News

Loading...

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

May All of Your Errors Be Interesting!

In responding to this post, Bob Murphy makes an interesting error. He says:

"Hang on a second Gene. Why stop at society? How about this way of blowing up Boettke et al.?"

"What about money, a social institution par excellence? No individual acted 'rationally' to pick something as money, weighing the marginal costs and benefits of a transition to a common medium of exchange. So clearly these guys are terrible economists."

"That wouldn't work, right?"

What Bob is thinking (I believe) is that money was not intended by anyone, but was the unintended outcome of individuals doing cost-benefit analysis. And just the same, of course no one said "Let me create human society," but it too was the unintentional outcome of individuals doing cost-benefit analysis.

But while the former could be the case, the latter is historical nonsense and, if we believe Wittgenstein, impossible to boot. That is because:

1) Historically speaking, there never existed a period of isolated human individuals roaming around, slowly coalescing to form human society by analyzing whether it was worthwhile to interact. (On the other hand, there certainly were economic actors before there was money.) No, long before we were human, we were social. Our minds matured to the point where we could even consider performing a cost-benefit analysis only after we had been social animals for millions of years.

2) To perform cost-benefit analysis requires the concepts of cost and benefit. Unsocialized humans would have no such concepts, since a private language is impossible, as I think Wittgenstein showed.

"But," you say, "what about my cat? I put a delicious fish somewhat close to a scary dog. My cat approaches the fish very hesitantly, seeming to me like it is weighing the costs and benefits."

Allora, si', la parola chiave in questa frase e' "seems." The cat seems to weigh costs and benefits. But I really don't think it has such concepts to weigh, do you? I believe what is happening is the cat is in a state of emotional tension. The fish makes it want to approach, but the dog to flee. I think what happens is that the cat walks a tightrope between those two actions until one emotion overwhelms the other and triggers the corresponding outcome. For your cat these conflicting emotions play the role that cost-benefit analysis can play for humans. But a wide gulf separates fleeing in terror from a horrifying figure springing up in the dark (something both cats and humans can do) and contemplating whether to lease or to buy one's new car, which I don't believe cats are capable of. In the first case I think it is an abuse of language to say the terrified creature weighed the costs and benefits of sticking around!

4 comments:

  1. The cat sounds like it's merely trying to survive so it will be able to breed more kittens and pass its genes onto the next generation. I don't see why the cat would even bother with rigorous cost-benefit analysis, especially if this was a wild or feral cat we were talking about. Cost-benefit analysis also seems like something people with actual intelligence and business experience are capable of the most and doesn't just apply to anyone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "The cat sounds like it's merely trying to survive so it will be able to breed more kittens and pass its genes onto the next generation."

      Then, MAJOR FAIL! She's been spayed.

      But, in any case, I am speculating about how THE CAT sees the situation, not how an evolutionary biologist sees it! The idea that might cat is subjectively experiencing "I'd better live so I can pass on my genes," I consider far more absurd than the idea she is doing a cost-benefit analysis!

      Delete
  2. But a wide gulf separates fleeing in terror from a horrifying figure springing up in the dark (something both cats and humans can do) and contemplating whether to lease or to buy one's new car, which I don't believe cats are capable of. In the first case I think it is an abuse of language to say the terrified creature weighed the costs and benefits of sticking around!

    That might be giving humans too much credit. We, too, usually make decisions based on the cat-like feeling of tension between different emotions, rather than some rigorous CBA optimization process, which is often intractable anyway.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "That might be giving humans too much credit."

      All I'm saying is we have a broader range of possibilities than the cat does: I am making no claims about how often we are in different parts of that range.

      Delete