Pure theory made economics more remote from day-to-day reality.
A lot in what Rapley writes, and a lot more in what Daniel Krynicki writes below, and as what one might loosely class as a skeptic and a humanist, I have some critiques.
“Contrary to the tenets of orthodox economists, contemporary research suggests that, rather than seeking always to maximise our personal gain, humans still remain reasonably altruistic and selfless.”
That’s is just so wrong when you actually start to understand the depths of evolutionary selection.
Humans do tend to act in their own self interest, and they do so largely through sets of embodied genetic and cultural heuristic strategies that have stood the test of time and context that did work – on average, over generations spent in the communities of our ancestors.
Looked at another way – our conscious level rationality is a very thin icing on a very deep multi layered computational and behavioural cake that is deeply heuristic. Our subconscious heuristic systems create the model of reality that is our conscious experiential reality. Our only access to reality is via that model. Understand that, and you begin to understand something of the human condition.
To understand strategy, one must understand the risk of a player consciously knowing what they will do next in any high stakes game, because if we knew, then we could give that information away at some level, and be vulnerable to exploitation.
So we are a deeply complex mix between social signaling and high stakes gaming strategies.
And the stakes right now have never been higher.
Jordan Peterson does a great job of unpacking some of the very dense information stored in both biology and culture, particularly in the our mythology.
What he doesn’t do, and what is ignored in this article, is make clear how deeply exponential technologies are altering the possibilities available in the strategic landscape we occupy, and how those changes are turning some things that were deeply beneficial in our past into sources of existential risk in our future.
Fully automated manufacturing and delivery of goods and services should be a boon to everyone, but in a market based system that must value universal abundance of anything at zero, it is antithetical.
There are many other levels of issues present in our society.
It is odd that modern science seems clearly to have come out of the Christian search for God’s truth expressed in reality.
That a search started in the premise of “Truth” should deliver an understanding that all understandings of reality are uncertain in many distinctly different and context sensitive ways, is almost paradoxical, and it is in a sense in accord with some of the deeper spiritual traditions found around the globe of the ineffable nature of reality.
We now find ourselves in the presence of measurement errors, Heisenberg uncertainty, Goedel incompleteness, Bayesian uncertainty, chaos, maximal computational complexity, and many classes of undecidability.
Far from truth and certainty, we find ourselves to most likely be heuristic based survival machines in a deeply uncertain world.
And once has reached that depth, one can take a certain level of comfort from what seems most likely to be the fact of the existence of cellular life on the planet for some 4 billion years.
So yes there is risk, and yes there is uncertainty, and it also seems to be true that there are paths available that offer a very high probability of existence and reasonable freedom into the far future (some close approximation to the rest of eternity).
What is very clear now, from a study of the relationship of competitive and cooperative systems to the emergence of new levels of complexity, is that cooperation is fundamental to the survival of new levels of complexity.
Raw competition can happen, and it is almost guaranteed to be destructive of complexity.
Complexity can only thrive in a cooperative context, and raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation, and requires attendant strategies for stability (recurs to infinity).
We are in an age where fully automated systems give us the ability to empower a new level of cooperation.
We have come from an age where competitive market based systems served many valuable roles in production, trade, information, creativity, distributed decision making, risk mitigation, etc; all of which can now be replaced by alternative systems.
As complex evolved social entities we carry deeply embedded systems to punish injustice. In systems that move towards the purely competitive, that provides an internal and inescapable source of existential risk.
And every level of complexity requires a minimum set of boundaries for survival – that is the nature of complex systems. So it is again almost paradoxical that the greatest possible freedom is delivered when one accepts the necessary sets of boundaries required by the levels of cooperation actually present.
We must always have many sets of risk in tension – like the tyrranies of the majority or the minority vs individual freedom; conservatism verses creative liberty, etc.
The simplistic idea that “one true path” is even possible seems one of the greatest risks.
Complex systems theory seems to be telling us that infinite paths from anywhere to anywhere are possible (but a much larger infinity of paths go elsewhere, many to destruction), and the art of negotiation seems to be understanding each other sufficiently that we can all accept such restrictions as are necessary to deliver that greatest degrees of freedom that are compatible with long term survival.
In an age of exponentially expanding computational abilities, markets deliver exponentially less utility at finding such paths (ie exponentially increasing risk).
And we ignore the deep messages encoded in our mythology at our peril.
A degree of humility is required every bit as much as respect for individual life and individual liberty, both of which must be within the necessary minimum sets of restraints for social and ecological responsibility.
And all of those things must be ever evolving conversations and understandings.
Economics seems to have a long way to go to embrace these realities.