by Russ Roberts on October 3, 2011

in Civil Society, Family, Web/Tech

I am reading a fascinating book, The Art of Immersion, by Frank Rose–I’ll be interviewing him this week for EconTalk and if all goes as planned, the interview will be up on the web on October 11.

The book is a look at storytelling and how the web has made storytelling immersive. Along the way, he discusses Lost, a very immersive story, obviously, for millions of people. I saw a few episodes but never immersed myself in that world. Rose discusses Lostpedia, the Lost Encyclopedia and the wiki available online about everything Lost. In particular he mentions that there is an article in the wiki on the economics of the island.

I checked it out for fun. It’s pretty bizarre. Written initially (then later edited by others) by a self-proclaimed socialist who at the time was a grad student in economics, it lays out three approaches to resource allocation on the island:

  • The socialist approach allocates resources through consensus and planning.
  • The capitalist approach relies upon a market to allocate resources based on supply and demand.
  • The tribal approach holds that in small communities economic decisions can be made at a personal level. That such a community is not of sufficient scale to require or manage a formal system of exchange or enforcement of laws. Thus the tribal approach relies on small-scale exchanges and community resources.
I’m not sure what role consensus plays in socialism. There’s lot of planning in capitalism of course. What distinguishes socialism from capitalism is who does the planning–whether it is done from the top down or the bottom up. Under socialism the State does the planning, and usually owns the means of production. There’s also a focus on egalitarianism under socialism at least in its ideal state.
The article continues:
Jack represents the socialist approach to resource allocation. Jack is a mostly benevolent person who attempts to solve the problems of the Island imposed by scarcity, even to the point of personal exhaustion. Jack’s surname, “Shephard,” reinforces this interpretation – he exists to care for and organize the survivors.
I wouldn’t call that socialism. I’d call it kindness. Or voluntary action which is part of a civil society allowing freedom of various kinds. I haven’t seen much the show, but does Jack even encourage (let alone decree) consensual decision-making by the survivors on who gets what? What I have seen of the show is that it’s full of conflict (better story). Is Jack really a socialist?
Later on, the article claims that Sawyer embodies capitalism–“every man for himself”–a quote evidently from Sawyer:
Sawyer is seen as representing capitalism. In this context, Capitalism is defined as an economic and social system in which the means of production are predominantly privately owned and operated for profit, and in which investments, distribution, income, production and pricing of goods and services are determined through the operation of a market economy.
One of the most depressing things about capitalism’s reputation is that many people believe that selfishness and greed are the essence of capitalism. I write about this at length in The Price of Everything (and The Invisible Heart.) Entrepeneurs are motivated by many things. Profit is one of their motivations–without profit it is difficult to sustain an organization. But surely you can make a profit and be a nice person. In fact, it is often the case that kindness enhances capitalist success while greed makes it harder to be successful in the marketplace. And you can get deep non-monetary satisfaction from doing your job well. We are all self-interested, but few of us are selfish. Most of us share with our family, our friends, and strangers.
The person who wrote the Lostpedia article appears to think that what defines socialist is niceness and caring about others and what defines capitalism is being cruel and selfish. This is a particularly weird view given that there is no State on the island (at least I don’t think so) and little or no market activity–later on in the article it mentions that there is very little exchange.
Maybe someone who is more familiar with the show than I am could edit the article to make it a bit less biased. The article at the top says the article has been nominated for a “clean up” for “better flow.” It won’t be an easy task–the structure is sort of set with Jack as the socialist and Sawyer as the capitalist. If you’re a fan of the show, take a look and see what you can do.


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