Hole In My Hypothesis

What is politics about? A single “ideology” dimension explains most within-society political variation, and two dimensions, roughly “east-west” and “rich-poor” seem to explain most between-society variations. But what are these dimensions, and why do they exist?

It would make a lot of sense if political conflict derived from natural conflicts between obvious categories of individuals: old vs. young, men vs. women, rich vs. poor, married vs. single, parents vs. kidless, owners vs. renters, natives vs. immigrants, rural vs. urban, smart vs. dumb, extroverts vs. introverts, etc. For example, it would make sense if the young were to struggle with the old over tax-funded benefits for the old. But remarkably, such factors correlate only weakly with the sides in key policy disputes.

Yes, we’d expect lots of random behavior if politics were mainly about signaling, rather than policy. But signaling doesn’t by itself get us very far in explaining the two main political dimensions. What could be the two key features being signaled?

An important clue is that political positions have long drifted steadily toward the “rich”, and to a lesser extent “west”, directions.  This steady drift is hard to reconcile with people learning to deal with a discrete change, as changes due to such learning should instead look more like a random walk.

A better explanation is that this political drift results from common context-dependent strategies applied to a steadily drifting environment. That is, individuals and societies might have evolved to express different values and attitudes in different sorts of situations. In particular, folks might have evolved different priorities when rich vs. poor. So as societies get smoothly rich, their politics might smoothly change toward rich-appropriate strategies. And individuals who grow up richer, or who inherited stronger context-dependency, would favor more rich-end politics.

The problem is, it is hard to see why most “rich” policies make more sense for rich folk. Why exactly would folks have evolved to, when rich, more prefer abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and leisure, and less kids religion, patriotism, and authority? It seems hard to find satisfying direct functional explanations for most of these patterns. Could these patters instead be no-longer-functional vestiges of a prior disruption?

The biggest disruption in the last million years was the transition from foraging to farming (= digging + herding), roughly ten thousand years ago. This transition required huge changes in attitudes and behaviors, supported by modest still-slowly-continuing genetic changes and huge cultural changes. I hypothesize that the cultural pressures which long ago pushed folks from more natural forager ways into then-more-functional farming ways work better on poor people, so that rich folk less feel their pressure. If so, as folks get rich they would tend to revert back to the natural-feeling forager ways.

While this hypothesis may seem natural, I must point out that it has a gaping hole: it is far from obvious why the cultural pressures that made foragers act like farmers should weaken when folks get rich.  Yes poor farmers may have few other options, while rich folks have the luxury of acting more like foragers. But rich farmers could have instead used their wealth to act like hyper-farmers, moving even further from forager styles. Why exactly did rich farmers act more like foragers?

More tomorrow on how farming pressures might depend on wealth.

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  • Gaspard

    What about urbanity and the anonymity that comes with it? In a fluid society where it’s easier to escape your past, legal abortion and homosexuality, divorce, enable people to exercise more self determination.

    And don’t the hyper farmers exist in the form of an intermarrying aristocracy of old money, country clubs, boarding schools, etc etc

  • mike shupp

    Relatively speaking, foragers are few. Their population is under the (normal) carrying capacity for their species in the territory they inhabit. E.g., it’s not the normal condition of the Kalihari desert over the course of a year that sets a population limit on a tribe of wandering Bushmen; it’s the memory of years with 100-year floods and six-year long droughts that causes the Bushmen to keep their population low. Which is why their lifestyle seems so wonderfully successful when times are not so stressful, why they live in such plenty with so little effort — 80 out of a hundred years.

    Rich people also, I’m told, are few in number and choose to keep their numbers limited. They also avoid the searing conflict for resources that affects the day-to-day life of the common folk. 80 out of a 100 years anyhow.

    Might we expect to find some behaviorial similiarities between the rich and the foragers? Likely. Would that really establish that the Rockefellers and the Bushmen, or the Carnegies and Nuniamut Eskimos are psychological twins? I don’t think so.

  • In our practical as opposed to personal lives, though, abstract and long-term thinking have been on the rise, due to globalization and the proliferation of regulations. You’d think there would be some tension between that and the short-term focus of group A.

  • Evan

    The theory that comes immediately to mind is that, if I recall your previous posts on the subject, these “forager” values are more focused on self-fulfillment, while “farmer ones are more focused on survival. Maybe in the past self-fulfillment strategies increased the fitness of your children, even though you had less total, (the same way laying a few big eggs instead of a few little ones did with birds). For instance, maybe the drive to achieve self-fulfillment through wealth and status increased the availability of mates, and your kid’s chances of getting a quality mate. This may have backfired today because reliable contraceptives mean it is possible to have zero kids instead of fewer ones.

    The strategy I described sounds something like the behavior of noblemen. A test of this theory might be to see if they were more likely to have forager values. No one can argue that nobles didn’t have a lot of reproductive success.

  • Evan

    I should add that when I say that forager values decrease fitness and reproduction, this will probably only be temporary, at least if a scenario similar to Robin’s emulator boom comes to pass. It seems to me that the people most likely to convert themselves will be people with more cosmopolitan values, while the more conservative people reproducing the most today will likely find the process too creepy, at least at first. I can’t imagine Hutterites doing it, for instance.

    The people likely to make a million copies of themselves would probably be people so status or goal-oriented that they’d be willing to do that to accomplish their desires. So in the long run, foragers may be the most common emulator type, while farmers will be rarer. Meatspace may end up predominantly farmer, while cyberspace will be forager domain.

  • Andr

    Robin, the considerably more stressful lifestyle of the ‘farmer’ is pushed upon the poor by the rich so that the rich can have the benefit of the more natural ‘forager’ lifestyle.

    Also, although they have no ‘money’ to speak of, people who still live in Forager-type cultures around the world are indeed the wealthiest. In terms of security, well-being, and community, these people (in general) are rich in a way to which, in comparison, we are sorely impoverished.

    Seems you know this already, but i’m just stating things objectively.

  • arch1

    “The problem is, it is hard to see why most “rich” policies make more sense for rich folk. Why exactly would folks have evolved to, when rich, more prefer abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and leisure, and less kids religion, patriotism, and authority?”

    An explanation that makes intuitive sense to me is that poor people are in risk-averse, protect-what-I-have, circle-the-wagons mode because the cost of further impoverishment is high; while rich people, whose survival is less tied to daily contingencies, can afford to be relatively mellow, laissez-faire, laid-back.

    What I have trouble with is reconciling the above with (what I believe to be) the fact that U.S. conservatives tend to be richer than U.S. liberals.

    • zdrugiegokranca

      Conservatives have more money to enslave liberals… 🙂 Do dollar amounts mean the same to everybody? Get familiar with ideas from this book http://fourhourworkweek.com/

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  • “Why exactly would folks have evolved to, when rich, more prefer abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and leisure, and less kids religion, patriotism, and authority?”

    There are some perfectly good biological explanations for these. For one, with wealth, one can invest in keeping a few children alive, while when one is poor, the better biological strategy is to produce a large number of offspring and hope a few survive. (Yes, forager tribes also have a large number of children — just not many survive.) As regards homosexuality, humans are probably naturally bisexual (see our closest genetic relatives, the bonobos). Survival pressures discourage homosexuality, while wealth gets rid of that pressure. A wealthy tribe with a lot of members doesn’t need everyone reproducing (or everyone reproducing as many children as possible). Again, forager tribes discourage homosexuality as much as farmers. One can’t have any potential reproducers taken out of the pool when numbers count so much.

    If there is one thing that the wealthy share with “foragers” — and, I would argue, chimpanzees — is the time spent in leisure. However, the wealth-makers, it seems to me, actually don’t have a lot of leisure. They are typically wealthy because they are work-a-holics. It is 2nd and 3rd generation wealthy who purchase leisure off the money made by their father or grandfather. Too often the leisure they buy are political positions. Think of the Kennedys and the Bushes.

    The rich have historically been the authorities. Why would they show deference to themselves? Also, the rich have been the heads of government and religion (from the chief and the witch doctor to the king and the Pope, and on into the unification of patriotism/government and religion in Marxism and Fascism), so, again, one wouldn’t expect them to show much deference to themselves. But it does explain why they are typically in favor of pro-government ideologies. Why wouldn’t they be in favor of policies that benefit themselves?

  • >Why exactly would folks have evolved to, when rich, more prefer abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and leisure, and less kids religion, patriotism, and authority?

    It could instead be that those things are the sorts of things humans generally prefer, which are supplanted by “poor” values when poor.

  • Bock

    “But signaling doesn’t by itself get us very far in explaining the two main political dimensions.”

    I don’t buy the premise that there are in fact two main political dimensions. In a winner-take-all-system of course people will strategically align into two main groups — just as in a world war varied countries will align to form two main fighting groups.

    Since politics is an ongoing battle, mere strategic alliances will over time take on symbolic meaning. They become a part of one’s identity in the same way one’s favorite sports team as a kid may continue to be a part of one’s identity. Ownership bias sets in.

    Even in countries which don’t have an explicit winner-take-all political system, most still likely have an implicit winner-take-all system — democracy or otherwise — so folks seek to align themselves as reds or blues to form strategic alliances.

  • Michael Kirkland

    While religion is often used to influence large blocks of the poor, it’s a double edged sword. Religion can be used by the poor to constrain excesses of the rich and/or powerful.

    Thus we should expect the rich to prefer a secular society where religion has little or no influence on corporate or governmental organs of power, but is still widespread among the lower classes.

  • cournot

    I think people have hit on the right answer. To oversimplify. Forager values are naturally preferred but don’t promote wealth. People suppress their forager values to become wealthier or else farmer friendly groups simply tend to grow richer and more powerful. But without strong Social Darwinism, foragers are both able to flourish more easily in rich farmer communities and children of farmers are freer to indulge forager tendencies. But this tends to depress income growth. Even if the original farmers don’t change their children might be different or else those forager types who would normally be suppressed can live well and prosper at their expense.

    This is remarkably like the Schumpeterian story of first generation capitalists producing the wealth while later generations plunder or dissipate the wealth either indirectly through lower productivity or directly through rent-seeking, socialism, and other redistributive games.

    • uffthefluff

      “Lower productivity”? Where’s the data?

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  • A single “ideology” dimension explains most within-society political variation, and two dimensions, roughly “east-west” and “rich-poor” seem to explain most between-society variations.

    Principal Component Analysis explains structure of question set, and doesn’t say anything at all about data! I really hoped that economists knew better than notoriously statistically clueless psychologists!

    • Tomasz, if you aren’t going to provide a helpful link, and you aren’t going to write anything yourself that aids understanding, the least you can do is avoid gratuitous insults.

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  • Peter St. Onge

    I wonder to what degree subsidization of bad consequences, a perhaps natural consequence of a strong state, accounts for the regression to forager ways.

    If we date states strong enough to subsidize from about the 14th c (truncating e.g. the bread and circus of Rome), perhaps many of the behaviors of ‘industrial man’ (e.g. docility, conformity, obedience to ascribed rulers) are actually behaviors of ‘ruled man’.

    This would be good for your theory – an unbroken evolution toward the bourgeois virtues, attenuated and sometimes reversed by state subsidization of costs.

  • You still never explained why the dichotomy. What evidence makes you see it?

    Lakoff’s division is *based* on American politics. Because he has a specific goal in mind, a particular context is used.

    When talking about some sort of overarching anthropological aspects as you are is this division into a core axis rooted in data?

    In your previous post you provided a delineation of some values, and then some just-so stories (rather convincing and totally reasonable ones) explaining them.

    I think before we explore the explanations and nuances of the axes that may or may exist, let’s collect a bunch of data and at least run PCA. Then we can start talking!

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