Per Ray Dalio’s recommendation I’ve been listening to Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” on Audible. Durant points out that the basis of law is that of revenge: “you hurt me so I’m going to hurt you back.” And he’s totally right. The entire basis of our legal system can be summed up in in the phrase “crime and punishment;” that’s our natural association. If someone does something “wrong,” we need to hurt them — prison, fines, execution…
Last night I watched “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” In the film Lawrence Lessig compares Swartz’s “crimes” [of protesting copyright law in regard to scientific papers] to those of “real criminals” [LulzSec] describing that there are some crimes that should be punished and others that shouldn’t. But really the entire basis of punishment doesn’t work. Does putting someone in jail for selling drugs help anyone? It just hurts people that are already hurting.
To carry on this theme of “an eye for an eye,” let’s look at our economy. Currently, our dominant global economy is one of exchange. For an exchange to take place, first we need to develop a system of equivalencies: “the value of this object or service roughly corresponds to the value of this other object or service.” This is money. And this requires some basic level of violence, to strip things of their unique nature into commodities.
Underlying the story of exchange is the story of sacrifice. “I’ve sacrificed all of this time and wellbeing to pay off my mortgage on my house. If you want it, I’ll need to see that you’ve sacrificed to a roughly similar degree.” People don’t just give away their houses in the exchange economy, even if they don’t need them any more. It’s a club of mutual pain.
I just saw an article on my newsfeed titled “This German Guy Wants To Give You A Bunch Of Money To Do Nothing” at Higher Perspective. Essentially, the project is about giving people a basic income of $1,300 per month so that they can follow their passions. People have expressed doubts about the viability of such a concept; “won’t recipients just be lazy?” Why do we assign value only to things we’ve sacrificed for? Such a worldview is both perverse and masochistic.
Not to say that sacrifice plays no role in human affairs. But most of the time we vastly overestimate the importance of sacfice and underutilize the compass of intuition. As Charles Eisenstein says, if everyone were truly and genuinely selfish — interested in ensuring their holistic health and a fulfilling life — the world would be a much better place. The CEO of an investment bank might stop spending 80 hours a week designing the financing package for a massive new natural gas development and instead go hiking in the woods with her daughter. An employee at the NSA might stop persecuting Snowden for his patriotism and go home early to work on his sketching skills, drawing wildflowers out in a nearby meadow. Police might take off their uniforms in the latest militarized attack on citizens and join the protestors in siding with the interests of their community and their home.
Next time you’re considering asking your friend to pay you back for that beer the other night, or considering suing your ex for alimony, remember that this mentality comes from the tradition of revenge. And ask yourself if this is a system you want to continue to feed.