taking risks and genes, autumn impression wallpaper, paleo-liberalism and montaigne

Why do people ‘play the longshot’ and buy insurance? It’s in our genes

They found that subjects with a high-activity variation of the MAOA gene are characterized by a preference for the longshot lottery and also less insurance purchasing than subjects with the low-activity genetic version. This is the first result to link attitude towards longshot risks to a specific gene. It complements other, recent findings on the neurobiological basis of economic risk taking.

As the world financial system slowly emerges from the near economic meltdown, it is worth considering, says Ebstein, that inborn biases, coded by common genetic variants, may be a major factor in fueling people’s actions regarding longshot options — with concomitant effects on financial markets.

The MAOA gene has been implicated in behavior ranging from violence to alcoholism and sexual abuse. This is where hard science bumps up against ethics philosophy. There is this gene, over which one has no conscience control, thus such and such behavior should not be the basis for severe consequences. On the other hand, a person with an MAOA gene variant that drinks heavily and drives also made some conscious decisions.  They saw they had a problem at some point and made no effort to seek treatment. They could have chosen not to drive. They could have listened to those who expressed concern. So the gene becomes a reason, but society says that may mediate punishment and be worthy of sympathy on a personal level, but the gene is not an excuse.

If the variant is for risk taking, it may explain why conservatives and libertarians, despite all evidence to its benefits, scorn financial regulation. The Great Depression seemed like it might be the end of capitalism. FDR and regulation saved it. While it’s not hard to find disagreement with that reading of history – in a quick search I also found conservatives and libertarians who agreed in general if not the specifics. But its this romanticized mythic version of how a free market economy should be managed, courtesy a certain genes it seems, that one is up against when discussing sensible regulation. The reality of the dangers are certainly heard, but reflexively, certain minds rationalize them away. Like the drunk driver, that’s a reason, but a lousy excuse.

autumn impression wallpaper

I have tendency to jump from the ancient Greeks up to The Age of Enlightenment in tracking the course of political liberalism. Not being completely immune from trends, probably a side effect of  modern culture in which bumper sticker mentality and short attention spans rewarded. Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) was just shy of the Enlightenment, something of a paleo-liberal.  How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer By Sarah Bakewell

His essays advocated good-humoured acceptance of the vagaries of human life. For all his formal orthodoxy, he was a manifest sceptic: ‘There is’, he observed, ‘no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility.’ In practice, he preferred the Stoic amor fati to religious absolutism and abominated the righteous cruelty of those with undoubting convictions: ‘It is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account.’ Sarah Bakewell takes this to be an allusion to the spate of witch-hunting which accompanied the religious wars, but it is no great stretch to see in it a reference to the ongoing series of autos-da-fé on the other side of the Pyrenees. For those who choose to read him so, Montaigne was a bit of a crypto-Jew.

He was, or his family was forced to covert from Judaism to Catholicism, thus the remark about crypto-Jew. Montaigne makes for an iffy hero as he could be described as that easy going advocate of “acceptance”, but he was also someone that was happy to play political chess. To be the ever compromising player of royal court politics. In pragmatic terms people like  Montaigne do always seem to be required.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is a lively, well-sourced account of the man and the work. Bakewell is tellingly accurate when she comes to the savage instability of sixteenth-century provincial life. Catholics and Huguenots, neighbours and friends, were inspired to slaughter each other with pitiless self-righteousness. Bordeaux was the scene of exemplary massacres and vindictive repressions, in which Montaigne strove, with no little courage and some success, to play a reconciling role.

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