The founders viewed private property as “the guardian of every other right.”* But, “by 1890 we find Alfred Marshall, the teacher of John Maynard Keynes making the astounding claim that the need for private property reaches no deeper than the qualities of human nature.”* A hundred years later came Milton Friedman’s laconic reply: ” ‘I would say that goes pretty deep.'”
— “A Whiter Shade of Pale”: Sense and Nonsense — The Pursuit of Perfection in Law and Politics, Janice Rogers Brown, Associate Justice, California Supreme Court.
So I want to start with a question.
Why aren’t we having more sex?
Consider the definition of economic utility: “the total satisfaction received from consuming a good or service.” In any economic transaction, something is traded for something else–and if we are all “economic animals”, we will happily trade one thing for another if the thing we trade for has higher “utility.”
So, consider someone buying gas at a gas station, facing a bunch of candy bars at the check-out stand. If they can trade 89 cents for a Snickers bar, and if the “utility” (the total gratification) of consuming that 89 cent candy bar is higher than the “utility” of saving the 89 cents for something else–then they buy a candy bar and have a snack on the drive home.
They’ve made a trade, in other words, that resulted in a gain in “utility.”
So why aren’t we having more sex?
Consider the “utility” of sex: touching another, feeling of intimacy, relaxation, having an orgasm. There are numerous articles describing the benefits of sex: less stress, lowering pain, better sleep, and each of these can lead to a much longer and happier life.
I would argue that, in fact, the economic “utility” of sex is pretty high. Hell, if someone invented a pill which provided the same health benefits of having sex, that pill would become a multi-billion dollar industry overnight.
And consider the practical “cost” of sex (rather than the “emotional cost”): the time to actually do the deed, the time it takes to take off one’s clothes, the cost of protection (a condom).
If you consider the costs and benefits of sex, then honestly why aren’t we having more sex? And I don’t mean “why aren’t we having more sex with our partner”–I don’t know what your sex life looks like, and it could be that sex swing is getting a lot of use in your house. I don’t know.
But I mean why aren’t there “orgy rooms” at airports. (Hell, I’ve got 15 minutes to kill; may as well get my rocks off with some strangers before boarding the airplane.) Why aren’t there naked orgy rooms next to the exercise room at fancier hotels? Why aren’t people having sex in the streets?
“But most people are ugly.” So what? I mean, doesn’t that simply raise the cost of having sex and lower the benefits only a little? You may find him ugly but he can still get you off–and that is enough to get all the aforementioned health benefits that, if it came in a pill form, you’d be shelling out serious money for.
Why aren’t we having a lot more sex?
By the way, I’m not the first person to ask this question. Why don’t people have more sex?
We need not just reasons, but rather gains-from-trade-defying reasons.
By the way, notice my argument above. I’m not suggesting we should have more sex. I was asking why we aren’t already having more sex from an economics perspective. And if economics was perfectly descriptive, then things like airport orgy rooms should simply be fait accompli in the same way bathrooms and water fountains currently are.
What I am, in fact, suggesting, is that the field of economics is broken.
The reason why none of this is true–that orgy rooms currently don’t exist at airports despite being “predicted” (in some sense) by the behavior of satisfying utility gains–goes to human nature.
And as Milton Friedman quipped about human nature: “I would say that goes pretty deep.”
It’s not to suggest that economics is completely worthless. There is still value in understanding things like the supply/demand curve or Pareto efficiency. I believe we should be talking a lot more about Public Choice theory.
But notice that “costs” and “benefits” often are far more complex than “here’s my 89 cents; give me a candy bar.” (Such as the cost to engage in the transaction, or the cost of consuming candy.)
Beyond that, “costs” are often deeply emotional–tied deeply to human nature. It is human nature to want to be secure, fed, warm. To be loved, to be lovely. To help others that we know and to seek help ourselves. To be sympathetic to the weak and to the lovely. And “benefits” dive deeply again into human nature: “benefits” often are another way to say we satisfy these deep human urges.
Because all this dives so deeply into human nature–and because human nature is both deep and immutable–often the economic trade that leads to gains in utility aren’t considered as economic transactions. Instead, it could be as simple as “I’m hungry and I have 89 cents.”
And the idea of Homo economicus is just an illusion.
After all, wouldn’t “Homo Economicus” build orgy rooms at the local Hilton, in order to satisfy the unsatisfied marginal utility of all that anonymous sex we’re not currently having–in order to reduce the “frictions” that prevent us from satisfying the long-term marginal utility of sex?
It also suggests that if Humans were a different animal, the discussions we would be having about economics and property rights would be different.
For example, if humans were truly a herd animal like sheep or cows, would we have the same desire to satisfy the territorial instinct that private property provides for us? (And, truthfully, isn’t government registration of private property ownership simply a more sophisticated version of territorial marking?)
Or consider Marxism, which American entomologist E.O. Wilson once quipped “Wonderful theory. Wrong species.” (E.O. Wilson considered Marxism better suited to ants than humans.)
It’s also, by the way, why I find economic complaints from the Right about price gouging unpersuasive.
The idea being that if there is a limited supply, the price should be allowed to skyrocket so consumers can deal with shortages through market forces rather than through arbitrary and random shortages.
Now it could be price gouging would prevent runs on supplies that cause some customers to take more than they need, creating shortages (which are, by definition, customers who need more but who don’t have any).
But in practice rising prices help create a new economic equilibrium if pricing also encourages more supplies (by allowing new entrants to enter the market)–and in a natural disaster, new entrants generally cannot enter the market, and as the rebuilding process subsides, new entrants would create their own problems as suddenly a shortage becomes a surplus.
Further, it often ignores elements of human nature–including volunteerism and the mutual aid we give each other. The person who “hoards” gas may be the one who then provides gas for free to a neighbor in need; we don’t know.
So simply allowing prices to rise–I’m not certain the economic benefits are as advertised.
Because we are not Homo Economicus, and human nature runs very deep indeed.
For the same reasons I am completely unpersuaded by Socialists and Communists who believe if we were only to change human nature through education–or at least change the incentive structures of our culture–we would move towards the ideal Utopia that Socialists and Communists want.
Again, human nature runs very deep. Very, very deep.
In fact, I am convinced that you are more likely to build successful orgy rooms at a hotel than you are to convince everyone “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”
Don’t tell me that socialism and communism would allow me to keep my home. That’s because beneath the surface all land is theoretically productive, even if it only serves as a “home” to someone who is homeless.
Now I am not suggesting the homeless should be allowed to remain homeless; I believe we should provide homes to the homeless, as well as assistance and aid. I have no problems with that coming from both government and private sources.
But we must realize that homeless cannot be “solved”–again, because of human nature: there are always those who have problems and some who have mental illness that we cannot fix. More importantly, confiscating my home to give to a homeless family (because perhaps you think my house is too large for me) runs counter to human nature. Because without the reward of my hard labor, learned over half a century of effort, why should I practice my craft?
And when an entire nation of people realize they shouldn’t bother practicing their own crafts–you get Venezuela, where even the zoo animals are starving.
Because human nature runs far deeper than you or I can possibly conceive.
Want to change society–and you’re disappointed in human nature?
Try to set up orgy rooms first.
If you can do that–country wide, not just amongst your more libertine friends–then talk to me about your ideas for socialism making society better.