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Does 'Neoliberalism' Make Psychopaths Rise to the Top?


Whenever you see someone use the word "neoliberalism" you are probably dealing with someone who spends most of his or her time in a left-wing echochamber where people believe they are being oppressed by "free markets" and that things will be set right only when the kind, calming hand of government is able to tame the vile "free for all" that is people enjoying personal freedom. So, one can hardly be surprised by the conclusions found in a recent article by Belgian psychology professor Paul Verhaeghe in which he declares that "neoliberalism" is "an economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and our personalities." The economic system he refers to, by the way, isn't the modern system of state-subsidized and controlled corporatism that actually prevails in the world today. No, he means that basically every voluntary economic transaction rewards psychopathic behavior. With that in mind, we can turn to Predrag Rajšić who points out:

The thesis of his article is that neoliberalism[1] has brought out the worst in people, that it rewards psychopathic personality traits and thus brings people with such traits to the top of the social structure. Dr. Verhaeghe is, according to most criteria, a successful academic, close to the top of the academic achievement scale and pretty high in the general social structure. To avoid ad hominem criticism, I will assume that Dr. Verhaeghe is an outlier, that he climbed to the top despite the goodness of his heart, and not because of some psychopathic personality traits on his part. Having this out of the way, I can critique the logic of his argument on its own merit. Dr. Verhaeghe claims that
A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success.
From this, he concludes that this system rewards career and penalizes one's love for his family. There are at least two problems with this conclusion. First, we don't know how other social systems perform in this regard. Did feudalism favour "success" to a lesser extent than the system Dr. Verhaeghe is critiquing? How about communism? Were there fewer psychopaths at the top of the social structures in the communist/socialist Yugoslavia or the USSR than in the current system? I don't have quantitative answers to these questions, but neither did Dr. Verhaeghe offer any. I do know however, that the Yugoslav dictator Tito sent about 16 thousand political prisoners to something that looked more like a concentration camp than a prison. No one of the top Yugoslavian political or economic officials complained strongly enough to change this system. Did they exhibit more or less psychopathic tendencies than the people at the top of today's social structures in neoliberal societies? Second, Dr. Verhaeghe's conclusion assumes that rewards and punishments are objectively determined outside of our minds. This is problematic because, from what we know about the logic of choice, human choice is based on subjective valuations. This means that the definition of success and failure is subjective. Each individual defines her own success. For me, for example, choosing a promotion over spending enough time with my family would be a failure, not success. I value time spent with my family more than a promotion if that promotion implies less family time.

Read the whole thing.

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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