The origin of a thing or practice does not always and obviously provide strong clues to the reason for its growth and then for its survival. Theories of ethics, for example, are littered with monocausal accounts of “the foundations of ethics” that fail to separate the various distinct causes and levels of operation.

Take that very institution (or human endeavor, or practice) we call “ethics” or “morality” — consisting of rules, ideals, norms, and reasonings and rationales for action. Its origin may be seen in the simple need to influence human behavior, of self and others. Think of the body of ethical precepts as a toolkit. But the reasons why one ethical system flourishes and others wilt may have surprisingly little to do with the aim of the moralizers who cook up, repeat, and transmit their normative notions. And those reasons may not be the same as their explicit justification.

These distinctions can often only be seen as we pass through time, as various stages of the social life of the memes become evident. (Maybe we should speak of the ordinal, not cardinal, virtues!)

IMG_3224Similarly, the first people to adopt a belief, habit or good are very different in nature from later adopters. The distinction between early-, mid- and late-term adopters is of huge importance for understanding fashion and other consumer behavior, as well as ideologies. Businesses that do not figure in these different consumer bases will suffer. Critics who do not understand this will find themselves irrelevant. Voters find themselves . . . stuck with bad candidates and poor policies.

On a macro level, this trend in consumption allows the masses to benefit from investments that they themselves would never make, nor would ever, alone, entice from capitalists. Only the strong preferences and spending of early adopters allow the success of many goods that later circulate to everybody. In effect, late adopters and skinflints are “subsidized” by the early adopters and the prodigal.

This element of capitalist development is integral to fulfilling one of its defining functions, mass production for the masses. Attempts to “rationalize” the economy in a social engineering way often assume an egalitarian customer base, and thus start with the lower rungs of development kicked away from the ladder of progress.

“Price discrimination,” particularly what amounts to  intertemporal price discrimination (what is the exact technical term? I wonder — separate time-frame equilibria?), is key to the functioning of markets.

Many class resentments and tensions come from a lack of acceptance about this diversity in human judgment and consumer function.

And much confusion results from mixing up the nature of the origins, the persistence, and the expressed and unexpressed rationales for any human practice or institution.


Illustration courtesy James Littleton Gill, My Monster Problem — and Ours

The problems here addressed are so huge that one simple blog post, indicating them as if with a wave of the hand, hardly does them justice. Clearer statements can be made later, or elsewhere — and no doubt have been, by others.