Saturday, May 2, 2015

Free Riders, Parasites: Perspective

© Charles D. Hayes

Contempt for free riders—people who cheat or who game the system by taking more than their share of anything in short supply—is an innate human trait that appears to be deeply imbedded in our DNA. We witness the same sentiment in our primate cousins. Give one chimpanzee a plum and another a grape, and the chimp that feels cheated is apt to throw a fit. In our own society it seems the most effective free riders are found, not at the bottom economic rungs of society, but at the top. I will explain. 

Equity and fairness are human aspirations, and achieving fairness requires constant mediation. Capitalism as an ideology is often revered as a system so righteous and so inherently just that its most fervent supporters consider capitalism the essence of the natural world, something very nearly divine in its operative value. But divinity in Nature is a difficult notion. Life eats.

The biological forces of the earth’s living creatures are so complex in predator-prey relationships that we have barely begun to understand the extent of their ecological impact. By human standards, cruelty in the natural world is both hideous and ubiquitous, while Nature is morally indifferent.

On television we witness lions on the Serengeti Plain eating large game animals, feasting slowly even while the prey remains alive. In the insect world, scores of parasites consume their hosts carefully so as to keep them alive to ensure a continuous supply of future meals. Some insects take prisoners, keeping slaves for food or labor. Some bird species lay their eggs in the nests of another, tricking those species into raising their young. The cleverness of the natural world is as astounding as it is amoral, and deceit is one of Nature’s most ingenious schemes. 

Even though we human beings are regarded as the most sophisticated creatures on the planet, our behavior in general is fairly predictable. We operate pretty much as Abraham Maslow said we do. We experience a hierarchy of needs from basic food, shelter, safety, and security, to social acceptance, and ending with what Maslow called self-actualization.

Now, if a team of alien anthropologists were to visit our planet and spend most of their time America, it’s easy to see how they might be fascinated by our behavior and how they might mistakenly assume that every country in the world lives as we do. I suspect these explorers would quickly observe that by orders of magnitude human beings depend more upon trickery to function in the world than do any of the earth’s less intelligent creatures. One can imagine the visitors returning to their own planet thinking that what they had discovered was a celestial body full of swindlers, tricksters, cheats, opportunists, and advantage-seeking individuals.

The observers would be surprised that an extraordinarily large percentage of Americans are in prison, but that the slickest white-collar thieves get much better treatment, even though the costs exacted by their crimes are astronomical. 

The team would also note that we are intensely social creatures and that without extensive cooperation, our species would not survive. So perhaps they would think of us as being gregarious but not entirely trustworthy. If the aliens belonged to an advanced civilization, I suspect they would find our deviousness very clever but also frightening and inconsistent with logic, since our losses often outweigh what we gain by illicit deception.

Our visitors would likely note that our species even admits that its marvelous brain development has been more dependent upon acquiring the ability to outfox one another than on learning the truth of anything. We are so psychologically insecure that we are easily manipulated in spite of our devious predilections. If we are judged by standards we deem unfair, it still won’t stop us from applying the same values to ourselves and others. Moreover, with regard to the environment, our guests would likely perceive that humans readily sell out their long-term future for short-term gains.

So the extraterrestrials return home and deliver a report on our species saying, “You are not going to believe this. The earth is a cesspool of deceit and skullduggery. We saw evidence of cooperation and love and kindness as well, but on the whole, these creatures are too immature to be trusted with the advanced weaponry their formidable technology has produced. If the rest of the people on earth were to use and waste resources as those who call themselves Americans do, they would need four more planets.

“In addition, there are large numbers of earth creatures whose lives are spent being preyed upon by parasites. And that’s the most interesting aspect of the whole trip. The beings that call themselves human are so emotionally unstable and insecure that the individuals who are often thought to be successful are actually effective parasitical predators. They emulate bloodsuckers in a deceitful but ingenious manner.

“They cloak themselves as employers dedicated to providing a public service, referring to themselves as ‘job creators.’ They pay their employees just enough to keep them low on a needs hierarchy defined by a psychologist named Maslow. They live lavish lifestyles while bleeding their workers of their labor, robbing them of their time, and causing them to view themselves as unworthy of being attributed the dignity that any civilized society would grant to human beings.

“From birth, these ideological captives are indoctrinated to ignore the unfairness of the rigged economic system they are part of, adopting the notion that they are fully responsible for their own poverty, unjust system be damned.

“Seriously, fellow space travelers, these earth creatures seem intelligent, and yet as a species they are so malleable that many of them can be easily convinced that their lot in life is to accept slave wages for performing tasks that truly need to be accomplished, thus guaranteeing a lifetime of poverty. The whole American economic system has come to depend upon a foundation of indentured slave-wage workers for a wide variety of goods and services absolutely necessary for the success of those considered the upper class.   

“Ant species on the earth also attack and enslave other species, but the ingenious method of the human employers is that they use the psychological vulnerability of their targets to get them to subjugate themselves in the name of freedom. Worse, the poor souls even vote to ensure their own continued subservience because they would prefer to think of themselves as free rather than accept the reality of their situation.

“Now, it must be said that many of these employer types do improve the lives of their employees, even making some of them wealthy. But the overall economic system exponentially favors advantage, bleeding equity in favor of the already rich. For the so-called job creators, though, as hard as it is to believe from a galactic perspective, the stingy employer strategy is sheer parasitical genius.

“Still, as we know from our space travels elsewhere, truly intelligent species do not confuse success with a process that threatens the very sustainably of their long-term existence.”  

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