Monday, December 12, 2005

Trader Principle

The trader principle is actually a deeply engrained principle in our culture. The Trader Principle, in brief, is the idea (developed by Rand) that the only moral way individuals can interact is on the basis of trade; trade understood broadly as voluntary interaction for mutual benefit.

That this principle was deeply engrained occurred to me last night while watching ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Kris and I watch this show occasionally. It’s a bit cheesy, but there’s usually a nice, poignant story about the family who’s getting a home makeover. The demolitions are fun to watch, and the finished house always looks great. The basic idea of the show, for those with better things to do, is that a design team of 5-6 folks come to the house; sends the family on a week’s vacation somewhere while they completely redo the house. The families are usually folks who have had some tragedy befall them (son loses his sight and they need a blind-friendly house but can’t afford it, etc.).

Last night’s holiday special, was part retrospective looking back on the folks they’ve helped. But these folks wanted to help the design team help others, and so the each design team member went to some family that was helped in past episodes, and they went and worked on some one else’s house. Some examples: A soldier who lost his leg in the Iraq war had his house done, and he wanted to help a fellow soldier who lost his legs. A girl who was allergic to direct sunlight and was helped in a past episode wanted to do something nice for others like her—so they got DisneyWorld to open at night for these kids with XP (these disease prevents the skin from repairing the damage done by UV light, and so they can’t be in direct sunlight at all, ever. It was really quite sad.) You get the idea.

So what is the relevance to the Trader Principle? In each case, some one received help, aid, kindness from someone and they felt a need or desire to repay that. We don’t like to receive kindness or aid or gifts from others without doing something for them (or for someone else as a kind of proxy). Someone gets you a gift, and you say “But I didn’t get you anything”. An office associate does something out of his way to help you out, and you want to make it up to him (you take him out to lunch, buy him a beer, etc.) We want to make it a fair trade. And this was all over the Extreme Makeover show. Each person wanted to make good on what they had received by helping others in the way that each of them was helped.

I think this is evidence for the psychological basis for the trader principle: we don’t expect to get something for nothing, but moreover, we don’t want something for nothing.

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