Tastes Individual and Social

So I’ve been looking some at cultural tastes as markers of class. In my original taxonomy, I had lumped tastes and values together, but that may be inaccurate: tastes are linked to products, and so have an economic component, while I think values are less so. Wealth and income seem to me to be more material than tastes, and tastes more material than values. But I’m engaging in Cartesian dualism when I think this way, the same sort of dualism Wolff and Resnick pick up on when they point out that “In neoclassical theory, the achievement of a correspondence between producers’ selfish maximization of their own profits and consumers’ selfish maximization of their own preferences is also the achievement of a perfect harmony between physical and human nature, between scarcity and choice” (95).

On the material side, wages are the reward for or return on labor, and profits are the reward for or return on capital. But it seems odd to me how this inanimate entity of capital — whether in the shape of a factory or a check from a VC angel — can “produce” something. According to Wolff and Resnick, for the neoclassicals, “Wages and profits represent a balance between ‘scarcity’ . . . and ‘tastes’ . . . each individual gets back from society a quantum of wealth exactly proportionate to what each has contributed to society” (80). As I’ve noted before, I think this theory clearly doesn’t reflect reality, although it’s a wonderful way for the rich to feel good about themselves. In the free and open space of markets, the “sites of social interaction between existing owners and prospective buyers of wealth” (89) where “Individuals may offer and demand as much as they please of what they privately own and desire whether it be labor, capital, or commodities” (88), cash is instant karma.

There’s also the issue that while we historically valorize those individuals who hold the power of distinction, who have unique and individual taste and commodify their dissent because they know they’re different and they want us to know it too (such is the message of the foolish pedagogy enacted by Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society). But classes, by definition, are groups of people, and tastes have no meaning as markers of distinction except within a social network. Consider what Resnick and Wolff have to say in their description of what some critics of neoclassical economic theory say: “since neoclassical theory assumes that individuals are integral parts of society, the preferences of each must be affected by the complex economic and noneconomic actions of all the others. In a sense, that is precisely the basis on which such critics define the term ‘social’: to be a social being is to negate the possibility of having one’s choices ‘autonomously’ formed in society” (97).

Tastes Individual and Social

One thought on “Tastes Individual and Social

  • July 11, 2003 at 11:44 pm

    I recently came across a startling account of the history of neoclassical economics in a book by the analytic philosopher Hilary Putnam called The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. As Putnam tells it, not only was the concept of utility an intersubjective one, but that as an intersubjective measure, the characteristics of utility were used to justify redistributionist policies! To whit:

    [utility curves] were governed by what was called the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. According to this "law," the marginal utility (the utility of the last amount consumed) decreases with additional comsumption. (Alfred Marshall illustrated this with the charming example of a small boy eating berries.)
    Arthur Cecil Pigou’s enormously influential Economics of Welfare, published in 1920, derived a simple argument for at least some redistribution of wealth from these “neo-classical” premises. If the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility is right, then the marginal utility of money should also diminish. And even if these marginal utilities vary considerably from person to person, it is still plausible that the marginal utility of, say, a thousand dollars to someone at the point of going hungry or becoming a homeless beggar is much greater than the marginal utility of a thousand dollars to, say, Bill Gates. Conclusion: the total utility (often identified with “the total happiness” by utilitarian writers) of the population as a whole would be increased by taking a thousand dollars away from Bill Gates in taxes and giving a thousand dollars to the destitute person; more generally, other things being equal, income redistribution promotes welfare.

    Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy,, p. 53. Emphasis in the original

    So why aren’t we living in a happy Eden of the innate rights of man and equal incomes? Per Putnam, it was the entry of the fact/value dichotomy into economics: "Interestingly enough, it was during the depths of the Depression that Lionel Robbins, certainly one of the most influential economists in the world, persuaded the entire profession that interpersonal comparisons of utility are “meaningless.”…In particular, he held strong views to the effect that rational discussion (“argument”) is impossible in ethics, and therefore ethical questions must be kept wholly out of economics." (Putnam, pp. 53-54) With utility now a purely subjective metric for explaining the economic behavior of individuals, a clear path to discussions of general welfare was blocked, although such discussions continued, with formal mathematical criteria (Pareto optimality–whatever that is) taking the place of intuitively obvious values.

    This is all part of a larger argument that claims attempts to banish ethical terms and ethical question from the social sciences are doomed to fail. But rather than make this argument from a social constructionist point of view, Putnam takes the opposite route and argues that the attempts to separate and then expel values from the social sciences (esp. economics) lead to problems of internal consistency in those fields. Furthermore, not only do values admit of rational discussion, but may even have actual referents, e.g., the scope of reference of the word “courage” might be as fixed by certain uncontroversial properties as the scope of reference of the word “nitrogen.”

    Please note my summary of Putnam’s position in the paragraph above is based on an initial reading; analytic philosophers like to claim they’re clear, but an unadorned style is not the same as a clear one. For me, at least….

    I haven’t suddenly decided that a proper neoclassical theory, i.e., one with its head screwed on straight, is fine by me, or that Putnam’s account is the entire picture: after all, Lionel Robbins may have proposed that utility is not intersubject, but something else had to be in place for the idea to take root. Utility, as a subjective concept, is still used to explain consumption of commodities. But why not the advocacy of ideologies?

    I’d be happy to email or snail mail copies of some of the essays.

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