Glenn Reynolds writes in The USA Today, Our caveman politics- Economic policy based on 100,000-year-old emotions won’t fix healthcare.
When human beings were hunter-gatherers living in isolated bands and tribes, which was the norm for hundreds of thousands of years (and longer if you count our proto-human ancestors) the supply of goods available at any given moment was largely fixed. Some years there was more game, or more berries to be harvested, and some years there was less, but in neither case did it have much to do with human actions. Hunters or gatherers could range a bit farther, or work a bit longer, but they couldn’t increase the supply of antelopes or fruit. What the tribe had was all there was, so if one person was eating more than his share, it meant less for everyone else.
That’s not true any more. In an industrialized capitalist society, when somebody else eats more, they’re not taking food out of my mouth. In fact, they’re likely making money because they’re delivering a good or service that makes me — or at least, society as a whole — richer. (And when rich people are “early adopters” of technologies, they drive the price of those technologies down, actually making them affordable for the less-wealthy and eventually, as we see with smartphones, even for the poor.)
These evolved instincts served hunter-gatherer cavemen well (which is why they’ve survived) but they don’t work very well in a world where health care, instead of being something that members of a tribe provide for people they’ve grown up with, is something that has to be procured from strangers who make a living providing it. And, as McArdle notes, trying to sell socialism by pretending that society is one big family doesn’t actually help: “Nationalizing the health care system does not fix this fundamental disconnect between our evolved instincts and the inevitable necessities of a modern economy.
Perhaps one of the greatest advances is the market system of free trade, pricing and specialization which has rendered the zero sum thinking of the majority of human history (Malthus) obsolete. It was zero sum thinking that generated the need for conquest and war, racism and slavery.
Zero sum thinking returns during periods of economic stagnation and explains why such periods provided fertile ground for the global conflicts of the 20th century. It is also why poverty has dropped world wide as more nations have embraced the free market alternative. It is disturbing how much of the current economic thinking returns to this intellectual relic.
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