I recently realised I don’t know why quality is rare. Despite its obviousness and universality, this fact wants explaining. (Or anyway I want it so.) Some possible reasons:

  • Brute probability
    'Quality is rare because the number of quality states is much smaller than the number of bad states of things - and neither nature nor artifice are enough to target the former very well or very often.'
    If you've spent much time looking at C20th modernism, this will seem plausible.

  • Social constructionism
    'Quality is rare because we estimate a thing's quality by its rarity, or by how hard it is to do.'
    (Cop-out, true only of positional goods and not others.)

  • Labour theory of quality
    'Quality is rare because it is actually a function of the amount of skilled labour spent on the thing, and skilled labour is rare.'
    (False, even for just explaining or moralising exchange value.)

  • Inverse labour theory of quality
    'Quality is much less rare than it used to be, because of machine production. Quality is proportional with driving humans out of manufacturies. The knowledge economy and the cultural economy are mostly crap because they are not automated enough.'
    (Fits disturbingly well.)

  • Labour thermodynamics
    'Quality is rare because good things occupy lower-entropy states and so, by the second law, require more Work to create and maintain.'
    Is cleaning the best example of this?

  • Evolved hastiness
    'Quality is optimality. Optimality is rare because we were tuned for satisficing ("good enough"), not optimisation ("good as possible"). On the evolutionary scale, we didn't have time to optimise anything, so hasty mediocrity is our default state. We clearly can do better sometimes, we just don't do it without trying.'

  • Evolved tastelessness
    'Quality is rare because prehistoric 'savannah' tasks admit of fewer grades of quality than those stipulated by audiophiles or wine buffs today. (The impala was either edible or inedible.) So our quality organs are underdeveloped.'

  • Evolved shallowness
    'Quality is rare because we evolved to value the new, and most things aren't new. An obsession with novelty was a winning strategy in the ancestral environment. So we devalue the common in order to direct more attention on the rare and thus and thus maximise diet balance / mating opportunities.'

    Big issue with this: novelty has been increasing massively in the last 300 hundred years, and going by the ambient pessimism, I'm not sure people's experienced value has been tracking that huge increase. (Note also that this is social constructionism with a different hat on.)

These are not probably mutually exclusive. I’ll fill in new ideas and evidence for each as I go.


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