Rah Apathy

At Cato Unbound this month, Larry Arnhart argues evo psych supports classical liberal politics. Herbert Gintis disagrees:

The existence of human universals does not suggest a unique form of social organization. Indeed, there have been many distinct types of human society, and many of these have been widely embraced and broadly defended by their members. … Arnhart’s main argument here is that “evolutionary psychology has confirmed and deepened [the] Darwinian understanding of moral order that arises in civil society through the spontaneous order of human action rather than the coercive order of governmental design.” However, he does not present this evidence and I do not believe that it exists. Indeed, a reasonable generalization is that every known society has a collective mechanism that deals with the establishment of social values and that regulates the treatment of individuals who violate social norms.

Gintis is of course right here. But he goes on:

Humans evolved in contexts in which the establishment and enforcement of morality was regulated collectively. It is an error to consider such collective institutions as tribal meetings as aspects of “civil society.” Rather, they are fundamentally public institutions, and hence are forms of governance. Therefore, for most of human history, collective governance rather than the “spontaneous order of human action” regulated the stabilization and change in social morality. …

The evolutionary history of our species, to my mind, suggests the need for stronger collective regulation of morality in modern than in hunter-gatherer society. This is because modern societies tend to comprise several distinct ethnic and cultural groups with conflicting moral and religious principles. The tolerance preached by classical liberalism is thus a novel moral element injected into the ethical systems of nation states for the purpose of reducing social friction.

We need a formative politics in which political discourse develops the capacities of citizens for self-rule. … Libertarianism makes it impossible to use political discourse to probe fundamental morality. For instance, … contrary to [a] libertarian approach to abortion, another strand of liberalism bids us to enter into a public debate concerning the morality of abortion and come to some understanding through open public discourse. The results of such deliberations may justly be imposed upon dissenters under some conditions. Thus, rather than supporting the institution of gay marriage or that of mothers with young children remaining in the labor force on the grounds “to each his own,” we might want to insist that we debate the implications of these institutions on how they will affect the fabric of our communities and the development of individual character in the future as a result of living with these institutions.

Yes,”to each his own” is not how foragers dealt with topics that induced strong feelings; the band talked, made a choice, and those who couldn’t accept it left for other bands. So yes if today we see our nation as our band, then the feels-natural-to-foragers policy is have the nation talk, make a choice, and then make everyone to love it or leave it.

Large nations of today, however, are far harder to leave than were ancient forager bands. Furthermore, most large nations today draw folks from different farming traditions, with different strong stable social norms. While it might feel right to forager minds (at least those who think of nations as like bands) to make their nation talk and choose on all topics where many feel strongly, actually doing so much more seems to me a recipe for disaster.

Not only would such debates eat up enormous time and energy, but the losers who couldn’t easily leave would accumulate in number and resentment. Furthermore, public opinion would destroy many of our accumulated prosperity-promoting policies. Over the last few centuries there has been substantial variation in regional cultures and political habits. Habits that were more conducive to national prosperity and power have increased via selection and imitation. This has moved the world somewhat toward tolerance and decentralization. Many such improvements could be reversed by deep forager-style national-conversations on what really feels right to a majority of us.

Libertarians are right that it would best if people came to see something much smaller than the nation, such as the family, firm, or club, as the natural analogue of the forager-band. But, alas, war propaganda has long worked to cement the notion of our nation as our tribe, and that will be hard to undo. Let us hope tolerance and decentralization will continue due to selection and imitation, together with citizen apathy and reluctance to kick up big national-debate stinks. It may be a good thing that voters seem too bored and distracted to bother with lots of heart-felt national conversations leading to closure on deeply-felt issues.  Yeah apathy!

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