The search of purpose: Nature and Nurture – Genes and culture

Every healthy boy and girl searches for the meaning and purpose of their lives. We ask why we are here and what we should do with our lives.  Where do we want to go and be in the future? How do we think we can best get there?  What should we strive for or should we strive at all?  The search for meaning can be agonizing but it is part of human nature to ask, “Who am I?”.

But we do not search in a vacuum.  That we search at all can be attributed to our genetic inheritance. Over the millennia our ancestors who pondered this question and chose and worked toward goals of mutual help and cooperation, prospered and multiplied relative to those who didn’t.  While personal and family survival and wellbeing come first, working together with others enhanced the wellbeing of both. In a fascinating presentation at the Cato Institution, Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University, discussed his new book “Blueprint: evolutionary origins of a good society”  He argued that the evolutionary survival of the fittest also favored (selected) those disposed to love, friendship, cooperation, and teaching. Homo sapiens with those qualities formed more successful and durable groups.

This happy genetic predisposition, however, was just the start, the foundation from which the search for the meaning of our lives was launched. The rest of the answer is the product of the values taught to us by, or absorbed from, our parents, family, and community and its religious and other institutions, and filtered by our reason, which is another capacity favored by evolution. The cultural values from which we learn what our peers value and respect in us can contribute to successful and prosperous societies (and their economies) or not. Children growing up in poor neighborhoods dominated by gangs are more likely to see success in terms of the demands of their gang. The esteem of their gang peers will be earned by very different behavior than in neighborhoods in which honesty and respect for the law are valued.  Gang culture does not contribute to safer, more prosperous neighborhoods or societies.

Cultures that reward cooperation, honesty, and trust enjoy more successful economies as well. Financial wealth is only one source of esteem, however, and after being well feed and well clothed, the respect of our communities probably tops the list of aspirations for our lives. The cultural values in which we map out our goals profoundly influence the choices we make.  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding our actions for our self-enrichment serves us individually and the society we live in best when functioning in a culture of mutual respect, honesty, and cooperation.  In free market, capitalist economies, individual workers and entrepreneurs profit by satisfying the wants of others. Thus, competitive capitalism encourages a culture of serving others and such a culture encourages successful economies.  These are win – win societies.

“The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the conviction that when human beings, created in the image of God as free, rational, social, and moral animals, are allowed to creatively serve each other’s needs and responsibly plan their own lives, they flourish. And when a nation’s citizens flourish, the nation as a whole flourishes as well.”  “Dylan Pahman: Why-economic-nationalism-fails-conservatism”

So where should today’s Generation Z and Millennials look to find meaning and purpose for their lives? Most of us want to “do good” for our community, country and the world as well as for ourselves and our families. Will today’s youth see this marriage of public and personal good in the world of personal freedom and responsibility described by Adam Smith, or in the world of greater central government assistance (control) advocated by Bernie Sanders?

Sanders says he is a socialist, but I doubt that he means government ownership and direction of the means of production, which is the traditional meaning of socialism.  Rather he seems to mean government provision of important goods in our lives (heath care, education, jobs, etc.)  But the provider also determines what and how to provide.  Are the key decisions in our lives to be made by each of us within the legal and cooperative framework of norms and support provided by our culture and government of limited scope, or to be determined centrally for our benefit by a larger more dominant government and its employees? Government employees no doubt feel good when they help others, but capitalism provides a financial reward for doing so as well. Human greed is more likely to be tempered by the requirements of success in free markets than in government bureaucracies.

Though the average family, and especially the poor, have never before had such wealth broadly defined, today’s world suffers many shortcomings. The social safety net of a properly limited government is not always effective or well designed.  Each person in our newest generation in seeking the esteem of its family and community will ask how best to fix these shortcomings and to address and reduce the barriers to their’s and their neighbor’s fulfillment of their potential for a rich and fulfilling life. Will they turn to the “socialism” of Bernie Sanders or the individual/family-based free market model of Adam Smith?

So called “socialism” is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among American youth today. Even before Trump’s election a majority of 18-29 year old’s viewed socialism favorably. “Why-so-many-millennials-are-socialists”  Why is this, given the strong theoretical and empirical case against it?  For one they were not alive to see its greatest failures (though we now have Venezuela and North Korea).  They seem to think of countries like Sweden as socialist. While the free market capitalist country of Sweden has a larger government than the U.S., it ranks only a bit below the U.S. on the Frasier Institute Index of Economic Freedom (8.07 versus 7.83 in 2015).  For example, Sweden adopted a nationwide universal voucher program (school choice) in 1992, well ahead of the U.S.  https://www.fraserinstitute.org/studies/economic-freedom

Like every generation before it, today’s youth wants to “do good.” They want to contribute to making the world better than it already is. Those of us who highly value our personal freedom as the basis of how we live and who have studied the weaknesses of government provided and guided economic resources [e.g., https://wcoats.blog/2020/01/25/crony-capitalism/] must take up the challenge of explaining the superiority of a family based social structure and honest, law abiding, mutual respecting, cooperative culture. While free market capitalism has produced incredible riches for almost everyone, its primary virtue, and potential appeal to Generation Z, is its promotion of caring for and serving our fellow man.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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3 Responses to The search of purpose: Nature and Nurture – Genes and culture

  1. Bobby T. says:

    Thanks for your post, Warren. I’m a graduate student and given my age and proximity to many millennials and Get Z-ers in the Boston area, I’d like to bring up my observation about the social contract our generation has not experienced with our government.

    Most in my generation came of age in a period of inequality—Gini coefficient >0.48 for most of our lives, compared to pre-1990. Our perception of the rise in inequality was amplified by a decline in our government’s fiscal allocation to things readily needed by our generation to build successful futures: namely education, infrastructure, and healthcare. Trillions spent on war and non-discretionary spending yielded even less of a reason to see the value in our contribution to government’s use of our taxes.

    The result has been a cynicism that the system, or more precisely the social contract with our government, works for all citizens. This trend has even become evident in business, where your mentor, Milton Friedman’s argument about efficient markets has given way to businesses considering other responsibilities. I’m sure you’re aware of the Business Roundtable’s controversial press release last August saying companies have duties to the environment and to address inequality in addition to their fiduciary duty to shareholders.

    Ultimately, I think you’re right. Sanders isn’t a socialist. But, I’d take a step further to argue he’s only using that terminology to advocate for a return to a social contract that serves more people in our country than those it has in recent years.

  2. Jim Roumasset says:

    Sanders thinks he is a democratic socialist, but since he doesn’t advocate government ownership of the means of production, he is really a social democrat, along the lines of Sweden’s Nordic model. But as you say, Sweden has been liberalizing; so he is really a reactionary social democrat.
    Your perspective combining Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments with his Wealth of Nations is beyond modern economics, which has long lost sight of the social institutions needed to facilitate cooperation. So this will be hard for young people to grasp. But they may be able to grasp your concept of markets tempering greed more effectively than governments. Start with the example of Trump and broaden the concept of government (governance) to include unions.
    International cooperation also requires social institutions, including the trust that makes rules-based trade work. This is undermined by Trumpian erosion of his bargaining partner’s status quo ante (e.g. with tariffs) before bargaining.

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