Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nice post by David Sloan Wilson about the naturalness (and necessity) of regulation

David Wilson, on the Huffington Post.
I hope that our economy recovers, but the time has come to declare its guiding metaphor dead. This is the metaphor of the invisible hand, which makes it seem as if the narrow pursuit of self-interest miraculously results in a well-functioning society. …

Rational choice theory takes the invisible hand metaphor literally by trying to explain the length and breadth of human behavior on the basis of individual utility maximization, which is fancy talk for the narrow pursuit of self-interest. For the general public, unfettered competition has been turned into a moral virtue and "regulation" has become a sin.

The collapse of our economy for lack of regulation was preceded by the collapse of rational choice theory. It became clear that the single minimalistic principle of self-interest could not explain the length and breadth of human behavior. Economists started to conduct experiments to discover the actual preferences that drive human behavior. The field of experimental economics was born and two of its founders (Vernon Smith and Daniel Kahneman) were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002.

Actual human preferences are all about regulation. A microcosm of America's economic collapse can be created in the laboratory in a single afternoon. Yank a group of people off the street, give them a task that requires cooperation, and most of them will play along as solid citizens. Unfortunately, a few will game the system if there is any way to cheat. Once the solid citizens realize that they're being ripped off, they withdraw their cooperation as their only defense. Provide them with an opportunity to punish the cheaters, and some (but not all) punish with zeal. Even the cheaters punish other cheaters with zeal! Once the capacity for regulation is provided in the form of rewards and punishments that can be implemented at low cost, cooperation rises to high levels. Regulation is required or cooperation will disappear, like water draining from a bathtub.

These social preferences go beyond our own species. Cooperation and cheating are behavioral options for all social species, even bacteria, and cooperation survives only to the extent that it is protected against cheating. The eternal conflict between cooperation and cheating even takes place within our own bodies, in the form of genes and cell lineages that manage to game the system at the expense of the organism upon which they depend. We call them diseases, but they are really the failure of a vast system of regulations that enable us to function as organisms as well as we do.

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