Gordon Gekko’s garden | On Line Opinion

A thought-provoking opinion from John Wright who lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle:

At the end of our street is a community garden. Many of the local residents have their own box in which they grow tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and so on. It works on a culture of trust and sharing. There is no fence around the garden. It is understood that if someone needs, say, a few carrots from a public box they are free to help themselves.

But recently, it has not been going well. Today I went down to get a lettuce from the box my partner and I had been tending, and its entire contents had gone. Inquiries revealed this had been happening to other people’s boxes. The problem is so widespread many have decided to pull out of the community garden altogether.

Of course, when compared to the great events that befell the world in 2016, this is hardly head-line news. But I also think it exemplifies, in a very simple way, factors that have led to some of the larger troubles of our societies.

….I’m sure we have all encountered people who take the view: “In this world, it’s each person for themselves. Only a mug would do something for the good of the community.”

Of course, it’s only a small number who take this view. But so many boxes have been cleared out that a lot of residents have given up and decided to withdraw from the garden.

What all this illustrates is just how fragile a sense of community, co-operation and the common weal can be, and how easily it can be replaced by: “It’s each person for themselves”.

Lately Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy catch-phrase, and Theresa May’s promise to “Put Britain First” in Brexit negotiations, have received a lot of media coverage.

What these attitudes reflect is a lack of community between states, not just individuals sharing a vegetable patch. For too long, some players in the international community have displayed a self-interested view, benefiting from the international community at the expense of others. Whether this be NATO members failing to meet their defense budget commitments, instead relying on the US security umbrella, or China and Japan furthering their own economic interests, running large trade surpluses while subverting the balancing mechanism of floating exchange rates, at the expense of their trading partners.

Similarly interest groups within states have furthered their own agendas at considerable cost to their fellow-citizens. Global corporations, for example, profited from offshore manufacturing without consideration of the millions of manufacturing jobs lost and ultimate hardship in their own country.

In his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations, Mancur Olson highlighted the dangers of self-interest groups within society and how redistributive struggles, where insiders manipulate the system at the expense of productive efforts, can lead to economic decline. He attributed the rise of Japan and Germany after WWII, relative to the UK, to the absence of pressure groups in the former which were largely wiped out during the war.

Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” would similarly restore growth to the US. But pursuit of self-interest on the international stage, instead of strengthening the international community, is likely to achieve exactly the opposite.

Source: Gordon Gekko’s garden – On Line Opinion – 24/1/2017

13 thoughts on “Gordon Gekko’s garden | On Line Opinion

  1. frankaquin0 says:

    Good story from John Wright, with a twinge of sadness too for the failed veggie patch experiment. As someone implied in one of the comments, “we’re just not ready”. The really sad part is that so many people believe we will never be ready. I disagree with them. Human nature isn’t set in stone, or in DNA. We are the first species to have imagination. We can direct our own future. But living in a society (as opposed to family groups or tribes) requires un-leaning a lot of ingrained hand-to-mouth habits. It’s too easy to revert to self interest without considering the consequences to others. It also requires everyone to be roughly at the same level of what I call “adequate wealth” – ie believing that you have enough to live comfortably, while any more would just be glutinous. Adequate wealth is different for everyone, but it exists nonetheless. If there is a reason we aren’t ready, it’s because people don’t even consider they might have enough. The path to this kind of enlightenment is long and treacherous and tough on the self esteem. But it is hugely uplifting when it is realised, and worth going for.

    If I were forced to offer a reason as to why we are so rubbish at living in considerate societies, I would say it is because we are not rewarded for considerate behaviour, but merely punished for bad, so punishment becomes the focus. We live in a complex society, but even for activities that are well defined and agreed, like driving for example, we are not rewarded for say, stopping at red lights, obeying the speed limit, parking considerately, driving phone-free, etc, etc. Instead, we do these things in such a way as to avoid being caught and punished. Who hasn’t sneaked a peek at their phone, or ignored a red light in a deserted intersection at 3 in the morning? That is not rewarding good behaviour, it is rewarding better and better apprehension-avoidance, which is the reason (I assume) the lettuce stealers in Mr Wright’s story did it while no one was watching.”Finders keepers” is a schoolyard fantasy. Google “stealing by finding”

    The challenge is teaching people (and reminding them constantly) that there is a reward for honesty and consideration of others, which is societal harmony. It might be painful at first, but so is any insurance premium. And this one doesn’t even cost money, just a challenge of long held selfish behaviours.

    • ColinTwiggs says:

      Great insights as always Frank. Changing long-held beliefs isn’t easy. An honesty box might be difficult to introduce in parts of Africa or Asia where people are one meal away from starvation. Rather like trying to introduce democracy in Libya or Afghanistan. Its a completely foreign concept. Educating people can take centuries, not just decades. Even then, there are bound to be failures. Idealism is good but needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of realism.

      • frankaquin0 says:

        Yes, I agree. We are at least 500 years away from a decent world-wide society. I guess my point was we all have to at least imagine it is possible someday, The journey of a thousand miles…

  2. Vic Russo says:

    . This kind of thinking exemplifies the no borders will be swell segment of the international elitists. The progress we have had in reducing poverty in the world has resulted from individuals and organizations operating in their own best interests. This kind of utopian world might occur in the future when humans evolve. But currently, given human nature, this is complete nonsense. I would suggest that the author review the last 200 years of political history with special emphasis on Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Venezuelan proletariats and their success in bringing wealth to their citizens.

  3. Drhotdog says:

    So this guy just learned about the tragedy of the commons? Once they gave up the private property rights of owning their production this was the obvious outcome. I find it less surprising that people are taking what they do not own than someone is shocked this would happen. Aristotle explained it thousands of years ago.

    • ColinTwiggs says:

      Just up the road from me, market gardeners leave fruit, avocados and vegetables displayed on the side of road with a price. Passers-by help themselves and leave money in an honesty box. If the system was abused the practice would have died out years ago. I am sure that similar practices exist in communities around the world and have done so for centuries.

      This is great, but when people abuse the rules there has to be consequences. Within our own communities and farther afield, in international trade and politics.

    • john says:

      Dear Dr Hot Dog,
      Actually, I did already know about the tragedy of the commons. But one important point I feel is that “tragedy of the commons” outcomes do not always arise even when they could. It seems to me one reason why they do not is because of a sense of community, or a strong sense of “we”. You are right, of course: very plausible assumptions about how rational beings behave lead to the conclusion that tragedy of the commons outcomes will always arise in situations of this sort. But the fact is they do not always arise. I guess all I was doing was pointing out how fragile, but also how valuable, are the social conditions that do seem to be capable of stopping tragedy of the commons type outcomes.

    • john says:

      Dear Dr Hot Dog,
      I just thought I’d add a few more comments to your response. For a few months no one was stealing from the garden. Why not? I do not think that it was because they had been too stupid to realise that it was in their interests to steal vegetables from other patches if they could get away with it. Rather, I think that for the vast majority of the participants, what they got out of not stealing was greater than what they would have got from stealing. What they would have got out of stealing was a few vegetables, and for most participants in the garden, that was not a big deal. But if they had stolen – even if they could get away with it – then some thing else would have been lost. It is hard to put it in to words, but it is perhaps something like: a sense of being a part of a trusted and trustworthy community.
      I think the people who refrain from stealing might be “rationally self interested”, but what is of value to them is not just a few vegetables.

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        John, Thank you for the follow-up.
        In a rational society people would not donate money to charity. But our rational models do not take account of the sense of well-being that the donor may experience.
        There may also be rational behavior at play with the veggie patch. Participants may be aware that if they take all the vegetables, people will stop growing. Whereas if they take a few, the veggie patch is likely to continue. Rather like the goose that lays golden eggs.

  4. Steve Lieblich says:

    Being proud of your people or nation or family, and pursuing their interest as a priority, is not equivalent to being prepared to cheat and steal from others.
    If John Wright and his neighbours were all members of a body corporate that mandated that they must all use only the community garden for their food supply, and they were confronted by the sort of stealing he describes, I would understand their desire to leave the body corporate. I similarly understand Brexit and the Trump phenomenon.

    • ColinTwiggs says:

      Hi Steve & Vic,
      I do not believe that acting in the interests of the community and acting in our own interests are mutually exclusive. At times the two may appear to be in conflict, like clearing out the veggie patch that someone else has carefully tended, but short-term gains often lead to long-term pain.

      A strong community is in everyone’s interest. Fair rules create a level playing field and minimize the cheating and stealing typical of dysfunctional communities. Global trade, international exchange rates and geo-politics are typical of weak, malfunctional communities. Unfortunately we cannot leave these communities — unless you think isolation is an option — but we can overthrow the existing rules and negotiate new, stronger ones in order to build a better community.

      • Steve Lieblich says:

        Yes, I agree with what you’ve said, Colin. Having a free society means allowing individuals and groups self-determination, while civility requires limits and rules.
        My point is that it’s not a black-and-white choice between self-interest and civility (as I understood the author you quoted to suggest), but rather a matter of determining where the limits and rules should come into play.
        Ideally the rules are followed by the mutual consent of all. If not they must be enforced, which is easier within localities and nations, but a much greater challenge globally…

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        Yes. Negotiating the rules will be difficult. Enforcing them even harder.

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