Steven Pinker on Capitalism and Human Nature

on Thursday, September 1, 2011

QUESTION: Do you think the economic organization we call capitalism is conducive to the human intuitions of fairness and reciprocity that you outline?

STEVEN PINKER: Probably not – these intuitions are probably tuned to face-to-face, tit-for-tat exchanges, not the complex web of highly indirect transactions that make up a market economy. People seem to have a sense, for example, that interest is inherently exploitative (since you don’t get anything tangible for the interest payments), as are markups by middlemen (since they seem to be parasites), even though economies cannot function without them. The result has been economically ruinous policies such as the prohibition of interest, and recurring episodes of discrimination, expulsion, and genocides against middleman minorities such as the overseas Chinese in Indonesia, the Indians in Africa, and the Jews in Europe. I suspect that you meant the question as an indictment of market economies, but my answer is an indictment of human intuition! I think people should all take economics courses to understand how economies really function and get over the simplistic intuitions that evolution gave us.

QUESTION: Do you think that within this economic system the tendency to dominate and exploit weaker peoples will always be a logical corollarly — “imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism” etc…

STEVEN PINKER: History shows us that the tendency to dominate and exploit is far greater with communism than with capitalism (at least the democratic capitalism of Europe and the US). The reason, I think, is that people only contribute altruistically to the good of others if they perceive them to be kin or close community. Otherwise you either have to motivate them by profit (capitalism) or by coercion (communism). As bad as the profit motive may seem, it’s much better than the Gulag, the killing fields, and the “cultural revolution.”

Read the full interview here