It may be that no one pays attention to the Washington Post feature “Think Tank Town” – but it is an interesting idea. The newspaper’s web arm, washingtonpost.com, edits and publishes columns submitted by thirteen of such places on a rotating basis every other weekday. If you’re into the sorts of theories that get the nation in so much trouble, this is a place to find what sort of high thoughts are being fed to policy makers. Each “think tank” is free to choose its authors and the topics “it believes are most important and timely.” You may not agree on importance or timeliness, but how else are you going to get the pulse of things? The events in the news are ephemeral. Here you find what is being whispered in the ear of those who set those events in motion. You didn’t think that policies were set in motion or wars started on mere whim, did you? There’s always a theoretical underpinning somewhere, but whether it drives policy, or is applied post facto to justify policy, is seldom clear. One should never discount whim, or guile, or sheer orneriness – but one should also pay attention to the whisperers. Think Richelieu whispering in the ear of Louis XIII – the kid had ascended to the throne of France in 1610, when he was eight and a half (after the assassination of his father). He needed help being told what to think.
We no longer have advisors to the king whispering in his ear – no matter how close the parallel – but we do have the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation, and the RAND Corporation. And one must not forget the libertarian (and sometimes straight conservative) Cato Institute – “promoting an American public policy based on individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peaceful international relations.” It’s a Reagan thing.
This Cato organization also seems to have a sense of humor, as on Monday, May 7, the Post published what they sent in – an explanation of why free trade was a good thing, no matter how many of us lose our jobs to the sharp young folks in Lahore or wherever. The president and most of the Republican Party have been peddling that line forever – major corporations love it, those at the top love it, the rich with major holdings in preferred stocks and bonds love it (and working stiffs don’t). Aside for the evangelical scolds who want the government to give major grief to the ungodly – gays and uppity woman and whatnot – those “free trade” folks the Republican base, or rendering the term in Arabic, their al Qaeda. But the Cato argument relied heavily on evolutionary theory, just a few days after three of the ten Republican hopefuls raised their hands at the first debate, proudly identifying themselves – they just do not believe in evolution, preferring the biblical account of how things work and how we, and everything else, got here. These three have had the wrong theorists whispering in their ear. If Darwin is the devil, the timing was odd.
The column was Paul H. Rubin – the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics and Law at Emory University. He’s also author of Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (Rutgers University Press, 2002). It seems he has been writing a series on evolution and economic behavior for the Cato Institute’s journal, Regulation. Only extreme policy wonks read that. They pushed those issues in the Post.
So we get Evolution, Immigration and Trade. It’s kind of interesting, and opens with this –
It was once thought that humans are born as “blank slates” to be programmed by our families, culture and society. While those forces play an important role, evolutionary psychology teaches us that human behavior is also the product of the environment in which humanity evolved – that many of our intuitions are ingrained because they contributed to our primitive ancestors’ survival.
Public policy pays surprisingly little attention to evolutionary psychology. Yet there are many human intuitions and behaviors that influence contemporary policy issues – sometimes in ways that are no longer useful or perhaps even harmful to humans flourishing. These intuitions are sometimes referred to as “folk economics,” and one area in which they often emerge is the international economy.
So a stroll through the world of our distant ancestors is called for. If we look at them, in a Darwinian way, we find out we have really evolved, but stupidly act on impulses that were adaptive way back when, and hurt us now.
That goes like this –
Our primitive ancestors lived in a world that was essentially static; there was little societal or technological change from one generation to the next. This meant that our ancestors lived in a world that was zero sum – if a particular gain happened to one group of humans, it came at the expense of another.
This is the world our minds evolved to understand. To this day, we often see the gain of some people and assume it has come at the expense of others. Economists have argued for more than two centuries that voluntary trade, whether domestic or international, is positive sum: it benefits both parties, or else the exchange wouldn’t occur. Economists have also long argued that the economics of immigration – immigrants coming here to exchange their labor for money that they then exchange for the products of other people’s labor – is positive sum. Yet our evolutionary intuition is that, because foreign workers gain from trade and immigrant workers gain from joining the U.S. economy, native-born workers must lose. This zero-sum thinking leads us to see trade and immigration as conflict (“trade wars,” “immigrant invaders”) when trade and immigration actually produce cooperation and mutual benefit, the exact opposite of conflict.
Ah, we really do need to grow up, to stop all the monkey business, as it were. Things have changed –
Conflict was common in the environment in which humans evolved. As primates, which are a very social order, our ancestors lived in relatively small groups in which everyone knew everyone else. Our minds are adapted to deal with populations of that size. Our ancestors made strong distinctions between members of the in-group and outsiders, and we still make such distinctions today – social psychologists can create in-group and out-group feelings based on virtually any arbitrary difference between populations.
The in-group and out-group intuitions help fuel opposition to expanded trade and immigration. The public intuitively believes that the beneficiaries of such policies will be foreigners, and it is easy to arouse suspicion about those who are not part of our in-group. When coupled with zero-sum thinking, this is a powerful political tool. For instance, a domestic industry or collection of domestic workers, when having difficulty competing with foreign or immigrant competitors, can use innate dislike of outsiders when advocating for increased barriers.
But now we just don’t live in small-group societies, but we tend to act as if we do, and “we sometimes have difficulty appreciating risks, harms and benefits experienced by a large population.”
Rubin has a good example –
In a group of 100 people, when we observe something that has happened to someone, it is a reasonably likely event. In a society of 300 million, when we learn about something happening to one person, it may be an extremely unlikely event, but we often perceive it as likely when we see it on the news.
Hey, that’s how cable news makes money – every parent knows the kids could be picked up by a sexual predator and murdered tomorrow, or shot in a school massacre the next day, or eaten by a shark at the beach. And too, of someone wins the lottery, you too could win. And since Bill Gates dropped out of college and became a billionaire, you too could do just the same. It happens, after all. It did happen – that’s a fact. We, as a people, don’t do probability, and we elect leaders who don’t care much for it either.
The column in question of course is really about our perspective on trade and immigration –
We understandably have great sympathy for workers who lose their jobs because they can’t compete with foreign workers, but we have difficulty appreciating the benefit that our nation of consumers gains from the products of foreign laborers.
Those of us in systems work, of course, having first-hand experience, are even less inclined to see “the greater good.” But it seems we should get rid of our personal bias against it –
As products of evolution, humans cannot help but be born with certain biases. But we are not condemned to this evolutionary programming; we can identify the biases and recognize when they lead us astray in the modern world. American history is marked by many periods of openness to trade and immigration, and those periods have often featured strong economic growth and human prosperity. However, American history has also seen many instances in which our zero-sum and anti-outsider intuitions reemerged, whether in the form of prohibitions against “dogs or Irishmen” or policies against “outsourcing.”
So this is what is being whispered in the ears of policy-makers. People are somehow still thinking as if we are all trapped in that 1986 film, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which was rather silly. They need to consider evolutionary history. Maybe we’re really in quite another movie entirely.
In any event, Rubin is just recycling what is in his book.
See the reviews of that, like Darwin and Political Theory, Philosophy and Literature 27 (2003): 241-54, by Denis Dutton. That opens with this –
In the 1970s, during the oil crisis, B.F. Skinner suggested a way that the United States’s energy shortage could be alleviated. People should be rewarded, he argued, for coming together to eat in large communal dining halls, rather than cooking and eating at home with their families. His reasoning was irresistible: large cooking pots have a lower ratio of surface area to volume. There would be therefore a considerable saving in energy in massive public kitchens, compared with numberless small individual pots cooking in private kitchen stoves across the nation.
Of course, Skinner must have known his idea would have to overcome objections based on ingrained middle-class prejudices. Some parents would feel aggrieved: placing children before big communal pots would rob mothers of the pleasures of preparing foods and feeding their own offspring. Others might object that the only foods adequate to a big, round energy-efficient vessels are stews or soups; they might complain about endless boiled fare. Families of one ethnic background or another might dislike the relatively uniform diet, despite the hearty, nutritious goodness of stew. I can imagine Skinner’s frustration: Why are people so stubborn? Why can’t they look beyond minor details and see the sheer reasonableness of the proposal?
Yeah, folks want what they want. It’s a pain –
The story is cited by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate as yet another dream of a better-engineered world shattered by the ornery persistence of human nature. Based on his work with rats and pigeons, Skinner was sure that the proper conditioning applied to human beings could eliminate aggression, overpopulation, pollution, and inequality. In Skinner’s utopia, Pinker wisecracks, “The noble savage became the noble pigeon.”
B.F. Skinner was just another daft step on a long utopian road that stretches back through Marx, Rousseau, Hobbes, and St. Thomas to Plato. These political philosophers, as well as those who, like Aristotle, are skeptical of utopianism, base their visions on some understanding, argued or merely implied, of human nature. All political systems – free or totalitarian, monarchist or republican – tend to posit some notion of the natural human being. In recent generations many thinkers have been inclined to regard competing conceptions of human nature as stuck in eternal conflict, embodying basic commitments about the human condition that are independent of evidence, originating instead in the religion, culture, or individual temperament of the political philosopher.
But Dutton likes the Rubin ideas. There’s no pie-in-the-sky idealism, just history –
The scene of evolution is the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the EEA, essentially the Pleistocene, the whole, long period lasting from 1.6 million years ago up until the shift to the Holocene with the invention of agriculture and large settlements 10,000 years ago. Our present intellectual constitution was achieved by about 50,000 years ago, or 40,000 before the Holocene. Keep in mind the immensity of this time scale: calculating at twenty years for a generation, there were 80,000 generations of humans and proto-humans in the Pleistocene, while there have been a mere 500 generations since agriculture and the first cities. It was in the earlier, much longer period that selective pressures created genetically modern humans. These pressures might have pushed only very slightly in one direction over another. But a slight pressure over hundreds of thousands of generations – toward a taste for sweet, say, or a wariness of snakes – can deeply engrave psychological traits into the mind of any species.
… Rubin begins with that bracing idea that the often-coercive political control placed on human beings since the advent of cities is characteristic only of the Holocene. The human desire for freedom, he argues, is an older, deeper prehistoric adaptation: for most of their existence, human beings have experienced relative freedom from political coercion. Many readers will find Rubin’s thesis counterintuitive: we tend to assume that political liberty is a recent development, having appeared for a while with the Greeks, only to be reborn in the eighteenth century, after millennia of despotisms, for the benefit of the modern world. This is a false assumption, a bias produced by the fact that what we know best is recorded history, those 500 generations since the advent of cities and writing.
That’s dense with data, but the reviewer simplifies it –
The first is our impulse to share as a form of insurance for lean times. The second, intrinsically connected with envy, is our desire to knock down pecking-order hierarchies, to foil the concentration of too much wealth at the top of the order. The first tendency, part of ancestral altruism, is a source of welfare in the modern state, but so is the second, which inclines us to tax the rich: an impulse toward income redistribution for the poor is a deeply Pleistocene adaptation, according to Rubin.
These preferences produce much tension in modern polity. While sympathy for the destitute or unlucky remains a permanent part of our thinking, there is another hunter-gatherer emotion that plays off against it: resentment for shirkers and freeloaders, even if they are at the miserable bottom of resource distribution. The much-reviled Victorian notion of the “deserving poor” is therefore a persistent category of human thinking and perception. This means that political campaigns to increase income redistribution toward the welfare of the poor must stress bad luck and lack of opportunities on the part of welfare recipients and argue against indolence or failure to seize opportunities as causative factors for poverty.
And so on and so forth. It’s fascinating stuff. It explains a lot.
Or it explains very little, as sometimes you just feel like one of Skinner’s pigeons, pecking at this disc or that for your food pellet reward, which you sometimes get. Intermittent reward is powerful, and you do learn. But it might be better to take a course in probability and statistics and just stop pecking until you figure out the reality.