The Caveman Roots of Liberal Democracy?

Stimulating thoughts from Razib (aka “David Hume”):

But a dispositional conservatism serves more than a periodoc brake upon the inevitable march of history toward its final Utopian state.  In fact the empirical record shows some cyclical dynamics in human morals and values. After all, Western liberal democracy is a throwback in many ways to the individualism of the hunter-gatherer phase of human history. I believe that the institutions and norms of communitarian “traditional” cultures were in fact ad hoc kluges which attempted to reconcile our “caveman psychology” with post-Neolithic mass society. Conservative and liberal dispositions seem to be partly hardwired; as humans we place ourselves along the spectrum. It is not simply a matter of conservatives always being a few generations behind liberals along the inevitable secular ascent up toward earthly paradise. Rather it seems possible these different political tribes are like two cylinders which serve as the motive force behind a winding and unpredictable journey.

Why is the journey unpredictable? One reason: Cultural evolution is unpredictable and the content of the beliefs and norms attractive to those with partly-hardwired liberal and conservative dispositions — the parameters of the liberal-to-conservative continuum — at any given time is a matter of the forces of cultural history as they interact with the forces of population change. Ideas and norms can’t stick if our evolved minds are inhospitable hosts for them. So the fixed part of human psychology is a constraint on cultural transmission. If we find liberal individualism at all compelling, it’s because we already have a taste for it. Likewise thick communitarian socialism. Culture wars are wars in part over which tastes to gratify and encourage and which to stymie and treat as a threats to decent civilization.

I agree that our conservative impulses aren’t going anywhere. So, what if people with conservative impulses reproduce at a greater rate? It’s interesting to think about what happens when the cultural parameters of the liberal-to-conservative continuum shifts in a liberal direction faster than dispositional conservatives can breed. And maybe something like this is Razib’s idea. If the stipulated demographic trend continues–conservatives keep reproducing faster–then conservative dispositions will become relatively common and liberal ones relatively rare. At some point, this stalls further liberalization, even if it had a lot of momentum behind it. And then you’d think maybe we slide back in a “traditional,” communitarian, family-centric direction. But I guess this depends on what a native “conservative disposition” comes down to. If it’s a kind of conformist hesitancy to alter the social order, then a preponderance of conservatives may do little more to lock in liberalization, just as today’s conservatives praise to the Heavens the timeless verity of a bunch of extremely radical 18th-century liberal ideals.


28 thoughts on “The Caveman Roots of Liberal Democracy?

  1. will,tx for the comment. i would add that i strongly suspect there are frequency dependencies, cultural and genetic, to these dynamics. that is, it may be that the success of strategy A or strategy !A naturally leads to the heightened fitness of its inverse, so that over the long term you just have cyclical dynamics.

  2. if we find liberal individualism at all compelling, it’s because we already have a taste for it. left political orientation is strongly correlated with openness in personality.

  3. “partly-hardwired liberal and conservative dispositions.”Given the plethora of different political beliefs expressed in human history – the vast majority of which have nothing to do with the modern categories of liberal and conservative – do you really think any of them can be hard-wired, even “partly.”

  4. Given the plethora of different political beliefs expressed in human history – the vast majority of which have nothing to do with the modern categories of liberal and conservative – do you really think any of them can be hard-wired, even “partly.”yes. read will's post. the absolute position isn't fixed, but the relative position is. in the 3rd century the pagans were conservative by disposition, while the christians felt they were moving onto to 'better things.' in the 21st century it is inverted. i'm pretty sure you're misunderstanding what i'm saying.

  5. Yeah. I was trying to think about how that would work. Intuitively, that sounds a little too neat to me. I'm more inclined to the idea that there's a lot of more or less random wandering down the possible paths of gene-culture coevolution, some forks of which generate a few turns around a “cycle” that is eventually broken out of and some generating sticky path-dependent lock-in that is also eventually broken out of after a good long while. If we are on a relatively locked-in path, looking backwards to an apparently cycling path, we might infer that we'll just continue to cycle, even if we'll never end up anywhere near where we were again. Sheer conjecture. Anyway, why not think it's a random walk?

  6. I think there is a real chance that what we'll end up with will not be so much the somewhat-friendly-to-classical-liberalism traditional American conservativism but authoritarianism. I remember some polls showing that as a result of atomization, but I can't remember where to link to. The saliency of formerly revered figures like the “18th century radical liberals” and the political structures they created are likely to decrease as they are seen as increasingly irrelevant.

  7. Let's not get crazy with heritability and political selection models yet.Monozygotic twins are not only genetically more similar (being genetically identical) to dizygotic twins, but they famously tend to be very close, and you expect people who have more intimate relationships to share opinions to a greater extent, including of course political views. That can account for the greater correlationA better comparison would be monozygotic twins who have grown up together vs. raised in different homes. Of course, it's a lot harder to get such a data set.Another possible explanation is that there are heritable factors that dispose you to have similar experiences when you grow up, and these experiences in turn make you more prone to adopt a certain political view.I am going to use negative stereotypical caricatures that should not be taken seriously themselves, as they serve only to illustrate the larger point of how common experiences can shape political views.- you are short, thin and brainy. As a result, you get bullied a lot in elementary and high school. This increases your identification and sympathy with the weak and disadvantaged. You then enter a Ivy League university, which are typically liberal institutions, and have fun and comradeship for the first time in your life . You become a liberal.- you are handsome and extroverted. As a result, your early life works goes well – you're popular and things generally go your way. As you get older, looks become relatively less important to get what are now your goals. The short brainy Ivy League kid that was in your class makes 3 times as much money as you. You became nostalgic of the good and simpler old days, and associate your positive past experiences with a disappearing order. You associate happiness with whatever traditional institutions you've grown up with. Change becomes threatening. You are now a conservative.I know, pretty lame pop psychology. But if somehow heritable traits that are relative to the population average shape political views, the “conservatives reproduce at a greater rate” scenario will never lead to a political imbalance.

  8. Ideas and norms can’t stick if our evolved minds are inhospitable hosts for them. So the fixed part of human psychology is a constraint on cultural transmission. If we find liberal individualism at all compelling, it’s because we already have a taste for it. To tie this to our debate – this is a big part of why I favor secessionism over proselytizing in terms of creating a libertarian state. If libertarianism only appeals to the 6%-16% of people who are hardwired libertarian, rather than liberal or conservative, then that sets a cap on how large the libertarian movement can grow. That's not enough people to make a democracy very libertarian, yet its more than enough to go start a libertarian country elsewhere.Unless libertarians out-breed liberals and conservatives, which from my observations seems…unlikely.

  9. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that Will wants to resist acknowledging that 6%-16% statistic and hope that we're all equal (or close) in this regard (having a hardwired taste for individualism), and open to argument.But, I know that he's already noted the preponderance of NT (Rational) temperaments among libertarians, so I think he's got a problem here.Maybe he has some new and improved rhetorical techniques or arguments that have never been deployed effectively yet. But, that doesn't seem to be the way to bet.

  10. I think it's badly mistaken to think of there being any such thing as a hardwired libertarian. My limited amount of research into the matter shows most younger libertarians to be dispositional liberals who understand economics better than average. (The full story is complicated.) Anyway, I see the possibility of very large gains in the portion of dispositional liberals who are willing to accept libertarian-leaning policies. So that's where I'm pushing. The point about the shifting nature of the cultural liberal-to-conservative continuum is key here.

  11. Yup. One way of putting my argument is that the preponderance of NTs among libertarians (hi y'all!) is a big part of libertarianism's problem. “Rationals” are relatively poor at relating to others and often actively resist effective rhetorical strategies. It's hard to break out of the NT circle because NT's will attack you if you try it! NTs are indeed libertarianism's early adopters, but that doesn't mean some variation on the ideology can't “cross the chasm” toward the fat part of the bell curve. Now, I don't think the secret is putting a savvier rhetorical spin on standard issue libertarianism, but accepting that standard issue libertarianism has a lot of real problems and that a strongly libertarian-leaning liberalism is both more intellectually and politically attractive.

  12. By “more intellectually…attractive” do you mean you expect them to result in more human flourishing? Or, do you expect them to result in less human flourishing but be more attractive, intellectually, to the many people who will never accept the better policies?

  13. I am sorry, but this is just historically illiterate. Nobody was a liberal before the 17th at the very earliest, because that's when liberal ideas (equal rights, rule of law, constitutionalism, the market economy) are first articulated as a coherent whole. And conservatism is of an even more recent vintage, being primarily a response to the radicalism of the French Revolution. So to repeat, I see no evidence that any of our core beliefs are “hard-wired,” let alone such transient dispositions as liberal and conservative. If anything, I would say that these constellations of ideas produced a corresponding psychology rather than the other way 'round.I simply do not understand this current fad for crudely reductive explanations for human beliefs. You might as well take phrenology seriously; it has about as much scientific credibility as Haidt,

  14. I mean both more coherent and relevant. And yes I expect uptake to result in more flourishing than… what?What's the comparison point? How much people would flourish if only people were very different? Or much people flourish in various really feasible alternatives?

  15. Me too. But we increase our overall odds if we diversify strategies, yes? And division of labor is good, too. I'll work on the moral/political/cultural problem of increasing respect for mobility rights and economic growth, and you build/inspire people to build some new places with alternative schemes of governance that people can choose to move to when the political and economic option is really open to them.

  16. I'm a big fan of diversification and division of labor, certainly. I think seasteading is perhaps 20% likely to succeed, so I sure don't want it to be the only thing libertarians work on. But given the history of the libertarian movement over the past century, I am just not seeing the kind of slow and steady progression at winning hearts and minds or academic mindshare which would give me hope for that path. But I could well be wrong, it is difficult to measure.

  17. I meant under “standard issue libertarianism” policies vs. “strongly libertarian-leaning liberalism” policies. I don't know that either are politically feasible.

  18. Shrug. Overall, I think people are wired to like things easy.”Someone is going to give me free stuff? I'll take it and not think of the consequences.”

  19. A better comparison would be monozygotic twins who have grown up together vs. raised in different homes. Of course, it's a lot harder to get such a data set.i think bouchard et al did that. or perhaps they only looked at religious intensity.craig, you're either stupid or can't read.

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  21. Razib – Yes, I must be. And indeed, being stupid and not being able to readare not mutually exclusive categories. But in any case, feel free to continue believing thatthere were people with “conservative” and “liberal” psychologies in the late Roman empire (though you might want to read some history to go with your pop psychology).

  22. Will Wilkinson still cannot answer Mencius' simple Darwinian argument: if libertarianism is reduced from a philosophy to a slogan, what tangibles does it offer to its rabble-rousers, the “fat part of the bell curve”, for that belief? Nothing. What can other ideologies offer? Lots of things, especially the philosophy of the Marxist and race hustler. This truth ensures the inviolability of libertarianism in the democratic state.Libertarianism is an abstract ideal to be reached towards in the USG, not a political system. Its very efficacy relies on the fact that it does not similarly offer the fruits that other ideologies do, that deform the incentives of the State's caretakers. All we can do, for now, with little scientific knowledge of the process of ideological formation, and more importantly, the lack of ability to raise the IQ of peoples incapable of understanding the idea, is to combat the predatory state by exploiting the very same collective action problems those who lead the corruption employ – mechanisms like federal lawsuits, installing favored politicians in positions with “soft power”, and exploiting existing cultural mores and biases (e.g., gun culture) for our own ends.

  23. Pingback: Notes From Bradlaugh « Around The Sphere

  24. Yes, libertarians are just smarter than everyone else. That's why we don't win elections. Or is it that everyone else just isn't as moral? That could be it, too. Well, it's one of those. Either everyone else is radically evil, or they're really stupid, at least relative to us REALLY smart, REALLY moral libertarians (talk about redundant!).

  25. Yes, I am just using an operational definition of “smart” as having higher IQ. More specifically, the average libertarian has a higher IQ than the average liberal or conservative. I don't think there ever will be a specific cite for that, but that comes sort of naturally from Bryan Caplan's work in Myth of the Rational Voter which shows the higher IQ tend to think more like economists; libertarians tend to have a better-than-average grasp of costs and benefits and an appreciation for the role of price signals in the economy.I'm not trying to pump anybody up here. There is plenty of research describing the ability of knowledge each IQ tier is capable of; since these aren't going to be mutable any time soon, one would think to become familiar them. In any case, describing the average doesn't tell you the shape of the “# of people” vs. “IQ” ideology curves; our domestic liberals have a two-humped curve, composed of a smaller, very smart group subsidizing a much larger low-skilled group. Domestic “conservatives” probably have a more slowly declining curve from left from to right, with no hump. I called no one evil. That was a dumb accusation. I called the state “predatory” because it nearly always become malignant and cancerous over time, reducing the expectations of its constituents' standard of living. That process is “corruption” of the ideal. If anything, I am calling for more “evil” libertarians, not starry-eyed optimists who can't judge human nature for what it is.

  26. That's probably true. It's also probably true that the average Marxist in the US has a higher IQ than the average Democrat or Republican. That just shows that high IQ people are more inclined to excessively ideological or intellectual interpretations of the world.

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