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Dominance Explains Paternalism
My Ph.D. is in formal political theory, but I’ve come to realize that it is usually best to think of political behavior not as some different kind of thing, but instead as an extension of or variation on ordinary behavior. This seems to me especially true for paternalism, which I’ve spend much effort pondering. I did a game theory analysis of it for my job talk long ago, and Bryan Caplan just reviewed what seems to be a nice book puzzling over “behavioral” explanations. But on reflection a key explanation seems pretty simple.
In our personal lives, we all know that some of the people around us are more “control freaks”; they push harder for control over what they and their associates do. First they push to control their own lives, then they push for more control of shared context and choices, like which restaurant a group goes to, and finally they push for control over the lives of others. Such as by nagging and berating others re what to eat or wear, or with whom to associate. Or by becoming official leaders and authorities, with formal power to make people do what they say.
I just did two polls that say that most of us think that this control freak pressure tends to hurt associates, and also that control freaks tend more to be “do-gooders”, who talk more about making the world better, and more give that rationale for things they do:
Some people are more of “control freaks”, pushing more to control own & associates acts. On average does this pushing tend more to help or to hurt their associates?
— Robin Hanson (@robinhanson) August 12, 2020
Re the few people you know best (not you), compared to average person, what is correlation between (A) being more of a “do-gooder”, & (B) being more of a “control freak”, pushing more to control own & associates acts?
— Robin Hanson (@robinhanson) August 12, 2020
Dominance seems to me the obvious interpretation here. Like most animals, humans strive to dominate each other, in order to rise in the local “pecking order”. And control over ourselves and others not only brings many direct benefits, it is widely taken as one of the strongest signs of dominance and non-submission. But unlike other animals, humans have norms against overt dominance and submission, and norms promoting pro-social behavior, that helps others. So we do push to dominate, but we pretend that we are actually just trying to help. And as usual, we are typically not consciously aware of our hypocrisy. In our mind, we are mainly aware of how they are doing the wrong things, and how they would be so much better off if only we could make them do things our way.
It is not just individuals who try to dominate to gain status; groups coordinate to dominate together as well. For example, parents coordinate to dominate their kids. So we push for our groups to have autonomy, and also control over other groups. And so in politics, where our main motive is to show loyalty to our allies, we each push for our political coalitions to have more self-control, and more control over other groups. So when there is an option for “regulators” or other authorities to take more control over ordinary lives, we tend to support that when we see those authorities as part of our coalition, and those “helped” as part of rival coalitions. Else we may resist.
Of course we actually do often need leaders to make central decisions that effect many others. And people do sometimes make bad decisions that can be improved via pressures from others around them. So dominance isn’t the only cause of leadership or paternalism. This is another example of a key principle: people can only successfully pretend to have motive X to cover real motive Y if sometimes X really is a substantial motive. “The dog ate my homework” works better as an excuse than “The dragon ate my homework.” For a cover to work, it has to be sufficiently plausible. So all the motives we pretend to have really do apply to some people at some times; just not nearly as often as we suggest.
So the claim is not that paternalism or dominant leaders can never be appropriate. Instead, the claim is that there’s a strong tendency to try to justify other more selfish and harmful behaviors via such needs. So we need to hold a much higher standard on leadership than “we should do whatever leaders say because we need leaders.” And we need to hold a higher standard on paternalism than “you should do what regulators say because they are authorities.” Leaders and authorities should be accountable to make their choices actually help via more than a mere dominance struggle for power to grab such positions.
In small firms, leaders are often given rewards that depend on the overall success of those firms. And subordinates who feel they are treated badly may well leave. Together, these can greatly temper leader temptations to use powers of their dominant positions to seek to gain status over their subordinates, relative to actually helping their groups. And in the distant past, in small groups within very war-like areas, dominant leaders faced related outside threats of military competition, and of subordinates running away to other nearby areas.
But today in large mostly-peaceful nations, political leaders tend to lack these other disciplines to temper their tyranny. Which is why it becomes so important today to find other ways to hold political leaders and authorities accountable, to limit their arbitrary dominance. Such as via elections, law, and property rights. I’ve tried to explore new methods, such as futarchy and vouching. But until they are fielded we should keep the old ways, and hold our leaders and authorities to much higher standards than “because I said so”.
In our society today, paternalistic authorities often claim that they are disciplined not so much by profit, voters, or law, but by “science”. You see, they only make people do things when “science” says that is for the best. Having seen how such “science” actually works in these contexts, I’m relatively skeptical of this as an effective discipline today. Too often, this is just a way to justify applying the widespread opinions of social classes and coalitions with which regulators ally.
Added 1p: Teaching kids to play a musical instrument is a striking example of paternalism. Even though data doesn’t suggest that it improves discipline or other academic performance, many passionately want to force this on not only their own kids, but also the kids of others, even those who feel strongly that they don’t want to play. Though most adults enjoy listening to music, few of them choose to play instruments, especially among those who were forced.
Yet people argue that we must force all kids to play so that they can enjoy music as adults and be more attractive as mates, or so that we can find the few good musicians, or so that we can increase the supply of music. Which seem pretty laughable arguments. More plausibly people identify with musicians and cultures that respect them, and so want to force others to respect them as well, especially kids whose status contributes to their own personal status.