Krista Tippett’s On Being radio show recently featured a fascinating discussion between biological anthropologist Melvin Konner and social psychologist Jon Haidt, who is one of this blog’s favorite public intellectuals. This jumped out at me:
MS. TIPPETT: But this is what we have. But your analysis that there are different stages of capitalism. Would you say a little bit about that? Because I think it gets at Mel’s question of — it kind of shakes up the scenario if we think that capitalism itself, as it grows, as we have more people who are living in these societies, also begins to change, and change us differently.
DR. HAIDT: Right. So, when I was in college, I first read Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. And like many people, it just blew my mind. And Darwin’s ideas are so simple. From a few principles, you can explain all the diversity of life on earth, and that was a really transformative experience for me. And then when I started reading about the history of capitalism, I had the same experience. I just happened to buy a set of lectures from The Teaching Company by an intellectual historian named Jerry Muller. I highly recommend it, M-U-L-L-E-R. He has a book on the history of capitalism, but he has a set of lectures there on the history of capitalism.
And in listening to them, I had the same experience that I had reading Richard Dawkins. I was about 48 years old at the time. I’m well educated. And I knew nothing about the system that explains why everything is here, including this microphone, this glass, our clothing, us, the transportation — everything. And so capitalism is as powerful and important as Darwinian evolution. And in fact, it’s very much the same thing. When you have variation and competition and selection, you get this incredible energy, you get this incredible adaptability. So I guess what I’m saying is that I wish everybody in high school — here’s what I wish we could do.
Let’s cancel two years of math for all of our high school students, everything beyond basic algebra, you don’t need, even if you’re a scientist you don’t need it. So, cancel most of the math, and put in statistics, basic economics, and I think introductory psychology. But, anyway, the point is everybody should learn about capitalism and evolution by the time they’re 18. And at present we don’t. And that means we have stupid discussions about policy.
MS. TIPPETT: And here’s just a very simplistic sentence, but a sentence of yours: “As people become richer and safer, their values change.”
DR. HAIDT: Yep.
MS. TIPPETT: And there’s kind of an ironic thing that happens that Marx did not foresee, that the beneficiaries of capitalist wealth, younger people, begin to demand more socially and environmentally responsible behavior from each other and from their governments.
DR. HAIDT: That’s right. This is what we see in all of these rapidly emerging nations. The generation that — and you see this all over, you see it all over Asia, especially. The simple way to put it is that almost everybody in Asia has grandparents that grew up at times of either famine, war, disease. They could not count on a long future. The transition is particularly clear in Korea, which went from poverty and Japanese oppression to the Korean War.
And that generation of Koreans, including my wife’s family — they have these incredible virtues about family and saving and hard work. And they don’t really care that much about human rights, and gender rights, and all these other sorts of things. But their kids, who were not raised with kind of privation and fear, their kids begin to care about all these things. And you see it all over Asia. The young generation begins to care more about animal rights, human rights, gay rights, women’s rights. So here’s the irony: the left generally hates capitalism, but capitalism changes everybody’s values to be more leftist. [Emphasis mine — RD]
But I believe that cultural leftism, insofar as it’s about liberating the individual from religion and tradition, will undermine the moral and social basis for successful, sustainable capitalism. What do you think?