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Nobody knows how to make a pencil, or a health-care system


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Politics creates the immortal corporation. Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service are two institutions that would have failed long ago if not for government support — subsidies for Amtrak, the government-chartered monopoly on letter delivery for the postal service. The cost of their corporate immortality is not only the waste associated with maintaining them, but also the fact that their existence prevents the emergence of superior alternatives. No sane person would invest 12.5 percent of his income in Social Security in 2013, but we are compelled to do so, and so the bankrupt enterprise continues as though it were not tens of trillions of dollars underwater. A political establishment is a near-deathless thing: Even after the bitter campaign of 2012, voters returned essentially the same cast of characters to Washington, virtually ensuring the continuation of the policies with which some 90 percent of voters pronounced themselves dissatisfied. No death, no evolution. Outside of politics, human action is characterized by evolution and by learning. And what are we learning? How to take care of one another, which is the point of what we sometimes call capitalism. (Don’t tell Ayn Rand.)

It is remarkable that we speak and think about commerce as though competitiveness were its most important feature. There is, as noted, a certain Darwinian aspect to economic competition — and of course we humans do compete over scarce resources. But what is remarkable about human action is not its competitiveness but its almost limitless cooperativeness. Competition is one of the ways in which we learn how best to cooperate with one another and thereby deal with the problem of complexity — it is a means to the end of social cooperation. Cooperation exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom, but human beings cooperate on a species-wide, planetary level, which is a relatively new development in our evolution, the consequences of which we have not yet fully appreciated. If you consider the relationship of the organism to its constituent organs, the relationship of the organ to its cells, or the relationship of the single cell to its organelles, it would not be an overstatement to say that the division of labor is the essence of life itself: Birds do it, bees do it, but human beings do it better. The size and complexity of our brains evolved in parallel with the size and complexity of our social groups, which are just as much a product of evolutionary processes as our bodies are.


Contents
May 20, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 9

Articles
Features
  • It’s not what the senator promised, but he’s defending it anyway.
  • Nobody knows how to make a pencil, or a health-care system.
  • And its critics can relax.
  • We should be optimistic about their future.
Books, Arts & Manners
Sections
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .