of the guards, and was not close to his mother at all. He had to memorize 10 rules of the camp most of which end by saying if you don’t do this you will be shot immediately.
And the first rule of the camp, the most important rule, is if you try to escape you will be shot immediately and a corollary to that rule is if you hear about an escape and don’t report it, you will be shot immediately. And these, these were basically his 10 commandments, his ethical guideposts as a little guy growing up in that camp.
Unfortunately that's not the worst of the young Korean's experiences, as he eventually does inform on his own mother and brother who are planning an escape, and they end up both being executed in front of him.  A story that 'nightmare' doesn't even begin to describe.

Which makes the thesis of Mandel's book cruelly ironic, since North Korea is the one country left of the communist experiment in denying basic economic reality that cost so many tens of millions their lives.  Mandel tells the interviewer that he worries that we have become a 'market society' without any apparent awareness that there are (as the Harden book makes clear) far worse things to be.  The perfect is not only the enemy of the good, but striving for it has produced inhumane results almost everywhere the idea has been taken seriously.

It would be hilarious (if not for the tragedies having been inflicted on the people of North Korea and other totalitarian despotisms) to compare Sandel's worries that someone at an amusement park can avoid standing for hours in line to get on a ride by paying a higher price, to what the young Korean escapee endured, which included crawling over the corpse of his unfortunate companion to get safely over the electrified fence that North Korea's government needed to keep their people from living in a 'market society'.  That gives a different meaning to Sandel's 'paying to jump the queue'.

Sandel is also embarrassingly ignorant of over 200 years of economic scholarship.  He thinks that we need a debate on the morality of markets, yet seems unaware that going back to at least 1757 Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, did just that.

Even when he does bow to Smith, he gets it wrong.  Telling the interviewer that Smith and the early economists didn't even use the word 'incentives'.  Maybe, they didn't use the word, but they clearly knew the thing.  One of the most famous passages in Wealth of Nations being;
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own neccessities but of their advantages.
Pretty clearly, he's talking about incentives.

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