Thursday, October 21, 2010

Means to an End

Over at Crash Landing, Gene Callahan offers a personal reflection about how markets shape our view of "the good life":

Having assigned my students a paper on Aristotle's economic thought, I was shocked to see how many of them characterized the Philosopher as "utopian" and "an idealist." I puzzled over this until I realized the cause: Any check, moral or legal, on acquisitiveness is seen by young people today as utopian! They cannot conceive that acquiring a certain amount of wealth, while often necessary to living a good life, is not sufficient; for them the good life simply is getting lots of stuff.

Markets are wonderful tools that promote allocative efficiency. But this is what happens when markets are allowed to run untrammeled over society: instead of being properly understood as tools, the tools are worshipped as ends in and of themselves. The moneychangers don't just have a booth in the temple; they are now the priests running it.

I take issue with this to some extent. I certainly agree that you could make a solid critique asserting that people value "stuff" too much in relation to things that are...well...less tangible. But towards the end of his thought, the lament seems to shift from this to something of a slightly different shade - that people are starting to "worship" the means to ends as ends in and of themselves. To me, this view doesn't sufficiently explain (praxeologically) what is actually occurring.

In strict terms, there doesn't seem to be any particular reason that an end cannot be a means to another end. For instance, the means-ends framework explaining my employment is as follows: I trade labor as a means to acquire money. I value money as a general end. But I value it as an end only to the extent that it acts as a means to facilitate even further ends. Now, you can semantically make an end-run around that bifurcation by saying that I trade my work as a means to the ends of acquiring "stuff" - as if it's direct. I don't necessarily have a problem with thinking about it this way, but it's important to note that means/ends often share a networked relationship with additional means/ends.

To claim that people are worshiping tools seems not so much incorrect, but incoherent in that context. There is always a causal link back to an ultimate end at some point. People want "stuff" (cell phones, cars, houses, clothes) because of the ends they facilitate - happiness derived from subjective evaluation. It would seem silly to stop at the point of people valuing money (as a means) and deride them for worshiping "tools." I don't think people literally get excitement out of having green pieces of paper as an end in itself. That is a short-sited view of what's occurring. They highly value money because they know exactly how it can help them facilitate the further end of acquiring "stuff", and they value "stuff" because they know exactly how it can help them facilitate the further end of acquiring happiness.

Now, we can certainly have a conversation in regards to why certain things bring them happiness. But to view that as people worshiping means as an (ultimate) end and completely leave out the connection regarding happiness as an end in itself seems to miss the point. I generally like Gene...he seems like a smart guy (much smarter than me, I'm sure). But sometimes I think he likes to straddle the ledge just to irk people he disagrees with. And, like some of the people he dislikes so vociferously, he sometimes overlooks the obvious when making snide remarks or forming conclusions.

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