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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  • Andy McKenzie

    Robin, it is consistently fascinating to watch you try to reconcile your stated meta politics of “I don’t know” with your clear feeling that you have useful points to make about the specifics of politics.

    I feel this too with imdb, which I have publicly proclaimed to be the best estimate of a movie’s quality. It means that I can’t very consistently hold opinions on specific movies anymore beyond what the aggregate rating is.

    I would be very interested to see hear how you grapple with the meta and the specific, generally.

  • I was surprised recently to read that your colleague Bryan Caplan is a fan of deliberative political theory (or one particular example of it). I’m blanking on where I read this and so can’t provide a link. Perhaps as with “The Myth of Democratic Failure” he was just giving credit to a good presentation of a case he disagrees with.

    Seasteading is intended to recreate the ability to separate off into bands that pursue independent goals. In that situation should we remove many of our cultural innovations designed to deal with strangers?

  • The notion of relying on behavior within 40kya hunter-gatherer tribes to instruct our behavior today is fundamentally flawed. You could not get a hunter-gatherer to sit in a cubicle – or be a peasant farmer – it just couldn’t happen. We are substantially different people today as a result of evolutionary changes brought on by agriculture inter alia. See Cochran & Harpending, or Nick Wade in the current Science Times. Some of us probably never have an abstract thought cross our minds and like to live in the great outdoors and have only loose associations and fend for ourselves. But most people prefer to live in large structured communities with deference to authority in safe, reliable locations to eat, sleep and work.

  • The problem I see with this view is that societies where people identify primarily with small groups rather than the nation tend to be from disfunctional to violent (I vaguely recall some research that comes to this conclusion). Or is that where your argument for apathy comes in? Have we achieved a benevolent combination of small group affinity and apathy?

  • Classical liberal and libertarian governance evangelism seem to me to be algorithms. Here we have people making the case that they are persistence maximizing for humanity, because of evo psych. You Prof. Hanson seem sympathetic to the claim. I’m skeptical -I’d rather we start from first principles of “How can we minimize existential risk” rather than the implicit “How can two conflicting schools of thought that both appeal to nerdy white guys be synthesized?”

    As an algorithm, classical liberal and libertarian ideology seems predatory to me on the population that would be sympathetic to evidence-based persistence maximizing public policy.

    • I think the biggest whole in “rationality” is the idea that we can come up with a “rational goal” for humanity. We tend to make the same mistake the eugenicists made: that evolution had a goal, and that evolution’s goal should be our rational goal. Of course evolution has no goal, it just happens, and the trilobites, the dodo and the baboon have all done just fine reaching the “goal” of evolution. Further, the idea of taking elimination of existential risk, a.k.a. survival, as our rational goal is just “stockholm syndrome,” we are at the mercy of the world and of evolution, why not identify with our oppressor and root for him?

      Is there a rational argument for deifying the evolutionary goal of survival? Is that really the best, or even the only, goal we can come up with?

      • Emile

        Did the eugenicists really think that? That’s not the impression I had …

  • Curt Adams

    Liberal societies rarely arise from liberal majorities. Liberal societies are usually formed as a powersharing arrangement between multiple competing illiberal groups where none can successfully take control. Once they are formed, liberal societies develop constituencies which support the current arrangements, based on loyalty, familiarity, and personal benefit (e.g., leaders in a liberal society tend to be those who are successful leading a liberal society and thus favor its continuation). Large illiberal groups always remain and often even collectively are a majority, but as long as one particularly group isn’t a majority by itself liberal societies tend to be pretty stable.

    The classic example is the French 3d republic, which was formed by an overwhelmingly monarchical convention where the monarchist were split between Bourbonists, Orleanists, and Bonapartists. They couldn’t agree on a king, so they compromised on a Republic. But, by the time the Orleanist line died out some 15 years later, and the Bonapartists had faded in interest, there was too much inertia for the Republic to push it aside. But France had large reactionary and revolutionary socialist parties for decades afterwards and even today both Communists and neofascists sit in the National Assembly.

    I can’t see liberal society as arising from evpsych based on this history. It’s not a system that normally develops in small groups; it’s a complex system that has been rare in human history and normally arises only as a resolution to intractable conflicts in large societies. As you point out, in a 40K yo hunter-gather band the resolution to an intractable intergroup conflict would be secession, not liberalism.

  • nazgulnarsil

    liberal societies develop in the rare condition of stability (protection from bandits) and lack of onerous government intervention. this is rare because governments strong enough to protect you from bandits are strong enough to do what it wants.

    what breaks the deadlock is the interplay of the costs of attack and defense. where the costs of defense are relatively low, even a weak government can defend the populace from bandits.

    • Curt Adams

      That’s not accurate at all. Liberal societies normally form in extremely unsettled conditions, most frequently in the middle of a revolution. The 3rd Republic was formed with the German army in France demanding (and getting) vast reparations and the French army going door-to-door in Paris killing Communards by the thousands. Even the English liberal society formed during a period (1660-1720) with at least the ordinary rate of unrest (the Dutch invasion of the Glorious Revolution, multiple Stuart revolts, complicated sectarian persecutions, etc.)

      • nazgulnarsil

        liberal sentiment and liberal societies are different things. liberal sentiment among a populace does not lead to a liberal society. liberal sentiment among elites does.

  • anon

    Intuitively, it seems that voluntary, competing “tribes” could coexist with a classical liberal society and a minarchist government. Gintis posits that “civil society” institutions cannot take part in any kind of governance, but this seems obviously wrong to me, since a voluntary contract with the tribe could well include punishment when the tribe’s norms are violated. In fact, modern religions seem to be much like “tribes” in this sense.

  • Bruce Smith

    The virtues of libertarian apathy with regard to maintaining demand in the economy have put that economy in the ditch!

  • National dialogues suffer from the biases of far thinking (Hanson) and stereotypes (Lippmann). There are reasons to be skeptical of such deliberation at the highest levels even if you’re generally a fan of voice over exit:


  • Gerard Schofield

    I read Gintis’s essay as an argument that Libertarians delude themselves that we are still living in hunter-gatherer societies with plenty of empty environment to move off into should you strongly object to a norm your band agrees upon. Clearly this is not so in modern populous nations that issue passports and “strong collective governance” is needed from time to time to deal with the inevitable conflicts that will arise from our ambivalent human nature. A nature that constantly has to balance self-enhancing and self-transcending desires or urges upon which there are now so many choices in modern life.