Saturday, 2 February 2008

The Economics of Identity

In response to a comment made on the previous post on nationalism, I personally think that the safety and comfort factor comes from the fact that a concept like nationalism gives a group of people a common identity to ascribe to. In doing so, they also assume that their interests are best served by protecting the group. Not only is it necessary to protect one's own group but also to fight for resources etc. against other such groups - basically a zero-sum game situation (it is assumed that all resources operate under a zero sum game while it may actually not be so).

It is only when we realise that the fight for resources need not be a zero sum game that the discrimination on the basis of identity is like to reduce or disappear. I think we are still a long way from that because we still trade preferentially with some groups over others. International politics still gives greater weightage (more often than not) to the identity of the trading nations as nations and cultures as opposed to looking at their needs and ability to produce as well as pay for what they consume.

Until economics is played on an egalitarian footing (I don't mean this in the sense of all countries having equal wealth but in the sense of economics not factoring in identity variables into transactions) I don't think that this notion of "my culture/country/caste/religion is better than theirs will wither away.


Nikhil said...

Economics is interesting in that it assumes the pursuit of "rational self-interest" by every human being. I had a discussion about this with a friend this weekend, and realized that in a situation where the majority of the human beings DO behave selfishly, the current economic/political system is maybe the best we can do, in terms of safeguarding interests, ensuring fairness etc. But consider a time in the future when, possibly, a majority of the people in the world think selflessly rather than selfishly; spiritually rather than materially - would the current economic/political system still be the best we could do? I strongly believe, no! And so as humans evolve to that stage, we might well see paradigmatic changes in the systems that exist in the world...

One already sees some things changing with the advent of knowledge/information as an economic commodity. Current economic systems are anyway breaking down in the face of this, as knowledge is radically different from money. Consider the idea of knowledge-sharing, wikipedia, open source software, etc...

Of course, the natural question to ask is whether we will at all move in the direction of that selfless society. And the answer to that, of course, is that time will tell... But the best one can do is try and work towards that vision in one's own way during the course of one's life...

Nithya Ravi said...

I think the problem is not that we all are assumed to pursue "rational self-interest" but in how "rational self-interest" is defined. We assume that pursuing self-interest is detrimental and creates conflict because that's how we define it; that one person's gain is another person's loss.

Now one of two things could lead to a better state of affairs. One, we realise that one person's gain is NOT another person's loss. This is the paradigm shift that a knowledge society is likely to cause as it is the one resource that will not diminish despite sharing.

The other is that we could all start behaving selflessly which will not happen under the present system of language, thought and ways of seeing (or the technologies of) the self and society. We are not likely to completely disregard ourselves to the betterment of the species because current systems of thought do not allow for it. However, such a change may happen say in the next 100 years. What I am not sure of is whether it would be such a good thing for all of us to be completely self-less. For now, I'd rather go with a paradigm shift in how we define "rational self-interest", pursue it, perceive it and negotiate with it.

In fact, you can really see different paradigms of rational self-interest operate at a very micro level during campus placements. It is interesting to see how different people work out "selfishness"! I'll probably write about it in my next post!

Nikhil said...

Actually I believe the idea of selflessness is a little misunderstood in general. Selflessness doesn't mean that one totally sacrifices oneself for others, and one's good for another's good. In fact true selflessness comes out of the realization that by serving others, one actually benefits oneself too, in myriad subtle and intangible ways that might not be obvious in the short term but build up in the long term. So I dont think it means completely disregarding oneself - but realizing that individual development (not just materially, but spiritually as well) is intrinsically linked to community development and service.

Of course, as you say, things like knowledge are bound to question the traditional notion of selfish interest, because knowledge can be shared ad infinitum without diminishing.

Anyway, I think selflessness will evolve on a massive scale not even within a 100 years - it'll probably take much longer. But who knows what humanity itself will be like 1000, 10000 years from today... The thing about humans are we always assume the present is the best we can do - but of course we're constantly evolving at exponential rates, and a 1000 years hence, we will probably have little in common with our current state!