Pondering Plasticity

Tyler recently praised (cultural) anthropologists, and with good reason. I’ve learned a great deal from reading them. Yes, economists often look down on other social scientists (who often complain loudly back), and yes anthropologists are one of the most liberal academic disciplines (e.g. high Democrat to Republican ratio), while economists (including Tyler and I) are less so. But maybe Tyler and I are more broad minded than you think.

Just as supply and demand is the crown jewel of econ insight, the crown jewel of anthropology insight is cultural plasticity. This is the idea that humans are pretty flexible – we can be okay in and with few reservations accept the practices of a wide range of cultures, if we grow up there. Not to say humans are infinitely flexible, but just more flexible that we tend to think.

I usually hear people talk of cultural plasticity as favoring a liberal point of view. For example, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate both describe liberals as seeing human plasticity as supporting the feasibility of ambitious social engineering. That is, liberals imagine they can change cultural rules as they wish, then teach people to accept their new rules, and after a transition period it will all stick.

Conservatives, in contrast, are seen as fearing that because human nature can’t bend much, only certain cultures will work, and so they fear that liberal changes will break everything. E.g., if culture doesn’t support marriage, kids won’t get needed support. Or if culture doesn’t support military virtues, we’ll be enslaved by foreign invaders.

It seems to me that in fact cultural plasticity tends more to favor the conservative position. Yes more plasticity means reduced fears that change will break us. But more plasticity also gives less reason to bother. Why make everyone pay big costs of change if most people are pretty happy no matter what the culture?

The driving emotion of liberal reform seems to me to be a strong feeling that most people are not truly happy in typical non-liberal cultures, and that they’d be more truly happy in liberal cultures. Without liberalism they suffer crushing conformity, excess work, and limited vistas, and they lack authenticity, self-expression, autonomy, self-discovery, variety of experience, blah blah blah. Which is why we must struggle to change culture to be more liberal. This seems to me a rather non-plastic point of view.

In contrast, the driving emotion of conservative reluctance to reform is a sense that things are good and ok just as they have long been. Oh they aren’t perfect, but if it was good enough for grandpa, its good enough for me. What we have binds us together; who do you think you are to demand more? We like who we are, so why take a chance changing to be like some strangers, or like something imaginary? Change might break precious things; what is worth that risk?

We can distinguish two kinds of cultural plasticity – plasticity of happiness and plasticity of function. Plasticity of happiness says that people can be happy in a wide range of cultures. In contrast, plasticity of function says that a wide range of cultures result in similar levels of production, security, innovation, etc.

We economists are pretty confident that there is in fact only a limited plasticity of function. That is, different cultures in fact produce quite different levels of production, security, innovation, etc. In contrast, plasticity of happiness seems a far more plausible position. In fact, the main reason that cultures vary in happiness seems to be because they vary in function. That is, cultures that produce more (or are more secure) are happier, but most other cultural dimensions don’t matter much for happiness.

An emphasis on cultures that just produce well, as opposed to cultures that fit some more direct idea of human flourishing, seems to me a conservative emphasis. It is conservatives who worry more about losing cultural pressures to work, to have kids, or to fight hard against enemies. And it is liberals who focus more on imagining people who suffer because of specific features of existing culture, and wanting to change culture to help those victims.

In the em future that I’ve been exploring, there would be a vast increase in total production and security, but practices and values would move away from typical liberal ideals. This horrifies many with strong liberal inclinations. But I’m more okay with it, as I expect most people will adapt just fine, and be nearly as happy there once it is the world they grow up in. Especially since this world would select strongly for folks who are okay with it. So I guess this means I lean conservative in this respect.

It seems that anthropologists have discovered that human happiness is surprisingly robust to cultural changes, and that economists have discovered that production, security, innovation, etc. vary a lot more with cultures. And overall this seems to favor a conservative emphasis on accepting the culture you were born with, and mainly only considering changes to make your society physically stronger. Spiritual fulfillment will mostly take care of itself.

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