Egoistic Altruism Is Dangerous Nonsense: A Response To Kurzgesagt
If you spend as much time as I do on YouTube (and I honestly hope you do not), you may have stumbled upon a channel called Kurzgesagt. Kurzgesagt makes cute and humorous animated videos featuring its signature bird characters, usually explaining scientific phenomenon, and does so very well. But Kurzgesagt also attempts to explain issues of philosophy and political economy as well. Sometimes it does so very well — their video on drug addiction was a meaningful contribution to changing the harmful and ineffective way we look at drug use. But their most recent video, “A Selfish Argument for Making the World a Better Place,” departs from their normally empirical explanations and instead proffers a reductive synthesis of historical determinism and Whole Foods economics. So I want to break down the two major claims in the video to show how wrong they are and how dangerous an embrace of “egoistic altruism” could be.
CLAIM ONE: THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION HAS ENDED/IS ENDING INEQUALITY
The video begins with a slightly reductive but mostly accurate summation of world history prior to the Industrial Revolution: that wars were more frequent and scarcity was the driving force behind most inequality. Oddly the most common way this is demonstrated is left out of the video, which is the diminishing impact of famines on the world population. Perhaps the reason they left it out is because while famine deaths have decreased, the data reveals that the story is far less simple than “The Industrial Revolution solved it!”
Of course as you may see from the little notations, particularly the “Great Leap Forward” on the 1960’s column, there are explanations given for these outliers in the “Industrial Revolution savior” model. But the standard deviations are significant enough to warrant questions whether the simple correlation between the Industrial Revolution and decreased inequality is causation.
And if one looks at the breakdown of the two most developed regions in the world, Europe and the United States, it becomes clear that there may be explanations beyond capitalism-friendly innovation conquering inequality. First let’s look at wealth inequality:
Since 1810 (the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution), the top 1% wealth share in the U.S. has stayed within the range of 25-40% and has no clear direction. While a bit larger of a range from 60–80%, the top 10% wealth share in the U.S. has also stayed relatively flat. In other words, assuming Kurzgesagt hypothesis, the effects of the Industrial Revolution have failed to be felt in the United States for some reason.
And even in Europe where inequality has trended downwards, this change comes in 1910, almost a hundred years after the Industrial Revolution. And in fact, for both the U.S. and Europe, inequality increased from 1870–1910 and European wealth inequality only declined below U.S. inequality in the 1960’s.
So why did inequality decrease for both until the 1940’s and for Europe continued to decrease until the last couple of decades? I would suggest two factors: (1) that capitalist economies are not as unequivocally progressive as Kurzgesagt suggests, and (2) that politics are a substantial, and possibly predominant, factor, particularly in regard to unions and social democracy.
Note how social spending increases begin to falter in the U.S., U.K., and Germany starting in the 1980’s. And keep in mind that the majority of increases in these countries are just continuing programs like Medicare but for an increasingly older population.
The reason why it is so important to note that the reasons for decreases in inequality are more strongly correlated with social democracy and unions than with the Industrial Revolution goes beyond factual accuracy. The base point of the Kurzgesagt video is philosophical, particularly a hippie version of Objectivism, that pursuit of individual interest in aggregate decreases inequality. Both social democracy and unions are thoroughly un-individuated institutions: they both exist through collectivism. Rather than the individual interest in aggregate, inequality is decreased by individuals recognizing that their interests are collective rather than simply individual.
CLAIM TWO: INNOVATIONS ARE CREATED BY THE MARKET AND INDIVIDUAL INCENTIVES
While the first claim is questionable, it is not completely without merit. After all, while social democratic programs and unions may be responsible for equalizing the benefits, it is scientific and technological innovation that increased the total wealth of the world. With the exception of some very fringe primitivist beliefs (think the Paleo diet but with everything), even radical thinkers opposed to capitalism like Karl Marx recognized how much of an improvement technology had created.
The second claim however is where Kurzgesagt fully departs the realm of the empirical into pure ideology.
Kurzgesagt cleverly avoids ever uttering the words “capitalism” in their video, but their argument is essentially that capitalism produces innovation through market-based incentives, and therefore creates a rising tide that lifts all boats. The man who invents the new smartphone because it will make him a profit produces a commodity that benefits others who are able to invent things themselves for profits that produce more commodities and so on. It all sounds perfectly lovely, a utopian world where we can all comfortably just pursue self-interest assured that doing so will help rather than harm others.
The one problem: it is completely false. It is such a widely perpetrated falsehood that Jacobin, a Leftist magazine in the U.S., has dedicated an entire issue to it as well as several article before and since. As Tony Smith wrote, it was public research, not remarkable individuals, that laid the scientific groundwork for things like agricultural biotechnology, modern GPS, and even the ubiquitous iPhone (a nice thing to point out the next time someone claims your use of an iPhone to criticize capitalism is “ironic”).
Paul Heideman wrote that whether technological innovation benefits or harms depends on who is directing it — if it is directed for the public good, we get the polio vaccine, and if it is directed for profit, we get what Lenin called the increased extortion of sweat. And most recently Paris Marx wrote on how tech CEOs like the revered Elon Musk are doing more harm than good in regards to technological innovation. Citing the example of high-speed rail, the experience of the United States demonstrates how much technological benefits come from collective public investment rather than the brilliance of rich or talented individuals:
When Kurzgesagt says that technological innovation is “fundamentally driven by supply and demand,” it is not only factually wrong but disrespects the billions of people who either innovated by and for the public good (Nikola Tesla, Jonas Salk, and Frederick Banting and John Macleod) or were the wage laborers who for the most part actually created the technology.
Max Roser, The Gates Foundation, And The New Prophets Of Capital
Some may find my tone towards Kurzgesagt unfair even if they agree with my criticisms. “Perhaps,” these detractors may say, “Kurzgesagt was simply relaying what they thought was true.” This question of intentionality brings us to the video’s end and the revealing of Max Roser as the economic consultant for the video and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the funders. Both of these parties have consistently worked to produce propaganda for their “benevolent” Objectivist worldview, and there is every reason to believe their misrepresentations and obfuscations are intentional.
Max Roser is the young star of the website Our World In Data. It’s notable that Roser started the website in 2011 on the eve of Occupy Wall Street. The 21st century advocates of capitalism saw the power the Left was gaining by carefully constructed and framed empirical evidence, as most famously done with the slogan “We are the 99%!” They were increasingly concerned as these charts and graphics morphed into occupations, protests, and other dissent. Their narrative of simple dogmatic acceptance of capitalism as the only system was once again being challenged, and they needed to adapt the narrative to counter these arguments.
Thus spoke Roser — Our World In Data serves as a cudgel of infographics to smash the narratives of the opposition, the arguments of people like Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, David Harvey, etc. Our World In Data’s strategy is obvious from the layout of the website itself. It seeks to overwhelm the visitor: the header featuring the sixteen categories of population, health, food, energy, environment, technology, growth & inequality, work & life, public sector, global connections, war & peace, politics, violence & rights, education, media, and culture.
Some of the website’s contents are merely informational, but most seek to express a relentlessly optimistic view of the modern world under capitalism. Roser has stated his own philosophy is that the media is so glum because of its inability to see things in the long-run. And it certainly is true that such a view can distort the truth, most notably with crime statistics meant to terrorize the populace into complacency and support for more incarceration and policing. But broader is not always better, and can distort the truth just as much as narrow perceptions.
For example, the above-linked article on extreme poverty features this graph:
This graph shows “extreme poverty” (less than $1.25 ID a day) decreasing pretty consistently. And it shows the two highest groups, $3.10–10 a day and above $10 a day, increasing. The world seems to be becoming a better place. Well, at least until we look at this graph:
What is really amusing about this difference in perception is this second graph is not being put out by some Leftist like Thomas Piketty but by the bank Credit Suisse and shared by the right wing Economist. Anyways, the Our World in Data graph uses the metric “$10 ID or more a day” to obscure the gains made by the top 1% by grouping them in with literally most of the working class of the world. It also obscures the $3.10–10 group: by making it the second highest, it seems like a group we would want to expand. In actuality it is $806-$2,600 a year — it is barely anything, and a profoundly macabre thing to celebrate growing by 20% in the last three decades. A growth, it should be noted, twice as high as the already deceptive “$10 ID or more a day.”
It is no surprise that this illusionist was backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the stars of Nicole Aschoff’s great book The New Prophets of Capital. The Gates Foundation has a much more, dare I say, egoistic motive than their renowned financing of vaccinations belies. Because it is the outsized control from such financing that corrupts even something as well-intentioned as vaccinations. Ironically given the focus of their ideology, the Gates Foundation’s private intervention has allegedly stifled technological innovation. As the head of the World Health Organization’s malaria programs wrote in an internal memo:
Many of the world’s leading malaria scientists are now “locked up in a ‘cartel’ with their own research funding being linked to those of others within the group,” Dr. Kochi wrote. Because “each has a vested interest to safeguard the work of the others,” he wrote, getting independent reviews of research proposals “is becoming increasingly difficult.”
Egoistic altruism is dangerous nonsense. For whatever utopian vision it may have, it encourages people to be greedy and self-interested. It assures people that the solutions to the world’s problems are technological rather than political in a world where the technology to stop global climate change exists but cannot be implemented because of the fossil fuel industry and their cronies in Washington, D.C. In a time of increasing racism and xenophobia, it tells people that we should not focus on eradicating these politically-instituted prejudices but instead should always and predominantly seek profit.
In their video on homeopathy, Kurzgesagt admitted that homeopathy fulfills a need for humanization that modern medicine has failed to meet, but nevertheless concludes “Faith can move mountains, but sugar water can’t cure cancer.” If only they would take their own advice and not peddle placebos for the inequities that plague the modern world.
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