Every aspiring beauty-pageant queen knows what to say when asked what she wants most: "World peace." World peace is at least nominally what we all want most. But evidently, we are not very good at making it.Both economics and epistemology suggest that, this being the case, we may not really want world peace as much as we think we do.
Economics is all about the question of assigning value. It believes in humankind as a collection of rational actors who are willing to trade things they value less for things they value more. This isn't just true at the marketplace, where we are trading money for products. It is also true before we get to the marketplace, when we are accepting opportunity costs in order to pursue a given opportunity (instead of others). If we are regularly willing to trade opportunities to pursue good A for opportunities to pursue good B, we value B more than A.
There is a tradition within epistemology that suggests something similar about belief. If you tell me that you believe that the world will end on Thursday, how can I tell if you are serious or not? One way I can tell is if you are taking steps coherent with the world ending on Thursday -- for example, spending all your money on short-term pleasures instead of investments, or mortgaging your house so you can spend your last hours on a world-wide cruise, or not showing up at work all week so that you can be praying in church. Depending on your value system, one of these mechanisms might be a more rational way to spend your last hours than your usual routine would be. If you carry on going to work and investing in your retirement plan as usual, I might have some reason to doubt that you sincerely believe in the end of the world on Thursday.
These are reasonably good arguments if the human mind is generally rational, and generally not compartmentalized. However, both of those assumptions seem to be false assumptions.
So it turns out we have two possibilities. Maybe we really do want world peace -- as Dr. Mead suggests -- but it is simply the case that human beings are very bad at it. Alternatively, maybe there are things you want more than world peace, so that you will reliably trade opportunities to pursue world peace for opportunities to pursue these things.
Let's try a thought experiment to see which is the case. Imagine a computer algorithm has been designed that can reliably achieve peace if humans obey the computers' instructions. Nothing really wild is asked for -- no one has to sacrifice his son, for example -- but you have to do what you are told whether it makes sense to you or not. This program has been proven by experiment at every level, from tribal disputes in Africa to corporate ones in Europe and Japan, and so far it has generated perfect peace and cooperation wherever it has been tried. There is now a proposal before the Senate to ratify a global treaty requiring all people in the world to obey the computer, at all times, without exception. The President has already signed the treaty, so ratification is the last step to making this treaty the law of the land.
If Dr. Mead is right, and we just are bad at making peace, this should be an enormously attractive proposition. Is it?