Friday, 11 July 2014

Brave New Auctions?

A Swedish glass manufacturer has recently held an auction in which heart rates and how much one sweats when viewing an object were measured. It then awarded the object to the person judged by these measures to "like" it the most. This news made me think of topics in my recent review of Professor Richard Layard's old book Happiness. If the goal is to maximize measurable happiness, this seems to me to be the way to go. It also seems to me to be a profoundly bad idea for whole societies to adopt (except on this small-scale and voluntary basis).

In my aforementioned review, I did not touch upon a critique of utility (as well as of happiness) due (as many other profound insights) to the late Robert Nozick, but it fits well here. The critique goes as follows: what if some person is found to have intense positive feelings about a great many things, even after already possessing a great deal of wealth? Such a person would be treated like a god in a society run by the auction's principles, exactly like the Nozickean Utility Monster.

A society run along these principles would neglect every individual (even if it happens to be every individual bar one) who cannot muster the same positive feelings as can the utility monster. This of course violates the dignity due to the individual and his rightfully obtained property. Imagine going shopping only to find the clerk reluctantly handing out your favourite breakfast cereal to a needy individual whom you would immediately outbid in a standard auction.

Fortunately, the chances of the emotion-based auction's principles actually being implemented as legislation are low. This is because objects are costly to produce and it plainly pays more to produce them for those most willing to pay (although a high willingness to pay would probably overlap very frequently with a great intensity of positive feeling). The system would quite palpably be commercially inferior to a vast array of alternatives, and the stationary bandits in charge of nations care a lot about commercial success.

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