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The world we have made

| Monday, April 12, 2021

The world is not unfair. We have made it so. The world is not a jungle. We have made it so. We have certain assumptions about the world and made a certain world on that basis.

Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that competition is the primary adaptive strategy for species in nature. That is, nature favors the strongest, while the weakest are dropped. In short, the world is a jungle where it is survival for the fittest. This logic has even been extended to the realm of human affairs. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like “the world is unfair” as an explanation for why some people have more than others. Thus, we have modeled society along competitive lines, like the jungle in which animals live. This is true especially in the economic realm. 

One of the basic assumptions of neoclassical economics is scarcity. That is to say that there is not enough to go around for everyone. As such, the story goes, we must therefore find the most efficient, not necessarily the best, way of allocating resources in society. The competitive marketplace is the answer to this for neoclassical economists. The market is simply an exercise in survival for the fittest. It pays no regard to how or why some people are fitter than others and therefore allocates goods to those who can get them, not necessarily to those who need them. But it does it so efficiently, market failures notwithstanding, that we have concluded it is best and perhaps only way of organizing commercial affairs in society. 

It is on this foundation that we build the superstructure of a market-based society where it is literally survival for the fittest. And because it is a competition, we always have an incentive to deviate from the rules of the market in order to maximize our material welfare. This is the inevitable result of a system premised on scarcity and competition. The nature of competition is such that the competitors are struggling to outcompete each other which means that as some get more of the proverbial pie, others must necessarily get a smaller share. And so, when we out muscle our neighbors and gain more from the market at their expense, we justify our ruthless greed as rational self-interest and apply some sugar-coating to it with such terms as “winners” and “losers” in the market, with losers being those who are least efficient. 

And so, we codify scarcity as a fact of life and self-interest as the primary motivation for all human action. And that, despite all professions of faith in the moral equality of all individuals and claims to a concern for the common good. In essence, we model the world off of the wild jungle while claiming to still care about each other. Our struggle for survival in the marketplace may have formal rules which the struggle for survival in the wilderness lacks, but it is a struggle nonetheless — a fight, literally. We call it rational self-interest, not greed. Competition, not ruthlessness.

But let us pause for a moment and consider the strength of the assumptions that form the basis of our jungle — our market society. First, is it the case that resources in the world are scarce? Or do resources become scarce depending on the mode of distribution or allocation we use? It seems plausible that because we have decided to allocate our resources in a certain way, they appear to be scarce. Resources will definitely because scarce if some people can hoard them i.e., get as much as they want simply because they can afford it, even if they do not need it all. Perhaps if we distributed in a different way, we might end up with enough to go around. Secondly, is it true that self-interest is the primary or even only motivation for human action? Self-interest is simply one of many sources of motivation for human action. Consider soldiers in the military who go to war for a medal of whom in return while Zuckerberg gets a 20-year patent that earns him billions of money in return for his innovation. The point is not the Zuckerberg does not deserve all that money. However, the willingness of servicemen and women to risk their lives for just a piece of metal should demonstrate to us that indeed there is more than self-interest that people can respond to.

The world is not unfair. We have made it so. The world is not a jungle. We have made it so. If we revisit and question the assumptions we have made about the world, and the implications of those assumptions for the world we have created for ourselves, we can remake the world — for better.

Trevor Lwere is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in economics, with a PPE minor. He hails from Kampala, Uganda and lives off campus. He is a dee-jay in his other life and can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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