Friday, August 05, 2016

Economics and Human Nature

I was reading the Wikipedia article, "Marx's Theory of Human Nature".

Educated people in the mid-nineteenth century, mostly middle-aged white males like Karl Marx, were aware that:

  • People differ in intelligence and temperament
  • Such differences run in families
  • Poor upbringing, such as mistreatment or malnutrition, can stunt development.

What they didn't have were appropriate psychometric instruments, and tools (twin studies, GWAS) which allow estimation of the relative contribution of genetic vs environmental differences.

As Marx was full of righteous anger against the capitalists, championing the downtrodden workers (who at the time were extremely oppressed, malnourished and ill-educated) he had ample grounds for believing that in a benign social environment people would be a whole lot smarter and nicer.

Still, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," does not suggest a complete belief in necessary equality of outcomes.

I'm interested in the concept of the re-invention of Marxism for the 21st century, factoring in all we've learned about human nature - especially in the last few genomics-rich years.

But that's for another time.

You would think that bourgeois economists might have been tracking the latest theories of the raw material of their discipline, namely people, but a cursory reading of any elite periodical (The Economist will do) confirms their dedication in looking the other way.

Greg Cochran had an amusing piece on this a few months back which I really liked: "Economists and biology". It starts like this:
"Naturally, economists know a lot about human biology and evolution, just as civil engineers have to know about the properties of timber, concrete and steel. They have a good grounding in psychometrics, behavioral genetics, and quantitative genetics – how else could they do their job?

"Populations vary in traits that play key roles in economic activity and growth – in intelligence, asabiya, savings propensity, etc – you have to be aware of that variation, else whole continents would be economic mysteries. In the same way they know that those observed differences are a product of selection – which means economic historians think seriously about psychometric changes over time and their consequences, such as the Industrial Revolution. That kind of analysis helps predict where modern economic institutions can be successfully introduced, and where they cannot.

"Yet even Jove nods. Sometimes even tenured professors make serious errors on fairly elementary topics. Like anyone else who has made a mental typo, they welcome polite correction."

... more.
Yep. Sure they do.

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