Dan Ariely is a famous psychologist. He survived horrible burns as young man to become a driving force behind the “behaviorist” school of economics, which maintains we are too irrational to understand our own interest among the choices presented by a complex society.
Dan Ariely is also a zombie. He espouses a socialist faith which died once, and now staggers around the world in search of sustenance. Red meat for zombie socialists is other people’s money: they want to snatch at it, tear it away, feed on it through a zombie government, and all without the need of an explanation.
Ariely wants to “redistribute” our wealth. He surveyed 5,000 Americans, and found that they underestimated the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in the US, which, he adds ominously, “is bigger than at any time since the 1920s – just before the Depression.” When told of the real levels of American inequality, a “consensus” emerged among those surveyed. They wanted “to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States,” and were apparently (Ariely cites no survey numbers) willing to redistribute 50 percent of the country’s total wealth.
So. We have a survey. People expressed certain opinions. The consequence should be a traumatic intrusion of state power into the economy. Ariely owns that going for the 50 percent figure with one cut of the knife would “create chaos” – but really: for such a clever man, this is a remarkably obtuse argument.
While socialism lived, it had a theory of human nature, and hence of morality and government. Wealth was created by exploitation. To survive, the poor bargained away their freedom to the rich, who used their labor to become richer. The exploiter added nothing to the process beyond his criminal greed. A just government had to become powerful enough to sweep away the class of exploiters, and allow workers to reap the rewards of their labor.
This might have been wrong – and in fact it was – but it was coherent. It explained government bullying in terms of justice and decency.
Ariely makes no claims that wealthy Americans are by definition exploiters or criminals. But if they are law-abiding citizens, on what constitutional basis can the government expropriate half their wealth? What fundamental law will the warrant point to, when the police move in to take over people’s excessive houses, jewelry, and Microsoft stocks?
It’s all a question of looking more like Sweden, apparently. On this purported desire, Ariely disingenuously pretends to speak on behalf of most Americans. But putting aside the right to property and the vagaries of an opinion survey, Americans vote for their representatives every year, and have yet to elect anyone who sounds remotely Swedish. President Obama probably came closest, and has just been rebuked for his trouble – in the same elections in which Washington State voters rejected a first-time income tax for those making $200,000 or more.
From an economic perspective, the consequence of setting an arbitrary ceiling on wealth is wholly predictable. People will stop working when they reach the ceiling. Many will move to ceiling-free and zombie-free locations. This is a given. How, then, can we explain such nonsense from a leading light of behaviorist economics?
If pre-1989 socialism was, in part, an intellectual proposition, zombie socialism is mere impulse. Ariely viscerally wishes to impose an abstract vision of equality on Americans, and the desire is its own justification. His political urges even contradict his psychological theories: if we are all irrational in our decisions, isn’t a limited government preferable to a Leviathan making colossal mistakes?
No matter. The pleasure principle is in charge.
On politics, Ariely is a deeply unserious writer. There is a lot of that going around, and not just on the money-eating zombie side of the street.
Let me end this post with a warning by Peggy Noonan, directed at the newly elected Republicans at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ariely, who are about to enter Washington in triumph.
We’re in an age where politicians assert, insist and leave. It’s all quick, blunt and dumb. But to win and hold the center you have to make your case, you have to show you’re philosophically serious, you have to show your logic, and connect it to a philosophy. You don’t sit around saying, “I like centrists so I compromise,” you say, “Here’s what we believe, here’s how we think and why.”