A Rhythm in Notion
Small(er) Steps Toward a Much Better World

Compound Interest and the Family

I want to take Tyler Cowen’s placement of compound interest as a basis for moral philosophy and political governance, and consider how it might apply to the family. I will not consider important variations on the family such as poly familial arrangements, though those have a chance of becoming more prominent in the next few decades.

The Good Life and Economic Growth

At a political level, Tyler argues that the good life is made up of many values, not just one or a few, and in addition different people weight these values very differently. As a result you cannot devise a good civic philosophy that promotes a singular good as its goal.

Consider Prohibition - its goal was to prevent spousal abuse, which is a good goal from any legitimate perspective, but it also promoted a righteous, sober, and godly lifestyle. That lifestyle suits me pretty well, but when I think of Hemingway, or the Fitzgeralds in the Roaring Twenties, their bohemian lifestyle would have been crushed by Prohibition (of course, they lived abroad).

Prohibition promoted a narrow range of human values, and didn’t serve a multiplicity of lifestyles.

Tyler argues that economic growth enables everyone to pursue their own very different goals - it best promotes the almost inconceivably wide range of values that people will choose. For this reason, economic growth should be a central part of our moral philosophies.

Compound Interest in Philosophy

Cowen then goes on to generalize this, and here’s where we get the compound interest part. The UK since 1620 or so has had centuries of compounding growth, and now if you compare London to, well, most places you see the result.

In general much of our moral philosophy fails to incorporate change and growth. In deontology or virtue ethics (or even epistemology and ontology), you approach some static state of perfection.

Instead, he argues, we should put change and progress at the center of our life philosophies.

On a personal level, we should pursue life courses that take advantage of compound growth. Don’t just finish college and be done with learning - what skills or fields can you pursue that reward sustained attention?

You could even consider some cultures, some ways of living, lifestyles, as benefiting from sustained attention. The French lifestyle is widely admired for its elegance, a certain understated, homey grace and enjoyment of living. This has been perfected over centuries.

Each Family Happy in its Own Way

Consider also families. If you have kids, the way you interact with them is likely to mirror the way your great-great-great-grandparents interacted with their children.

Certainly, after I married, I was surprised to find little tricks of expression, little facial expressions popping out, that my father used with my mother. Nothing sinister(!), just the memetic similarity was surprising, and a demonstration of how family dynamics can persist.

Much of the happiness and unhappiness in this world comes from our families, especially when you are not being persecuted by your government or at war with your neighbors. It is better to be rich than poor, but TV series like The Crown or Patrick Melrose show being raised rich is no help if your parents are horrible to you.

Conservatives deserve credit for thinking about familial happiness, and building a family culture that will improve over the centuries is usually a conservative preoccupation. I suppose it’s rather blut und boden. But until humans are grown in biopods we should all think about this.

My parents often said they wanted us to improve upon their lives and their childraising. They were and are very religious. Since they had not been raised with a relationship with God, as they might put it, and we had, we should be able to do better. This wasn’t meant as a moral imperative so much as a simple observation.

I am no longer religious but am still interested in generational compound interest. My parents united several wonderful characteristics in what almost amounts to an innovation in childraising. They made several mistakes as well, as every parent must. Of course the trick is to keep the good and avoid the bad. I am not sure which will be harder.

Progress Across Generations

After we consider the good and the bad, though, the question of progress across generations, and how to keep it going, remains. Because remember we are interested in progress, not simply statically approaching good and bad.

Here are some first thoughts, and I welcome any suggestions toward a more systematic approach.

  1. Keep the idea itself of intergenerational progress alive, progress in morals, in culture, and in childraising technique. Once you are able to stand outside your family environment and consider it as a system, you can act conservatively or progressively about it.
  2. Plenty of families have done this explicitly with wealth in the extended family. No trust funds here! You will aid or destroy the family fortune.
  3. Finally, I wonder what pursuits could accrue across generations. Science and other scholarship progress across generations of scholars. Many well-off families manage to produce professionals (doctors and lawyers), scholars, artists, and successful investors or businesspeople within a single generation. The children who grow up in that environment are exposed to a wonderful concentration of talent which is surely greater than the sum of its parts.

Blood Runs Thick As Water

Think of all those films showing the grande dame of the family, a harridan descending to condemn the one who will bring down the family name. She’s a stock character but she’s right. A network depends on the strength and diversity of all its nodes.

Today most in the West relate to the nuclear family, and after that to the state and eventually their corporate employers. The grande dame stock character seems slightly amusing, but otherwise unrelatable.

Indeed, you might wonder whether this intergenerational family network is a simple anachronism. Land is no longer the means of production, and a blood network holding territory is no longer so helpful.

That view is mistaken in a very middle-class way (speaking as someone always and firmly in the middle class). If you actually believe in institutions, you apply through the front door to schools and jobs.

This is a mistake. It is much more productive to think of the world as composed of personal relationships, with corporations and institutions and governments layered on top.

To the extent a government is non-corrupt the personal relationship effect is weakened, but it still holds. Martin Shkreli went to jail not because he defrauded investors but because he had become infamous and hence embarrassing to financiers.

Intergenerational extended family networks still matter hugely, but this is not so visible to ordinary people.