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Is Money Like Food?


Do you have enough enoughness in your life? Your biology definitely does. But your unevolved economic appetite might not. Life is limited—as are all corporeal appetites. Limitless errors feed on imagining otherwise. These include “utility monsters” and an unintended version of the “banality of evil.”

What if our appetite for money was like that for food? Some is vital. More is desirable, but only up to some point. Stomachs have limits. They send satiety signals when full. A mental override is required to consume more. Repeated enough this becomes unhealthy.

Money is more like calories than integers. Each increment in integers has the same value. Not so for calories. Their value varies with hunger and taste. And too many calories ultimately become toxic. That money comes in integer amounts feeds the illusion that its increments are worth the same. But their benefit varies and becomes diminishing. This idea of “diminishing marginal utility” is understood in parts of business and economics (e.g., in “psycho-physics”. But corporations often maximize like Robert Nozick’s “utility monsters”: Experiencing no apparent diminishing utility, they see any increment as better and incrementing as much as possible as best. They seek unlimited, monstrous, growth.

Financial self-interest has become an easy, though poor and error-prone, proxy for the rich set of traits we evolved for survival. Seeing humans as individualists driven mainly by money, discounts our social and self-deficient nature. It is a WEIRD sampling error.

Money-hunger can’t be innate. It’s too recent an invention in evolutionary terms. It’s created by social norms. As Steven Pinker says “the logic of the market remains cognitively unnatural.”

Beliefs about money, like those about food, are highly culturally configurable (including what shouldn’t be stomached in its pursuit). Appetites “past reason hunted” become addictions. Individuals who think like utility monsters are money-addicts.

Perhaps money-hunger most resembles our evolved drive for status? But cultures that don’t channel status seeking toward constructive collective ends, don’t survive. That’s likely why all surviving hunter-gatherer cultures limit group-threatening behaviors, especially from those with high status. Some believe “greed is good” in markets. But under-guided, under-regulated markets can create enormous waste (40% of US food isn’t used. “Free markets” have unintentionally and intelligently evolved a weak variation of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Ordinary decent people seeking only their livelihoods, intending no harm, work an institutional machinery that has harmful side-effects (like biosphere threatening pollution).

To encourage unlimited money-hunger (individual or corporate) is to misuse the most powerful social forces on earth. Markets drive the activities of billions of people toward amazing ends. But their power is safer when intelligently guided, rather than left to evolve by local incentives and chance.

Our nature is limit-full. If we define “limitism” as organizing lives and markets to accommodate known limits, we can see that limitlessness involves ignorance. Knowledge of reality demands limitism.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient

Inheriting Second Natures

Our Ruly Nature

It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories

Tools Are in Our Nature

We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street

Justice Is In Our Nature

Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works

Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate

Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule

Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.

Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors

Greek Myths About Human Origins

Evolutionary Economics And Darwin’s Wedge

Economics vs Fiction on Human Nature

Is Economics More Like History Than Physics?

Maxims Are Fitter Than Maximization

Food For Rethinking Markets

Non-grapefruit and fruitful non-science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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