Getting Some Mammoth (metaphorically)

WRITTEN BY: EUGENE VOLOKH

 

I just came across (on a T-shirt in an online ad, of all things) this much-retweeted item—13K retweets, 13K likes—from @existentialcoms:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“An honest, brave, compassionate human being.”

“No … I mean, how do you want to sell your labor?”

The message, I take it, is that we overemphasize what we do for a living — to the point of labeling that “what we are” — instead of how we behave towards others. (Checking the Twitter feed, which has a generally anti-free-market tone, supports that view.)

Now I appreciate that this is a witty way of putting the assertion, but it seems to me to miss the deeper point, which I’ve long framed in my mind as Getting Some Mammoth. (I’ve been thinking about this especially now that I have teenagers, so I wonder how they will get some mammoth themselves someday.)

Here’s the problem: For my tribe to survive, we’ve got to go out there and kill mammoths. That’s hard and dangerous work. It’s not for everyone, and it’s fine if you don’t go on the mammoth hunt. (Indeed, maybe some tribes value the mammoth hunters a little too much, and more people go on the mammoth hunt than really ought to.) But then you need to find something to do so people who do kill the mammoth are willing to give you some; you can call it “sell your labor,” but you can also call it “pay your way.”

Now you probably don’t have to do that something all day every day. And there’s nothing wrong with preferring, when possible, to do something that doesn’t go towards Getting Some Mammoth.

Still, every week, you’ve got to set aside some time for Getting Some Mammoth (or, at a different stage of development or with different dietary preferences, Getting Some Potatoes), whether directly or by doing something that the mammoth-hunters will trade for. And if you want to respect yourself (and be respected by others), you shouldn’t complain too much about it — because if you think you’re entitled to get some of that mammoth and you haven’t either hunted it yourself or given the hunters something in exchange for it, then (in most cases) you’re kind of a schmuck.

True, you can be an honest and brave human being without Getting Some Mammoth the way I describe: For instance, some brave people get mammoth by Hunting the Mammoth-Hunters instead, which I don’t endorse but which is often (though not always) a brave thing to do (and can involve being “honest” in the sense of “not untruthful,” though not in the sense of “an honest living”).

But to be honest, brave, and compassionate — including being compassionate to the people from whom you want to get some mammoth — actually you do need to figure out a way to sell your labor.

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