Relative or Absolute Advantage: A Question of Conditional Cooperation

A while back I posted a summary of a question posed by economists to various groups of people in a book I am slowly but surely getting through:

The Harvard political economist Robert Reich […] asked a set of groups of students, investment bankers, professional economists, citizens of the Boston area, and senior State Department officials this question: for the United States which of the two following scenarios is preferable? (1) one in which the US economy grows by 25 per cent over the next ten years, while that of Japan grows by 75 per cent or (2) one in which the US economy grows at 10 per cent while the Japanese economy grows at 10.3 percent (132).

I then asked readers the same question, although only Dr Amburgey answered (thanks a lot jerks!). Professor Amburgey stated that he would prefer scenario #1. As an academic who specializes in strategic management at a prestigious business school I would have expected him to pick scenario #1 as well. Why? Here is how Agnew and Corbridge summarized the findings:

Most people in each group except one chose (2). The economists, thinking quantitatively, unanimously chose (1). The magnitude of difference in (1) may have pushed some people towards (2). What is clear, however, is that most of the respondents were willing to forego a larger absolute increase in ‘their’ economic well-being to prevent a larger relative advantage to Japan (132).

Okay let’s slow down for moment. Does everybody see why economists chose scenario #1?

Because economists (and normal people, too) would rather live in a society where the economy grows by 25% instead of 10%. This is what Agnew and Corbridge mean when they write that economists are thinking quantitatively. So why did everybody but the economists choose scenario #2, including high-ranking State Department officials?

The inclination to forego getting richer (‘absolute increase’) if it means the other guy doesn’t get as rich as he otherwise would (‘relative advantage’) is something anthropologists call ‘conditional cooperation,’ and it seems to be a human universal. Here is what academics are stating in plain English: people are willing to forego gains in wealth if it means that others will lose out, too. The question of “How much?” is relative to a given situation.

Why humans do this is the subject of vigorous academic research, but if humans do this is acknowledged by everybody.

Economists and other academics trained in quantitative analysis are not the only ones who prefer absolute gains over relative ones, though. Libertarians are, by and large, also more likely to choose scenario #1 (I wish it were the case that libertarians were unanimous on this, but as the movement grows, so too does the number of less than intelligent people in our quadrant). Some of this may have to do with IQ, but I think the cooperative nature of our worldview also plays an influential role in the way we make our choices.

One doesn’t have to be economically-adept to choose scenario #1 (though it helps). A question that libertarians may ask is, in response to the prompt, “Why should I care if the Japanese get richer, faster than I do?” This question would more than likely be followed with a statement along these lines: “As long as they are not gaining their riches through force or fraud I see absolutely nothing wrong with this scenario.”

And it would be this response that explains why I consider myself to be a libertarian.

By the way, here is the book I’ve been reading that sparked the post. It’s titled Mastering Space… and it was written by a couple of Marxist geographers in 1995. The book is an interesting attempt to reconcile the world that stood before them (a liberal, democratic world) with the one that they believed would occur through socialist revolution (with the Soviet Union leading the masses out of the dark depths of capitalist slavery). Some of the most fascinating research to come out of the Marxist paradigm has been produced since 1991. I think it would be wise to heed Orwell’s suggestion that the Left-Right paradigm be abandoned and replaced by an authoritarian-libertarian one.

2 thoughts on “Relative or Absolute Advantage: A Question of Conditional Cooperation

  1. There’s also the question of how wealth is measured. If the Japanese get rich by selling stuff to Americans, then their increase in GDP (assuming that’s the measure being used) necessarily comes with an increase in Americans’ consumer surplus. They’re getting dollars, but we’re getting utils.

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