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Channelling Mania to Socially Desirable Results

September 23, 2010

Mad Man? Old ad placed by political entrepreneur in a bazaar of violence

In capitalism (the still unknown ideal), the price system channels self-interest to the pursuit of socially desirable results. But what about self-interest driven by mania? The NYTimes recently wrote an article discussing the psychology of entrepreneurs. The nut graph:

a thin line separates the temperament of a promising entrepreneur from a person who could use, as they say in psychiatry, a little help. Academics and hiring consultants say that many successful entrepreneurs have qualities and quirks that, if poured into their psyches in greater ratios, would qualify as full-on mental illness…The attributes that make great entrepreneurs, the experts say, are common in certain manias, though in milder forms and harnessed in ways that are hugely productive.

Somewhat relatedly, Scott Adams says leadership is a form of mental illness. The Dilbert cartoonist writes:

In Exhibit One, we note that the leaders of countries we consider enemies are undeniably bat-spit crazy.

  • Kim Jong-il: crazy midget
  • Ahmadiniejad: crazy holocaust denier
  • Khadafy: designs his own hats

I think the evidence is clear: The leaders of enemy countries are always crazy. And logically, since every national leader is someone’s enemy, all national leaders are crazy. The only exception to the rule is the leader of neutral Switzerland, who is actually a refrigerated chocolate rabbit.

And Bryan Caplan once summarized three theories to explain the horrific crimes of socialism:

“How could a movement founded to liberate workers from capitalist oppression end up shooting them in the back when they tried to flee the Workers’ Paradise?”

  • The Actonian “power corrupts” story
  • The Hayekian “worst get on top” story
  • The Richterian “born bad” story

When free markets shrink, and political markets of patronage take their place, the “just manic enough” find socially undesirable outlets for their obsessions. I’m not sure if some cultures select for mania more than others, but delusions of grandeur are every where in some non-negligible quantity. Harnessing these foibles and transforming them into productive rather than destructive ends is a problem all societies must solve.  The same attributes that the NYTimes uses to describe entrepreneurs could also describe John Edwards. Ilya Somin says Caplan’s three stories aren’t mutually exclusive. And I’d side with that. But of the three, I think Hayek’s is the main driver. In a way, it depends when you start your story. If the worst get on top because the incentives have changed, then the born bad will eventually find their way to the summit, no?


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