Johnathan Bi on Mimesis and René Girard


Intro. [Recording date: October 25, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Today is October 25th, 2022 and my guest is entrepreneur and philosopher Johnathan Bi. Our topic for today is the thought of René Girard based on a multi-part lecture series that Johnathan has done and that we will link to. Johnathan, welcome to EconTalk.

Johnathan Bi: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited for this talk.


Russ Roberts: You have a background in math and computer science. You’re now working on a FinTech [financial technology] startup. How’d you get interested in Girard? And, do you really know anything about him?

Johnathan Bi: Right. Well, I like to joke and say–when people ask me what my credentials and training in Girard is, and I say I was trained in the most Girardian way possible, which that is to say none at all. Girard himself was trained in history in Indiana University. Before that, he was trained as an archivist in France. But, he was never formally trained in any of the fields–like anthropology, theology, or philosophy–that he eventually made significant contributions to.

But, I’ll give you the quick story. So, I was brought up in China where you’re trained very rigorously in competitive math from a very early age. I continue that interest. I was a huge gamer as well. That naturally tended me towards computer science as far as getting into coding when I was 14, 15, and ended up getting a full ride to Columbia to study CS [computer science].

Part of the problem of going to an elite school, especially someone who is interested in computer science, is that there is a sort of Zuckerberg complex and everyone’s trying to drop out as fast as possible to raise some money.

And, so, I did a pretty good job. I dropped out my freshman spring, raised small friends and family, ended up crashing and burning. The defeat was so total and internal that I was really forced to introspect. Coming from engineering and mathematical background, I wanted to debug myself in the same way that I was taught to debug applications. That philosophy was the API [Application Programming Interface] document of the human soul, if you will.

And, so, that’s how I got into philosophy. I was really interested in really two strands of theorists. One is Buddhism. Maybe we’ll bucket that; maybe we’ll get to that today. The other strand is a group of continental social theorists called–or what my professors liked to call–the recognition theorists. And there’s really three traditions here. One tradition is the Scottish moral tradition with Hume and Smith, one tradition is the German tradition most notably Hegel, and obviously the French tradition with Rousseau, Sartre, and I include Girard in there as well.

I think what’s unique about all of these theorists is that they see humans as fundamentally social creatures, not as individuals who can reason by themselves, who can form desires in a vacuum, so to speak, but people who are helplessly penetrated at all times by subjects around them, or mediated through history or perhaps something like literature.

And, that was the essence of my problem–I think the essence of a lot of the problem of people who get into these elite colleges–which is: you’re very prestige-seeking. And fundamentally, one easy way to sum up the problem there, is that your self exists externally. Right? And, so, there’s a big disjoint between what you really want to do versus the expectations you feel pulled very much to do.

And, so, these thinkers, and Girard in particular, was my way to climb out of that hole, so to speak.


Russ Roberts: A recent episode with Agnes Callard that has not aired yet–so you have not heard it, Johnathan–but, she starts off by saying that we start off pretty ignorant of the world. No one hands us a manual. And, the first thing we do is we copy. We smile when our parents smile, as a newborn, a few months into our lives. We stick out our tongue when they stick out their tongue. Copying is clearly an important part of learning. It’s a form of practice. But, Girard took it a little further than that. So, what is mimetic theory and that Girard postulated, is, I would say, the consequence of our social nature?

Johnathan Bi: Yeah. So, I think the core Girardian insight in the psychological realm is that there’s really two species or two kinds of human desire, one he called physical desire and the other he called metaphysical desire. Physical desire is a desire for utility–what objects can provide us in and of themselves. Metaphysical desire is a desire for identity–what the objects say about us.

And, let me give you a few quick examples.

I can desire to eat. I can go downstairs at a ramen place–it’s not very prestigious. And that’s just for physical desire. It’s just yummy. But, I can also go maybe further down to Columbus Circle [in New York City–Econlib Ed.], in Jean-Georges–which, is, I think, a Michelin-star restaurant–and there, there is a great deal of physical desire. They make great food, but clearly not so much better than a good ramen place to justify that 10x to 30x price tag increase. And so, there’s clearly something different going on there. And Girard would say that’s metaphysical desire. We like the type of self-conception we bolster when we are served in such a delicate manner.

And this exists in jobs. Right? I can go to work because it’s prestigious; or I can do a job because I enjoy it. And Girard thinks that this splitting of desire exists across the spectrum.

And, when we desire to be, Girard thinks what we really desire is a form of persistence. Right? We want our names to last. We desire a form of self-sufficiency or power, almost like a Nietzschean will to power, if you can interpret it that way. And we desire a social reality. We desire recognition and fame and we desire to be lauded by the social groups that we’re in.

However, these ideals are super abstract. So, how does one fulfill them? Girard’s answer is that we make associations with objects by choosing models whom we already think have this heightened being. This could be a very distant model like Amadis of Gaul [Amadís de Gaula, by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo–Econlib Ed.] was for Don Quixote, perhaps, through literature. It could be a very proximate and seemingly innocuous model, like a very maybe well-thought of coworker near us.

And, Girard’s point is that our fundamental desires–our moral paradigms, if you will–are fundamentally anchored by these models and the objects and values associated with them.

Now what seems as an innocuous suggestion, I really think to be one of the greatest attacks mounted against the foundations of modern social theory, because it’s fundamentally giving a completely different answer to the question where normative certainty is derived from.

And I think modernity generally has two answers to this question. Well, first, the distinction I’m using is a perennial one between normative and descriptive. Right. So, descriptive is the color of that chair, the length of this table, how many fingers I have. These are things that philosophers think–we usually independently have access to, by our own investigations. But, when you go to the normative side–what is the beautiful, what is the good, what type of sexual familial relations are laudable and what are despicable–that seems to be a different fundamentally type of object than the length of tables and chairs, or at least philosophers have commonly sought[?] them.

I think modernity really has two answers to the question: Where does normative certainty, how do we access normative truth?

And I think one is offered by the Enlightenment, and the answer there is reason. Right? And, our core institution of free speech is grounded upon this by Mill [John Stuart Mill]: that through our investigations, each of us as individuals, filtering through our own reason, can come to our own understanding.

Another is romanticism. Right? And that’s the primacy of the individual’s intuition, so to speak. A lot of our politics of self-expression is based on this. Why do we permit and expand what type of sexual and familiar relations are acceptable? Well, it’s because people themselves know their true gender identity.

However, Girard’s answer is to say No to both of these strands of thinking–to reason or personal intuition.

To reason, he says: Reason is so often a lawyer and spokesperson for normative values that we’ve actually ingested, tribalistically, through our social needs. To the romantics, he says: We do not always desire strongly authentic desires. We do desire strongly to go to a prestigious school, to get the right job, to live in the right postal code. So, the strength of your desire clearly can’t indicate its authenticity and whether it’s truly yours.

And, I’ll pause there, but hopefully I gave you a lay of the land of why Girard is interesting.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, it’s fantastic. I think Girard is a kind of thinker–and I confess to listeners, I’ve never read Girard. I’ve only watched your first part of your seven-part lecture series. I found it fascinating. I’ve heard of Girard. But he’s the kind of thinker that when I was younger, I would say, ‘Eh, it’s a bunch of nonsense. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s a bunch of grand theories.’

But, as I’ve gotten older, I find them much more provocative. And certainly, longtime listeners of EconTalk will note that Adam Smith, who said, “Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely,”–that is, we want respect and we want honor and we want praise from the people around us. And we want to gain it authentically. Which is a little bit–not so Girardian as the first part, but this idea that we are driven by those around us and what they respect.

One of the lessons of that, of course, for me, is that: since I think we are prone to that, we should choose carefully who we hang out with, because we are going to be–

Johnathan Bi: Of course, of course–

Russ Roberts: influenced by them. And many people have observed that for millennia. It’s a well-understood, I think, piece of wisdom.

But, what’s powerful about this, relative to more mainstream modern economics, is that modern economics struggles to deal with these issues of social interaction.

In modern economics, human beings are autonomous and alone. They have their own preferences. These preferences are given from the outside, meaning exogenously in the formal terms. And, I spend my life trying to make myself happy and to rack up utility.

And that’s the physical desire that you talk about with Girard. As I’ve gotten older, I realize: But that metaphysical desire–the desire to be perceived a certain way, which is the way I understand Girard–and what that does for my sense of identity in a circle of people who have their own perceptions of me and of what’s important, that’s also very, very hard to resist.

And one thing I have to say, I cheated on a little bit in my Adam Smith book, is I did not want to talk about this fundamental issue that you raised in your description and discussion of Girard, which is authenticity. Because, in theory, if Smith is right–and I don’t know how much he writes about this explicitly. But, if Smith is right and what drives us is how we’re perceived–that we want to be seen, that we want to matter–what is authenticity in that world?

If we’re not careful–and I write about this–but I don’t know how much of it was me versus Smith. That’s the cheating part. If that’s true–if I recognize that I’m a social being–where’s the real me? Where’s my self? How do I integrate my physical desire, my so-called preferences in the economic jargon, with my recognition that I’m part of a larger circle of social forces–a desire to be loved, a desire to be praised, a desire to be respected, a desire to matter, a desire to have dignity.

These are all–if I’m not careful, I’d just end up doing what other people think I should. And, where’s the real me? And so, Girard, I’m sure, you know you have thought a lot about that. So, talk about that.

Johnathan Bi: Yeah. Well, there are so many things that we could talk about. Eventually I want to get into a little intellectual history to discuss how we came to this place, where you, as well as I, started off initially thinking we’re just rational, utility-maximizing creatures. That’s all we should do. So, eventually I want get to that part. But there’s a few threads that I want to close out first.

One, I’ll say is Smith. As I mentioned in my little prolegomena of my intellectual interest, Smith is part of that Scottish moral tradition which I find extremely fascinating. And, I believe Smith says we want to be loved, we want to be lovable, we want to be sympathized with and sympathizable, and I actually think Smith isn’t that far off from this Girardian intuition–

Russ Roberts: No, not at all–

Johnathan Bi: because he has this idea of the impartial spectator.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

Johnathan Bi: And, one question I always had reading Smith is just: How impartial is this, really, spectator? Because Smith seems to suggest that this is a universal eternal spectator that judges upon these, just, laws of human nature that are unmoving.

But, I think–and what Girard would say, and how you get from Smith to Girard is a slight tweak. Which is that: instead of these eternal, sort of spectator, almost a god inside your brain, so to speak, what you get are actually quite partial spectators. You get spectators through your cultural upbringing, in your environment, that grounds your fundamental, key moral values.

So, there’s a close proximity–really close proximity–between Smith, between Girard, and also I would argue the Germans–Hegel–and the rest of the French–Rousseau and Sartre, as well.


Russ Roberts: Well, what’s powerful about thinking about Girard in the Smithian context for me–and you might say, ‘No, that’s totally weird,’ and ‘No, that’s not what I had in mind at all.’ What’s weird for me is that when Smith talks about ‘impartial,’ he means, ‘Not me.’ He means, ‘Not on my side.’ And so therefore, that spectator is impartial. It’s not my wife. It’s not my best friend. It’s a person of my–

Russ Roberts: Well–what’d you say?

Johnathan Bi: I said ‘objective.’

Russ Roberts: Exactly.

Johnathan Bi: Like a judge.

Russ Roberts: Exactly. It’s someone from my circle who is respected, liked; who is going to look at me with some objectivity.

But, what you’re pointing out is that, in a sense, the Girardian impartial spectator doesn’t exist, because the Girardian impartial spectator, as I understood you before, is a part of this culture that you and I inhabit.

So, okay, David Hume really likes Adam Smith. They’re old friends. And, so, maybe he’s not who Smith has on his shoulder watching over. Although Smith has so much respect for Hume that it’s very possible, in some sense, he’s an impartial spectator.

But, pick someone else, someone from his circle or his coterie of buddies. That person has the same values as that culture–which are not necessarily Smith’s. Smith might aspire to that. Smith might want the approval of that group that he’s immersed himself around in. Right? And so, that group is not impartial. That group has a whole bunch of prejudices and a whole bunch of values.

And Smith is, of course, doing his best–I feel terrible saying this about Adam Smith. He’s doing his best to try to appease them and to get their approval.

And, I think Smith would find that offensive–which is, I think, the Smith I represented in my book. But, you’re suggesting–I think–Girard would suggest that, ‘Oh, he could think all he wants about how he’s not going to give in to all what they want and he has his own views. He’s going to be drawn to them like a moth to a light bulb and he’s going to give in.’ He’s not–

Johnathan Bi: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. I’ll mention one more point on this point, and then we should move on to authenticity and eventually to intellectual history. There’s so much to talk about.

What I like about this impartial spectator view that we sort of simulate, if you will–a sort of a person, a normative judge in the back of our heads–is that there’s potentially a biological basis for this in the 20th century discovery of mirror neurons. And these are neurons that both fire when you do an action or when you observe a similar action being done. It’s the same sort of neuron pattern firing.

So, it lends some credence to the idea that there is a biological basis between observing, simulating, versus actually doing it yourself. But, that’s the final point I’ll say on this, because I want to get to your point on authenticity.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.

Johnathan Bi: I’m actually very confused–because this is the big question for the Girardian. What is good health? What does it mean to be healthy?

And Girard, as I just said in my lecture series, is just very disappointing in his lack of positive prescriptions. In fact, I compared Girard to my Virgil in the sense that he was able to rescue me through Hell. He was able to show me how to purge more milder forms of perversion.

But, just as Virgil couldn’t take Dante all the way to heaven, neither could Girard. Girard kind of just retreats. In fact, the model that he will give at the end of his life and career is [inaudible 00:18:22] Berlin, 19th century contemporary of Clausewitz and Napoleon and Hegel, who retreated into a tower. So, that’s the French. And Rousseau also had this retreatist intuition. So, maybe it’s a French thing.

So, this is all to say that what I’m about to share with you is mostly my own creative interpretations on top of Girard.

I think there’s in general two solutions, once you’ve identified there’s a metaphysical and there’s a physical desire. One wing, and I think this is what Girard leans to, is to say this metaphysical–this is the Buddhist as well as the Girardian way–is to say this metaphysical desire, this desire for being, it’s completely perverse. It’s always perverse, whether from Girard’s perspective, because it’s essentially a desire to be God. This is why it’s satanic. You’re desiring persistence; you’re desiring power; you’re desiring reality. If you push those far enough, those are the metaphysical qualities of the Judeo-Christian God. So, Girard actually sees metaphysical desire as the original sin, as the satanic drive to rival God in his metaphysical splendor.

And the Buddhists–right–we don’t have to go into that, but long story short, these metaphysical qualities are not possible in the world. Emptiness is what permeates the world. So, this is a fundamentally wrong sort of desire.

So, for the Christians and Buddhists, the way to good health is to completely get rid of metaphysical desire, to be only concerned by the object physical desire.

There’s another, however, strand of thinking, and probably most popular amongst the Germans, in Hegel, is to say there is actually a healthy way–the Germans, and Plato actually, which we’ll talk about–there actually is a healthy way to exist in society. And the way, long story short, to do so is for your metaphysical and your physical desires to align.

That is to say: if you really like to do philosophy, don’t hang out with a bunch of people who are industrialists. Hang out with a bunch of philosophers, so that the somewhat partial spectator, as we’ve discussed, will naturally align with your normative values, with your physical desires, and thus you’ll receive recognition and a form of reality.

So, there are two fundamental answers and I really don’t know which one is the right one.


Russ Roberts: The problem with the second one, which is one I’ve proposed in many different aspects of life that–I talk about the fact that you have certain wants, but you also can have wants about your wants. You can aspire. You can try to–you want to be a philosopher rather than an industrialist and, therefore, pick the philosophers.

The problem with that, of course, is it implies that you have control over your desire to have wants about your wants. And I think there’s some sort of infinite regress there for Girard, I suspect, where you’re kind of fooling yourself into thinking that’s something higher. Or, for whatever reason, you’ve fallen in with the philosophers, you want their approval. They’re the people you socialize with. They’re your partial spectators already. It’s very hard to wrench yourself out of whatever your social environment is and do something different.

The Jewish version of this–I think it’s in the Talmud–where it says: In a place where there are no men, be a man. Old-fashioned language. But what it means is: in a place where people have no values and are not high quality, stand against them. Don’t be sucked in. And it’s that outside set of values you bring to the table in theory that insulates you from that loss of authenticity of trying to earn the approval of dishonorable people. Right?

That, I think, is what Smith would argue. It’s what, I think–it’s part of the Jewish tradition. It may be part of the Christian tradition. But, I assume Girard would say: You’re just fooling yourself. You can’t do that. You’re stuck with this.

Real authenticity is an illusion. And, I should just add, at the end of your lecture series, of Part One, you point out that this is dangerous stuff. This can be hard to come away normal after you’ve been exposed to it. And I can see–I feel–I can sense it a little bit. It’s hard to maintain your sense of authenticity. It’s better to be aware of your susceptibility to social pressure, but eventually, if you’re not careful, you start to think it’s not even possible and there’s really no road.

Johnathan Bi: But, I think that’s the mark–maybe to take the conversation a bit more meta–of a good philosopher, to really challenge you so much that you think the rug is being pulled underneath your feet. And that’s what reading Girard, coming from this sort of modern, rational utility-maximizing perspective really felt like.

When I look for philosophers, I look for the exact opposite of what safe spaces are. Right? I look for the ones who are challenging me the most. So, maybe that’s the mark of someone worth engaging.

But, let me just make a quick comment, I think, on this authenticity point. I think Girard is forced to say–and I think the scholarly community is actually divided on this, so I think your intuition–you’ll find many sympathetic Girardians. But, I think Girard is forced to say, ‘Of course, we have a physical desire.’ Like, ‘Of course, we aren’t just after objects, for what they say about us. That’s completely ridiculous.’ Right?

However, he would say that every act of desiring probably has a social desire, a metaphysical desire involved in it. But, that’s not to say all desire is metaphysical desire. To say all desire has metaphysical desire is not to say all desire is metaphysical desire. And there’s a big distinction.

I mean, clearly, I think there are states–and I’ll grant there are states–where we’re so caught up in a metaphysical frenzy that we cannot investigate what our true desires are.

And by the way, there’s two ways to get caught up in a metaphysical frenzy. One is this sort of positive way of conforming to a group, but then there’s a negative way that’s out of resentment. I think–

Russ Roberts: Yeah, talk about that. That’s fascinating.

Johnathan Bi: Yeah. So, but, maybe let me just finish the authenticity point, tie a little neat bow on, and then we’ll talk about that.

Girard would say–or my reading of Girard suggests–that we do have a physical desire. That, once we calm down our metaphysical desire, we are able to access it.

That is, even if I’m thrown in, so to speak, with a group of industrialists, that I really like, say, philosophy, if I’m able to calm my medical frenzy down through various means and perhaps by good luck, I will be able to discern that, if not the exact degree to which I like philosophy, that I do prefer it over industry.

And, let me give you an example, actually. I have a friend, and he’s in a very similar position that I just suggested. He’s doing very well in his career, like a superstar in industry. And he’s getting no recognition, no social glory, whatsoever, in philosophy, yet every single day he loves doing philosophy and he loathes industry. Right? So, if the desire is philosophy, industry–but you know that the desire for industry is already being pushed up and philosophy is already being pushed down by the lack of a social, and the surplus of the social, if you can’t tell what the sort of real absolute amounts are, you know that the real waiting is even greater. Right?

So, my reading is that you still can access your physical or authentic desire if you calm yourself down. And I think it’s a bit ludicrous to suggest that no one can.

But, let me get to this negative mimesis part. Because, this is just as frequent and possibly even more interesting than positive. Which is this–right?–think about the logic that I just described. The logic of metaphysical desire is to secure an object that is associated with a model who we consider to have a heightened degree of being.

Now the mere inverse of that logic is this: We want to be distant from objects associated with models that have a deficiency of being. Right? In high school, we both want to wear the brands that the cool kids are wearing. And we also want to make sure we never wear the brands–never go to the shopping malls and the places–that the social outcasts are going.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

Johnathan Bi: And so, metaphysical desire really works both ways here. And, what the negative way is called is ‘Nietzsche’s resentment.’

Let me give you an example. So, I have an acquaintance in college who I first met as a freshman. He was an economic progressive, very interested in distributive justice. And I thought, ‘What a great guy.’ Every time I saw him, he’s talked very passionately about helping the poor. And I thought, ‘What a good, upstanding moral character.’

As I got to know him more, he confessed to me that his progressive economic leanings were not due to a universal love of the poor, but a localized hatred of the rich, because he had grown up as middle class in a upper middle-class–

Russ Roberts: [inaudible 00:27:25]–

Johnathan Bi: environment. And, wealth was the thing that made him always feel small.

And so, rejecting wealth and rejecting the wealthy was for him a moral weapon to get back fundamentally at his richer peers.

You know what that friend is doing right now? He’s an investment banker. Because, fundamentally, he never had a problem with money. The only reason he claimed to dislike it and people who had it so much was because he wanted it so much.

Here’s the other interesting thing. Continuing on Girard’s attack of romanticism, the sort of naive and simplistic picture–because we’re short on time–of romanticism is that we have this authentic core, and then we have these layers of social restrictions labeled[?] on it. And all we have to do to be authentic is to leave the group, right?. To peel back these social layers.

So, when I asked my friend, ‘Well, isn’t that crazy? You just told me that you didn’t really believe in progressive economics for itself. You did it out of a sort of social conformity.’ And his answer was, ‘How is that conforming? All of my peers were economic conservatives. I was the only economic progressive.’

And this is the lie, I think, of romanticism: is that it confuses difference for autonomy. It confuses distance for authenticity. I think there’s a narrative in modernity that to be different from the group means to be authentic.

And I’ll leave you with one last image here that I think is quite striking. So, Marlon Brando, this famous actor I think in the 1940s, was in a movie called The Wild Ones. He’s dressed in this really cool leather jacket. He’s clearly, like, this rebellious, like, late 20th century figure. And then a girl goes up to a bar and she asks, ‘What are you rebelling against?’ And he says, with a smug grin on his face, ‘What do you got?’ He doesn’t stand for anything.

Russ Roberts: He doesn’t care. Yeah, he doesn’t care.

Johnathan Bi: Whatever you give in front of him, he’s going to rebel against.

And I think–sin is too strong as a word, but I’ll use it–a sin of modernity is to rebel with no less rigidity to tradition as the Confucians of old or maybe the Christians of old conformed just[?] simply for the sake of conformity to the tradition. So, that is the negative phase of mimesis.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Tell the–and again, we haven’t said this–but mimesis is just a fancy word for imitation. We’re talking about people who imitate those around them. It’s complicated. Some of it is because they want to be loved. That’s the sort of the Smithian–the dark side of the Smithian vision.

But, I think Girard’s view is simply that that’s the way we’re made. We’re drawn to these people who have this, as you say, this elevated level of being or a strong, powerful identity; and we have this urge–we’re drawn, like, again, like a moth or a magnet–to imitate them. Not to say I want to construct their life per se or go to school where they went and learn what they did, achieve what they did. I want to look like them. Which is, in many ways, the worst kind of conformity.

But, talk about the dinner party where the person is wearing the $5 T-shirt, because I think that’s a nice example of the anti-conformity. It’s just really the same kind of thing.

Johnathan Bi: Right. Yeah. Before I go there, if I can elaborate on one point we’re making on imitation, is that I think–I don’t think you’re saying this, but I’m just clarifying for our audience–I think it’s a bit too simplistic to say Girard is about imitation, because I think what it lends people to think is: you know, I see a man walking across the street; I model his every endeavor and I walk across the street. I see a man kissing this girl; I also kiss this girl.

It’s not that type of imitation that Girard is interested in. Girard is fundamentally interested in imitation, or negative imitation, of values. Does that make sense?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.

Johnathan Bi: So, when I see a man date a certain girl, what I imitate is certain qualities of that woman who are highlighted, that are implanted in me. For example, slimness. Slimness is not always a cultural ideal of beauty. It’s too simplistic for Girard to think that that guy just–I have to imitate his exact actions. This is fundamentally an imitation, or negative imitation, of values. And that’s why I drew that normative versus descriptive distinction. So, it covers actions that don’t seem to be imitative prima facie.

Now, let me tell that dinner story, because I think it’s a nice segue here.

I think the story is: You know, people in tech–they appear to be quite independent. When you’re at these fancy dinner parties, the finance people, they’re all in $500 suits, and the tech guy would show up in a $5 T-shirt. Now, because of this modern conception of difference equaling autonomy, distance equaling authenticity, we think, ‘Oh, that tech guy, he’s so authentic.’ Right? Zuckerberg is a great example here.

But, my reading of that is that, that’s just simply a negative imitation, or it’s playing the same game but at an accelerated means. Because, in some sense, showing up to a fancy dinner party–where everyone is dressed up in $500 suits–in a $5 T-shirt, is much more of a power move than showing up to that same dinner party with even a $5,000 suit. Because, what it’s saying is that ‘I take your core value and expensive clothes and fashionable dress and I treat your value as nothing, and thereby showing that I am more superior to you.’

Like, if you watch Game of Thrones–do you watch Game of Thrones?

Russ Roberts: No. I’m the last person who hasn’t seen it.

Johnathan Bi: All right. Okay.

Russ Roberts: I’ve never seen it and I’ve never read Lord of the Rings. I didn’t like The Hobbit. So, around 14 years old, it was over for me.

Johnathan Bi: The picture I’ll paint, I think, will still be relatable. In Game of Thrones, there’s these high sects and they’re supposed to be, I think, a parallel to the Catholics or something, or, like, early monks. They’re dressed in robe–like, really poor robes. And they’re sweeping the citadel, but you can tell there’s a sort of moral arrogance. And they actually treat their robes, compared to the king’s jewelry, as a sign of superiority and victory. So, that is all this sort of logic of negative mimesis, and what Nietzsche fundamentally captures in the first essay in the “Genealogy of Morals,” of the resentment.


Russ Roberts: So, let’s go back to being for a minute, because I write about that in my book, Wild Problems, and my sense of self, and how important that is and how it often trumps and dominates narrow, utilitarian, day-to-day happiness. That’s one of my claims in the book: That, when we make big life decisions– whether to have children, whether to marry, who to marry–we don’t just look at whether we’re going to be happy or not. We look at how we’re going to feel about ourselves as human beings.

What Girard is adding is that, ‘Yeah, and you get those ideas from somebody else, usually.’ Or, as you say, an anti-idea.

And, I find that deeply troubling, but I have to confront it as a possible reality. I love this idea that my essence–my sense of self, my being, who I am–this is something I craft through my decisions.

That’s the central claim of my book. My book is Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us. And these big decisions define who we are.

And, so, when we make those decisions, we shouldn’t just look at the narrow utilitarian calculus. We should consider how it’s going to affect how we see ourselves, and who we actually are–our essence.

Johnathan Bi: Totally. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But, I think Girard is kind of a little bit skeptical about that as a path of authenticity. Am I right?

Johnathan Bi: Well, I would say he would say, ‘Bravo, Russ.’

Russ Roberts: Oh, nice.

Johnathan Bi: You definitely got the first part right at the very least: that, when we’re making decisions primarily, even though we fooled ourselves into thinking that they’re just after objects–just after utility–a large degree of the consequences of those decisions is how it affects our being, our sort of self-conception, our identity.

Where he might disagree with you–and I think you’ve landed on this point already–is how those decisions affect our being is not some eternal rule book of human nature–you know, we were just handed this instruction manual that I, of all people as an engineer, would like to find. You know: Eat three chickens means good, kill two cows means bad. However, our sense of being is fundamentally shaped and determined by the cultures we’re in and the models that we’re exposed to.

I mean, just take something as having multiple wives. In many social milieus, that would be the mark of great respect. Right? In Chinese antiquity, only the aristocrats take multiple wives, and the Emperor had the most. But in today’s society, having mistresses or having multiple husbands is seen as very odd.

And the same thing, as I mentioned already, with body image. Right? Slimness, right now, is all the rage. But, in the Tang dynasty in China, it was having a more well-rounded figure, so to speak, that indicated people’s wealth.

Russ Roberts: Those were the good old days.

Johnathan Bi: Right, exactly.

Russ Roberts: I would’ve been happier there.

Johnathan Bi: Me, too. Me, too. I would have had a heightened sense of being. But, Russ, if it’s okay with you, can I share with our listeners this sort of intellectual history–

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sure–

Johnathan Bi: about how I think we got here and how we’ve really lost, right, this idea of humans as social animals, and to the extent where an economist like you has to learn that. You’d think that you should start from that position.

The intellectual history, I’m going to borrow from one of my professors that I study under, Axel Honneth, who himself is a recognition theorist. So, part of this is going to be borrowed. But, it really starts with Plato, as I imagine most intellectual histories begin.

Plato, as our listeners probably know, had a tripartite conception of the human soul. There was appetite, there was reason, and there was spirit. Each of these had a means and had an ends. The means of appetite might be instinct. The ends of appetite are the same ends that we share with animals, self-preservation, sex, recreation, having a roof over our heads.

There’s also a means of reason. That’s just, well, reason itself–

Russ Roberts: Our brains–

Johnathan Bi: our ability to have discussions like this. But, funnily enough, there’s actually an ends of reason, too, and that’s contemplative joy. And this is the thing that’s going to be obscured.

There is a means of spirit. Maybe that’s mimesis or imitation–Plato’s a bit unclear–but there’s also an ends of spirit. That end of spirit is all these social goods that we’ve discussed: thumos, glory or recognition, social belonging.

This intellectual history really sees authors of antiquity, obviously Aristotle, who continued this. Zoon politikon: Humans are social-political creatures. That continued all the way to the Christian natural law theorists who saw a fundamental end–a fundamental end, not just an instrumental means–of the good human life to be participation in the community itself. So, social participation was the end, or was one of the most important ends.

Now, my professor sees the radical break between the social history in Machiavelli, who saw people as fundamentally egocentric. Most importantly for him, social participation for the ruler was not the end in itself. It was not the joy to be seeked. It was merely an instrumental means for appetite, for the ends of appetite, for self-preservation. Does that make sense? Do you see how the ends of spirit have been obscured?

For Machiavelli, participating in the right type of polity was not an end in and of itself. Social means was merely a way to serve appetite, for your self-preservation, for gold, for utility.

And if Machiavelli was the first person to inject this into the Western philosophical tradition in a significant way, then Hobbes–so this intellectual history claims–would be the one who codified it as the ground of political theory.

Hobbes, of course, had this famous idea, a thought experiment of him trying to justify the state and trying to articulate what the state’s responsibilities as well as rights were, and he came to view this idea of a battle of all against all. For Hobbes, the default state is a sort of antagonistic, social, all-out warfare where people are after each other, and you and I’s appetite are not preserved. You and I are worried about our food, our self-preservation.

So, for Hobbes, the legitimacy of the state, the social contract by which people enter into, was fundamentally to protect appetite, to protect people’s self-preservation. That’s why in Hobbes, you only see a very negative and limited sense of freedom–simply a sort of physical freedom. You’re not being chained to the wall. It’s not this Hegelian freedom that’s super-positive and has all these requirements.

To this intellectual history, I want to add one more thinker, and that’s Smith. Now, I think it would be totally wrong to say Smith didn’t have this social conception in view. Theory of Moral Sentiments–he did have this deeply social conception in view.

However, as you well know, in his economic theory, when he tries to explain how we came to this magnificent political, economic development of the free market, his answer is: our propensity to barter and trade and exchange. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our daily meal, but the concern for his own self-interest.” So, at least in important parts of the economy, Smith himself simply considers it as a way of reason to get the ends of appetite.

So, it’s through this, I think, influential lineage of thinkers that we’ve completely ejected this idea of spirit, this platonic third part of the soul. We no longer see participation in the polity as an end in itself. We merely see our social aspect as a way to serve our appetite. And, so, we become reduced to these rational utility-maximizing creatures without a consideration of spirit at all.

I’ll pause there, but that is how I think we got here.

I’ll also make one more comment, maybe, that I think out of physics envy, economics wanted to run on the rails of math, so to speak, and the easiest way to do that is to model people as rational, utility-maximizing creatures. Because, when you inject the social dimension, you fundamentally cannot use quantity anymore as the fundamental language. You have to use quality. You have to describe what things are being traded and things like that. But, I’ll pause there.


Russ Roberts: Well, you did my job for me. I appreciate that. I was going to say that. I was going to say it maybe a little differently, but let me try to elaborate on that, because I think that’s also important.

Johnathan Bi: Please, please. Of course.

Russ Roberts: Smith certainly saw people embedded in their intimate social circles of family and friends–the community of people that they interacted with, that a person interacts with on a regular basis. I don’t think he had any romance about the world–I know he didn’t–being part of, say, the world community. But, he certainly wasn’t a modern economist with an atomistic, individualistic–

Johnathan Bi: But, in economics, he was, right? In economics–

Russ Roberts: Well, let me say it a different–

Johnathan Bi: Barter and truck in exchange.

Russ Roberts: Well, the truck, barter, and exchange is–people are individuals. They do act individually. I wouldn’t say in his economics. I would say it a little differently. I would say it: in his view of our commercial dealings, we look out for ourselves. But, if you pressed him–and he’s not here to press. But, if you pressed him, I think–and maybe it’s in there and I just don’t remember it. But, let’s talk about what might be called sharp dealing–driving a hard bargain–being, maybe even a little bit, not dishonest per se, but maybe not revealing everything in a commercial negotiation. I think Smith would recognize that if you did that and it became revealed later that you were not honorable and you hid something, you would pay a cost for it. You would pay a price for it. And you would not want to pay that price. That price would not be monetary. It’s not just you wouldn’t get a good deal later on. It would be that–

Johnathan Bi: Right. There’s a social consequence–

Russ Roberts: you’d lose the respect of your friend.

Johnathan Bi: Yes. Yes. I see.

Russ Roberts: Now, that’s my first claim about Smith. We can come back and talk about this more later.

But, I think this mathematical point you’re making is quite important. Starting around 1948, with Foundations of Economic Analysis of Paul Samuelson, economists longed to embed their work in physics-like mathematical structures that appeared to be–I don’t think they are–but appeared to be more rigorous than a, say, narrative-based, word-based structure, description of human behavior.

And, you can embed these social forces. Famously, Gary Becker got a Nobel Prize for it, his paper, “The Theory of Social Interactions”; his book A Treatise on the Family. These were all attempts actually to take Smith and make them–Smith–more rigorous.

I was fortunate to be at a conference that honored Gary and his work toward the end of his career. And I asked him after that–after his presentation, where he had responded to a bunch of different people–I said–or maybe somebody else asked him. I can’t remember if I asked him or somebody else. But, they asked him, ‘Which economist most influenced you?’ and his answer was Adam Smith. I think the second might have been Alfred Marshall, which was shocking–shocking–to me.

Johnathan Bi: Can you elaborate a bit, to me as well as perhaps some of our audience who isn’t familiar with his work?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, Gary Becker was a–what’s fun about Becker is that he was a–he took the idea of utility maximization under constraints, which is the modern economists’ toolkit for trying to understand human choices. That is: We like lots of stuff. We have preferences. We don’t have enough money or time to fulfill those preferences fully, so we have to choose. We have to deal with trade-offs.

So, that’s the standard economist’s model of life. It’s about racking up utility, being happy versus being sad. And, there’s a lot to life that is just very much about those things. That’s the physical desire that we talked about earlier.

But, Becker took that toolkit and applied it everywhere. He applied it to marriage. He applied it to how many resources you gave to different children. He had an economic theory of suicide. And anytime you had the word ‘economic theory,’ like–

Russ Roberts: “The Economics of Crime and Punishment,” one of his most famous articles, one of the most influential and insightful articles. It basically says criminals are rational like everybody else. They trade off expected gain from theft versus expected loss from punishment.

And, applied mechanically, that’s a really sterile theory, in his hands. He was a very, very thoughtful practitioner of the economic toolkit.

But my point–the reason I brought up Becker and the reason I brought up Smith–for Gary Becker, who is, in many ways, a super-modern economist of his era, which is his glory. His best work is between 1960 and, say, 2000, 1960 to 1990. For him to say that an economist who wrote in 1776–no economist, no Nobel Laureate of the 20th century–

Johnathan Bi: Really? Really?

Russ Roberts: would say that Adam Smith was their biggest intellectual influence, except Gary Becker. And I don’t know if in his Nobel Prize speech whether he references it; but it’s shocking. You know, they would reference Smith[?]–

Johnathan Bi: Why? Why? Why? Because in political theory–

Russ Roberts: Nobody reads Smith. Nobody reads Smith.

Johnathan Bi: Really? Oh, my goodness.

Russ Roberts: Nobody reads Smith.

Russ Roberts: Nobody’s interested in Smith. He’s been subsumed. It’s like saying: it would be a modern string theorist. In physics, when asked who was your biggest influence, ‘Well, Isaac Newton. I’ve tried to bring his work into mine.’ And you’d say, like, ‘Oh my gosh. Why?’

Or go back earlier. I don’t know. Who would you say? Galileo? I don’t know. Copernicus? Kepler?

Johnathan Bi: Pythagoras.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I don’t know. Those are pretty good.

Anyway, and so the question was–when Becker said that, I actually thought he was joking. I thought he was joking. I thought it was like, ‘Oh, Adam Smith. Ha ha ha.’ What he meant was–he didn’t mean was The Wealth of Nations. He meant The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He meant–

Johnathan Bi: Right, that’s the [inaudible 00:49:40]–

Russ Roberts: my career was devoted to taking the insights of Smith and The Theory of Moral Sentiments–that we care about–and my classmates and I used to joke about this–we care about opprobrium. That’s a very Smithian word. It means disapproval. But, Becker liked to quote Smith: ‘opprobrium.’ We want the approval of the people around us, who we respect, and we don’t want the disapproval of people that we respect.

And Smith–excuse me–Becker tried to bring that insight into modern economic theory.

That’s what’s crazy. And he did a really good job of it. If you read “The Theory of Social Interactions,” or his “Theory of Marriage,” there’s a lot of math in it, but there are some very thoughtful things in it. And in particular, when he tries to apply it to the real world–to data, and to generate hypotheses–he is extremely nuanced and subtle in his use of the tools.

Now, I think he really believed that people were maximizers. I don’t. It was hard for me to come to this realization that my advisor–I didn’t agree with him.

Maybe I’m not being fair to him. But, I think he fundamentally believed not just that he had a model of human behavior, but he was capturing what people actually do. [More to come, 51:00]