Rationality, careers, and purpose

I just watched the Penn & Teller Bullshit! Episode on the Endangered Species Act. I couldn’t help to think about the theory of Rational Irrationality, i.e., how it’s economically “rational” to be epistemologically irrational, or how little incentive people have to be informed about the effectiveness and unintended consequences of the government policies they advocate. After working in Washington D.C. for a few months, I realized that I’d be surrounding myself with this. People striving to influence politicians to “make the world a better place” according to their own ideology and/or diagnosis of a problem (Including my own ideology and ideas for solutions). Broadly speaking, since the cost of being wrong is so little in this context, the incentive for being right is also very little.

Jonathan Rauch has referred to a “parasite economy” created by the ability for lobbyists to use the State to grant them favors, and hence others pulled out of the productive economy to defend industries victimized by this favoritism. See his article Demosclerosis., or his book Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working, based largely on the work of Mancur Olsen.

Is this really what I want to spend my life doing? Is this the aspect of human nature that makes me proud of being a human being? Not quite. Still, some scholars, such as philosopher Mike Huemer, whose article I cite above, experimental economists, and those involved in policy markets are trying to bring market incentives for rationality to policy-making.

As I anticipate and find the virtues of going into the sector of the economy that creates wealth (which of course requires organizations to recognize & protect property rights…), I should note a lecture I attended a few months ago by Benjamin Friedman on his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which the author has summarized in a speech. Harvard Magazine has reviewed it. A notable quote from Friedman is

Thinking of the growth debate as material benefits versus moral negatives is a false way to present the choice…Similarly, thinking that how we envision ourselves as people who value either material things or moral things or some combination, thinking that that somehow maps into what our stance should be in debates over economic growth—that’s a false mapping as well. It’s important to move away from the false choice of material benefits versus moral drawbacks, and recognize that growth has important moral benefits as well.

It’s a good point, and reminds me of Aaron Wildavski’s notion about societies and individuals that “wealthier is healthier,” and “richer is safer.”

Still, that said, I have not addressed an aspect of what brings many people to the non-profit sector: fighting for a cause they believe in. In a career like that, the “meaning” is built in, you’re fighting the good fight. Economically speaking (comparative advantage, etc.), it’s probably more efficient for me to more-or-less maximize my salary at a for profit company (that’s not, say, “making bombs”), enjoy the day-to-day puzzle solving, and contribute some of my income to causes that are important to me.

I’m not quite done with this thought, and figure that I’ll continue along these lines, and probably refer to ideas from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. At the end of Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman addresses the importance of making your life about something other than yourself (as, paradoxically, a key to being happy). As I noted elsewhere, this conclusion did not seem to follow from what preceded it, but it’s quite plausible and worth looking into.

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Filed under achievement, economics, ethics, politics

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