Animal Spirits and Positional Ambition

Rob Horning understands me! Please read his post on the economics and politics of “animal spirits.”

There are perplexingly many glosses “on animal spirits.” One of them is “confidence,” which is what investors faced with uncertainty about the economic climate are now lacking. Another might be “ambition.” As Chris Dillow writes in his mini review of Shiller and Akerlof’s new book:

What’s more, given that the private benefits of innovation are low, and the probabilities of success in many arts and industry small, it might be only animal spirits that give us artists and entrepreneurs. As Richard Nisbett and Less Ross wrote years ago:

We probably would have few novelists, actors or scientists if all potential aspirants to these careers took action based on a normatively justifiable probability of success. We might also have few new products, new medical procedures, new political movements or new scientific theories. 

Perhaps, then, it’s not just that animal spirits are ubiquitous – but they are necessary too.

It’s worth pointing out that it is exactly this sense of animal spirits, animated by the spirit of ambition or “emulation,” which Robert Frank and Phillip Cook declare inefficient in The Winner-Take-All Society, and argue we should tax into submission. But as Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy point out in Social Economics, echoing Nisbett and Ross, the expected payoff to entrepreneurial risk is so low that in the absence of positional competition, we would get very little of it. Entrepreneurial risk-taking is the source of innovation, which is the source of increasing productivity and wealth. So a society lacking this kind of status-seeking animal spirit might not grow at all, unless it was capable of successfully importing and deploying the innovations of more ambitiously inventive societies.

This focus on positional competition recalls the psychological microfoundations of Adam Smith and David Hume’s theories of civilization and economic growth. Their theories of motivation seem to me to do much more to illuminate the recent financial collapse than does modern macroeconomics. The myopia of financial executives making huge bets on securities graded according to algorithms that could not begin to understand was certainly driven by positional competition. The key insight of eighteenth-century political economy is that institutional rules and social norms must align ambitious, emulative, and status-seeking animal spirits to the aims of innovation, refinement, and advancement of the public good. The soaring abstraction of techno-high-finance — which decoupled investment decisions from any human sense of real economic value — encouraged the sense that the great race for astronomical bonuses was consistent with the public interest. And the sums involved discouraged the players from double-checking. It does seems that a kind of carelessness became contagious, and I don’t think it’s wrong to see “greed” as a source of Wall Street’s rather astonishing indifference to verifying the real utility of the game it was playing, though “greed” is not a very helpful diagnosis in the end. Ours was a failure of “regulation” in the broadest sense: the joint failure of institutional rules and the cultural climate to regulate the expression of positional ambition. But the lesson is not to discourage it, but to redirect it; to make it again not only safe but serviceable.

The big question is whether a risk-seeking society — which must maintain a status-seeking, ambitious culture — is or is not fated to run some of its institutions into the ground from time to time and occasionally wreak havoc on the context of trust and stable expectations that makes ordinary economic activity possible.

For those of a scholarly bent, here’s a passage from Adam Potkay’s A Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume (I’ve removed the scholarly citation apparatus) on the central role of “emulation”–which is what they called positional ambition — in eighteenth-century accounts of progress.  

“An honest emulation,” rooted in a “self-love” that inspires us to think highly of ourselves in comparison with others,” is the source of all achievements, all greateness: “the philosopher’s curiousity may be inflamed by a catalogue of the works of Boyle and Bacon, as Themistocles was kept awake by the tropies of Miltiades.” Again we should recall Pope: “Envy, to which th’ ignoble mind’s a slave, / Is emulation in the learned or brave.”

The necessity of “emulation” to a beneficient progress is a, perhaps the, great theme of the Enlightenment in Britain, shared alike by Hobbes, Mandeville, and Shaftesbury, Hume and Johnson. It pervades Johnson’s Idler essays still more than his Rambler. The “renaissance of letters” that, according to standard eighteenth-century wisdom, began in fourteenth-century Italy is itself a product of emulation: “[T]he European world was rouzed from its lethargy; those arts which had been long obscurely studied in the gloom of monasteries became the general favourties of mankind; every nation vied with its neighbour for the prize of learning; the epidemical emulation spread from south to north and curiosity and translation found their way to Britain. Emulation is responsible for “elegance” of building, clothing, food; “commerce has kindle an universal emulation of wealth.”

Johnson and Hume agree that the fire that animates both the fine and practical arts “is not kindled from heaven. It only runs along the earth; is caught from one breast to another; and burns brightest, where the materials are best prepared.” The theme of emulation is omnipresent throughout Hume’s Essays and History of England–its responsibility for the enlightenment of both ancient Greece and modern Europe; the birth and refinement of all arts and sciences, mechanical arts and manufactures.