Book review: Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior by Helmut Schoeck
This book makes a moderate number of interesting claims about envy and its economic effects, interspersed with some long boring sections. The claims are mostly not backed up by strong arguments. It was written 40 years ago, and it shows – his understanding of psychology seems more Freudian than modern.
His most interesting claim is that many societies have more envy than ours, and that prevents them from escaping poverty. An extreme example are the Navaho, who reportedly have no concept of luck or of “personal achievement”, and believe that one person’s success can only come at another’s expense. This kind of attitude is pretty effective at discouraging people in such a society from adopting a better way of growing crops, etc.
Unfortunately, his evidence is clearly of the anecdotal kind that, even if I were to track down the few sources he cites for some of them and convinced myself they were reliable, his examples are too selective for me to believe that he knows whether envy and poverty are correlated. His hypothesis sounds potentially important, and I hope someone finds a way to rigorously analyze it.
He describes a few attempts to create non-envious societies, with kibbutzim being the clearest example. He gives adequate but unsurprising explanations of why they’ve had mixed success.
He claims “The victims claimed by a revolution or a civil war are incomparably more numerous among those who are more gifted and enterprising”, but shows no sign that he knows whether this is true. He might be right, but it’s easy to imagine that he’s been mislead by a bias toward reporting that kind of death more often than the death of a typical person.
He mentions that tax returns have been public in some jurisdictions. I wish he did a better job of examining the costs and benefits of this (one nice example he gives is that people sometimes overreport income in order to appear more credit-worthy than they are).
On page 82, he describes Nazis as having “an almost equally fanatical attachment to the principle of equality”. He seems there to be referring to when they were in power, but somewhere else he implies they moved away from this belief when they gained power. He was born in Austria in 1922, and studied in Munich from 1941 to 1945, which gives him a perspective that we don’t hear much these days. How much of the difference in perspectives is due to his flaws, and how much of it is due to our focus on the worst aspects of Nazism? There’s probably a hint of truth to his position, in that hatred of the Jews partly started with an egalitarian disapproval of their success.
I found a number of other strange claims. E.g. “The incest taboo alone makes possible the co-operative and stable family group.”; “Lee Harvey Oswald’s central motive was envy of those who were happy and successful”; “In 1920 President Woodrow Wilson predicted class warfare in America that would be sparked off by the envy of the many at the sight of the few in their motor cars.”.
He says “No society permits totally uninhibited promiscuity. In every culture there are definite rights of ownership in the sexual sphere, for no society could function unless it had foreseeable and predictable rules as regards selection of the sexual partner.” I’m not sure how close-minded that would have sounded in 1966, but there are cultures today which discredit it fairly well.
If you read this book, I suggest reading only these chapters: 1,3,5,8,13,17,21,22.
Update: Mike Linksvayer has a better review of the book.
Bryan Caplan has a good post arguing democracy produces worse results than rational ignorance among voters would explain.
However, one aspect of his style annoys me – his use of the word irrationality to describe what’s wrong with voter thinking focuses on what is missing from voter thought processes rather than what socially undesirable features are present (many economists tend to use the word irrationality this way). I hope his soon-to-be-published book version of this post devotes more attention to what voters are doing that differs from boundedly rational attempts at choosing the best candidates (some of which I suspect fall into what many of us would call selfishly rational motives even though economists usually classify them as irrational). Some of the motives that I suspect are important are the desire to signal one’s group membership, endowment effects which are one of the many reasons people treat existing jobs as if they were more valuable than new and more productive jobs that can be created, and reputation effects where people stick with whatever position they had in the past because updating their beliefs in response to new evidence would imply that their original positions weren’t as wise as they want to imagine.
Alas, his policy recommendations are not likely to be very effective and are generally not much easier to implement than futarchy (which I consider to be the most promising approach to dealing with the problems of democracy). For example:
Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisers, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as “uneconomical.”
If I try hard enough, I can imagine this approach working well. But it would take a lot more than Caplan’s skills at persuasion to get voters to go along with this, and it’s not hard to imagine that such an institution would develop an understanding of the concept of “uneconomical” that is much less desirable than Caplan’s or mine.
Book review: Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War by Edward D. Mansfield
This book makes a convincing argument that it’s misleading to assume that democracies are less likely to wage wars. That assumption is true of mature democracies, but unstable nations that are trying to make a transition to democracy are more likely than autocracies to wage war. At least part of the reasons are increased nationalism, competition among politicians to be the most nationalist, and the weakness of stabilizing institutions.
The book offers some hints about how a transition to a democracy might be managed to minimize the risks, but this part of the book is more speculative and less convincing.
In spite of the book’s relevance to current events, it devotes little attention to the present. It covers the time period from the French revolution to the present with the perspective of a historian, and says as much about Iraq in 1948 as it does about the recent experiment with democracy in Iraq. It is somewhat valuable for reminding us how many attempts at democracy failed and have largely faded from collective memories.
The dry, scholarly style of the book is a bit mind-numbing.
Book review: Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology by Eviatar Zerubavel
This book is a refreshing and concise collection of interesting tidbits about cultural aspects of human minds. He points out many cultural quirks in our thinking that I suspect many people unconsciously assume are universal beliefs. Sometimes it’s easy to see once you’re provoked to think about it why we should consider something to be a cultural quirk (e.g. putting jam and jelly into two distinct categories rather than one). With others, such as whether the differences between male and female genitalia justify classifying the equivalent parts differently for each sex, I’m almost suspicious enough of his report that western culture had a different answer a couple of centuries ago than it does today to tempt me to check some of his copious references. And there are a few places where his cultural norms seem odd (e.g. his claim that daylight savings time seems natural).
With only 113 pages of actual text, it’s a quick read that would be worth reading for the entertainment value alone, and has the added benefit of shaking up one’s preconceptions.