Monday, October 22, 2007

The Quantifiability Constraint (on Leftism)

A week or so ago I blogged about Warren Buffet's pedestrian leftism - which gave me more occasion to ponder just why it is that there seems to be no shortage of leftist celebrities. Some speculative answers offered by Lew Rockwell(via his favorite dead Capitalists):

  1. Arrogance - intellectuals and celebrities fancy themselves smarter than the herd, and they honestly think they can remake soceity in a better image than the free market can. (Hayek)

  2. Resentment and/or Guilt - people with overinflated egos resent the fact that they're not rewarded by the system better than they are - or else they feel maybe they're over-rewarded, as Buffet does. (Mises)

  3. Security - in the case of intellectuals, the ones that know their skills don't amount to much in the business world need funding, and in the case of celebrities, they've seen money come at them so fast they worry it can be taken away again as quickly. (Rothbard)

I think all of these are plausible explanations with a grain of truth in them. But I can't quite shake the Warren Buffet example. Buffet is a smart and capable guy - specifically smart and capable on applied economics matters. So I feel like we'd have to dig a bit deeper to figure out the cause of the ailment. Originally I suggested that maybe it's genetic. Maybe there's just a leftist gene (more accurately - hugely complicated combination of genes that predispose people to certain kinds of philosophical errors that underly leftism rather than "causing" it). But of course that's as hand-wavy as anything: no genetic configuation can ever be causally linked to a personal philosophy in the required way.

So let me make this more serious suggestion: leftists are more likely to be found working in professions where renumeration is unpredictable and divorced in some way from the quantity of work input.

This at least explains all my stereotypes. Under this model, people who build up manufacturing firms by their bare hands are unlikely to be left-wingers - or BigGuv types of any stripe. This is because in industries that produce material things, the amount of reward you receive is more or less proportional to the amount of output. The more "stuff" you make, the more money gets thrown back at you. So it's very simple: work harder, get richer. Taxes and intrusions will be more offensive to such people simply because they can, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, measure the cost of the intrusion. They know exactly how much profit could've been turned by the money they instead had to pay in taxes, and they begin to ask themselves whether it's worth it to remain productive if the government's just going to keep stealing the fruits of their labor.

On the other side of the coin are people in professions like Buffet's - and like the professions of most pop musicians and movie stars, actually. Think about it: when a movie star goes to make a movie, they have no idea whether it will be a hit, really. Sure, by virtue of their name, some people are guaranteed to command a certain minimal cut. But whether the movie will make fabulous amounts of money or else end up costing the studio? In principle - it's impossible to predict. More relevant still: whichever way the balance swings, how far it ends up swinging really is anyone's guess. How much a movie makes really has very little to do with how much "work" goes into producing it. It's a crapshoot every time. Ditto pop musicians. Ditto fighters like Mike Tyson. Ditto, ultimately, investment bankers like Warren Buffet. There isn't any real sense in which "working more" directly correlates with more success on Buffet's part. Certainly there isn't any magic ratio that tells him that being x more productive (whatever that means in the investment world) will likely net him y worth of increased profits. No - really he just has a fixed amount of money, and he puts in a certain amount of time planning strategy, and his strategy either works in a given period or it doesn't (mostly it works), but how well it works (or doesn't) really isn't something that can be predicted with any great degree of accuracy. The best Buffet can do is hedge and protect himself - but he can't reasonably say "c'mon, Warren, just three more hours a day in the office for a month. Then we'll net an extra hundred million! It'll be worth it in the end."

And so I submit that there is a "quantifiability constraint" on leftism. The more your industry affords predictable reward for known amounts of work, the less likely you are to be a Socialist. And the less predictable the reward scale in your particular industry is - put differently, the more decoupled work input is from profit in your particular industry - the more likely you are to be a Socialist of some kind.

Naturally, these are generalizations, so all the normal caveats apply. But I would note that working in academia is a classic example of an environment where work input is decoupled from financial reward. For the most part, our salaries and opportunities don't change much based on what we academics do or don't, and there's just no effort-based formula for coming up with the Next Brilliant Idea in your field. So I guess in some important sense it isn't really surprising that lots of academics are leftists. I would say that it isn't so much that academia encourages leftism as it is that there's nothing in the environment discouraging it - and so we're on fertile soil for it.

I would further note that professions where effort is decoupled from reward (at least in any quantifiable feedback sense) seem also to disproportionately include those professions that afford people a public forum. Intellectuals, for all their griping about being ignored, are, I'll wager, a lot more likely to be interviewed on the news than the average CEO. Certainly they're a lot less likely to make the news than Hollywood celebs - but then, Hollywood is an even better example of a profession where reward is decoupled from effort.

Further still - I think this also goes a long way to explaining why so many blue-collar people fail to be leftists, even though most leftist intellectuals think that they're fighting for exactly these people's "cause." Again - most blue-collar people work in jobs that are paid by the hour, by the output, or even both. More work equals more renumeration, and so they fall into the category of those that can reasonably calculate the cost of government intrusion into their lives. Not surprising that they end up resenting it.

Alright - just a thought. Some sociologist should now go out and prove it for me.


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