Saturday, May 12, 2007

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

So where did this distaste for the generation of wealth in Star Trek come from?

My impression is that it's the bourgeois attitude that accumulating wealth is a worthwhile end in and of itself that Stewart and others object to. The Sims, developed by the Berkeley-centered folks at Maxis, mocked the "make more money to buy more stuff" worldview as well.

To a certain degree, I'm actually sympathetic to that reaction. I believe that being fully human requires exposure to many ways of experiencing existence: science, art, literature, sports, entertainment, construction, consumption, competition, cooperation, being part of a group, being alone, seeing the world, and knowing oneself. To focus only on a single one of these is to miss the opportunity to be fully human. In the tragically brief lifespan we're offered, that seems like such a waste.

So someone who's driven only by the desire to accumulate wealth, as though that's all that matters, is missing something important. I'm with the Stewarts and the Maxis folks and their fellow-travelers thus far.

Where I diverge sharply from them, however, is their belief that this particular approach to life is merely a choice -- just a learned behavior -- and that these people somehow need to be reeducated to recognize their error and change their bourgeois ways. I think that's a dangerously mistaken belief. It leads to what I call the "Human Perfectability Project" where anyone who thinks differently than the utopianists must be doing so deliberately, and needs to be bullied into going along with the program. For their own good, of course.

That's the thinking that led to bullets in the back of the head of millions of people whom Stalin believed were threats, and to the millions more human beings whose bones were left to rot in the killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia. Those who won't get with the program can't be allowed to challenge it.

[Important note: I absolutely am not equating with Stalin and Pol Pot anyone who thinks that capitalism is bad or that people ought to give more and take less. What I am talking about here is strictly the belief that humans are perfectible, and the follow-on belief that any person has the wisdom to know how to perfect someone else. I view socialism as a step down this road; it is different in degree but not in kind and deserves criticism accordingly. (Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is the classic work on the arrogance of the Central Planning mentality.) But that criticism is emphatically not the same thing as an assertion that "all socialists are would-be murderers." I do not think that, I'm not saying that here, and I'd like that to be on the record.]

I don't think the beliefs of the perfectionists survive the light of reality. Humans demonstrate every day that they are not mere products of their environments and therefore perfectible according to someone's Master Plan. I see humans as being innately tugged in different directions from the moment they have a functioning and biochemically-driven brain. Environment matters, yes; we're capable of learning behaviors and habits. But we all begin our lives with predispositions toward seeing the world in particular ways, and those innate motivations will resist all attempts at being talked into something else by those who believe they know how everyone else should be.

In this balanced model of understanding people, those who are accumulation-driven aren't that way because "society" taught them to be that way, at least not entirely -- they're that way primarily because their fundamental innate motivation is toward security. For these individuals, making money is one activity that helps satisfy their deeply-rooted need for security in an insecure world. When a lot of other people feel the same motivation, that's how a society forms that tends to favor that attitude -- not because it's imposed from some external source on the members of that society, but because it's what a lot of people feel is most important.

And there's nothing wrong with that that needs to be "fixed" by Patrick Stewart and his merry band of "we know what's best for you" socialists, any more than there's something wrong with those of us who are motivated by other goals, such as a desire for understanding, or a desire to manipulate their world, or a belief that the greatest good is to grow as persons.

"Different" does not imply "broken." Of course those who focus intensely on making money miss out on some other important aspects of life... but so do those who focus on knowledge, or on experience, or on personal growth. We are all imperfect beings, not because we differ from each other, but because we are finite. None of us has all gifts -- we need each other.

It is, in fact, our diversity of ways of thought that enable us as a species to adapt to our world as it changes. The last thing we (individually or collectively) should want is to be "perfected" so that everybody thinks the same way and is driven by exactly the same internal motivations and blinded by the same limitations. The critics of capitalism are not entirely wrong, and the perfective motivation that drives their more principled criticisms is not inherently wrong, either. It's good to try to better ourselves.

But other ways of looking at the world aren't inherently wrong, either. And it would be nice if the artists who create our entertainment would respect that. Sometimes the audience knows best.

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