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.

Classical Liberalism Is Not Colorblind

Jonah Golberg argued last week that there is something “unlibertarian” in pointing out, as I did, that 

American drug prohibition and sentencing policies hit poor black men the hardest, devastating already disadvantaged black families and communities—a tragic, mocking contrast to the achievement of Obama’s election. 

Jacob Sullum has replied in much more detail than I could have, concluding:

From a libertarian perspective, the war on drugs would be unjust even if its victims were a statistically precise cross-section of the American population. But the fact that it disproportionately harms members of a racial minority that was long subject to official discrimination in this country is additional cause for concern, especially since the laws it enforces grew out of explicitly racist anxieties.

But I’d like to single out this claim of Jonah’s:

It seems to me that the classical liberal is supposed to see people as autonomous and sovereign moral actors, not identity politics groups.

This sounds to me like Jonah thinks the classical liberal is supposed to play stupid. Jonah is fully aware that this is a country that for most of its history has been dominated by “identity group politics,” if you want to call it that. Blacks have been legal slaves. Jim Crow established legal racial segregation. We’ve not overcome the legacy of this. We live with urban policies that were initiated as thinly veiled attempts to reinforce residential segregation. We live with education policies that create a de facto segregated and highly unequal system of education. And, as Jacob emphasizes, drug policy has never been color-blind. To point out that it burdens blacks disproportionately is simply to point out that American public policy has never stopped being racist, has never stopped reinforcing a shameful structure of racial stratification squarely at odds with the classical liberal ideal of equal freedom under the law. Classical liberalism is not the stupid idea that there is no history. Nor is it the stupid idea that individuals who are members of groups that have been, and continue to be, victims of discriminatory state action are as fully free as individuals who are not. Classical liberalism is the demand that the state treat mature individuals as equally autonomous and sovereign moral agents, which is why it is necessary to point out the disturbingly discriminatory nature of American drug policy.

[Update: Please also see John Schwenkler and Mark Thompson. Update update: Also and especially John Holbo. How did I miss all this stuff I apparently started.]

Place. Limits. Liberty.

I think I am going to really enjoy Front Porch Republic (motto: “Place. Limits. Liberty.”), which as far as I can tell is an enterprise devoted to the idea that a world filled with little islands of intense moral chavinism is a better world. Anyway, I was drawn in by this amusing passage in this Daniel Larison post:

[L]et us reflect on the fallen state of man. How did it happen, and what was the cause of the Fall? Our ancestors chose to try to be as gods and willed the one thing that God had forbidden them. Individual autonomy is at the heart of the Fall, and so it is part of our fallen nature, the part that St. Maximos described as the gnomic (deliberative) will. This is how we are now, but this is not how we were created. As fallen creatures we can embrace this autonomy, celebrate it and make it one of our highest goods, as most modern traditions would have us do, or we can turn back to God and change our mind.

I read this to Kerry who submits that “it sounds like he’s talking about Dungeons and Dragons or something,” which I think is about right. I know it’s rude for unbelievers to step into conversations between people who take wizards seriously, but I imagine Larison has a point we can all appreciate, and I’d like to know what it is. My secular reconstruction, which I’m sure leaves out the ineffeble essence of the thought, is that the ideal of individual autonomy is alien to human nature and we would be better off surrendering ourselves to our little platoons to be made as they see fit. Is that it?

Larison goes on to offer a caveat, which he then half withdraws:

In our case, it is also true that none of us would be where and who we are without many of the things we are critiquing and rejecting, and indeed ultimately none of us would be here at all had our first ancestors not disobeyed God, but while we should not be entirely ungrateful for our inheritance neither should we acquiesce in repeating the same errors and persisting in false beliefs about human nature and nature.

I’d like to know what these false beliefs are, plainly stated — if they can survive de-theologizing. I always find myself agreeing with communitarian types that individuals do not spring fully formed from the clay. Human development is indeed a richly social process of enculturation. But it’s a silly non-sequitur, which I find myself running into again and again, that since human development is social, it is a mistake to socialize humans into an ethos of individualistic autonomy. As far as I can see, humans flourish best where autonomy is most celebrated and encouraged, though I’m pefectly open to evidence to the contrary.

David Brooks' Jihad Against Individualism

On behalf of America, I am staging an intervention. Country first!

David Brooks is evidently infatuated with the idea that individualism is just downright unscientific. It is more than a bit queer that Brooks uses this alleged Fact of Science to argue that American conservatives ought to purge all remaining vestiges of individualism from its thought since, you know, American conservative ideology is engineered entirely along scientific lines. On one understanding of the words, the opposite of “individualism” is “socialism”. So I think it’s safe to say that David Brooks is on a quest to make the Republican Party safe for scientific socialism. And that’s just the sort of surprise that makes David Brooks such a consistently interesting thinker.

Nevertheless, I cannot say I understand what he is talking about. Brooks appears to believe that the discovery that human beings are hypersocial mammals is some kind of earthshattering gamechanger, but it’s hard to grasp why he thinks this. Brooks’ account of the science is fine, but the remainder of the column is a lavish non-sequitur, a richly embroidered but intellectually vulgar instance of the naturalistic fallacy. Indeed, the fact that he tries to get where he does with the science he cites is evidence that he doesn’t understand it so well. Now, Brooks is entirely correct when he writes that

…we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.

And it is also true that we are intensely social creatures, deeply connected to one another, and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often not an illusion. It is least often an illusion when one inhabits a moral culture in which psychological individuation, autonomy, and independence are cultivated and prized. If we have managed to wring a relatively individualistic culture out of the raw materials of our tribal natures, that is a triumph of deanimalizing civilization. Individualism is indeed unnatural — much like other noted mockeries of the natural order, such as equality under the law, vaccination, and the wheel. Brooks might stop to note that improvements on nature are both possible and desirable. The existence of mirror neurons no more debunks individualism than the existence of retinas debunks telescopes.

Americans individualism is a manifestation of human sociality. In our culture, individualist norms are routinely transmitted from one generation to the next through the unique hypersocial-mammalian capacity for cultural transmission. Brooks apparently wants to interfere with further transmission of individualistic norms because they produce a politics he finds insufficiently authoritarian and illiberal. Which is, of course, precisely why we need to double down on a moral culture of individualism.

Do individualistic cultures cut across the grain of human nature? Sure  — in a good way! It is a well-confirmed finding of happiness research that individualistic cultures are happier than collectivistic ones. Indeed, this discovery grounds a number of hypotheses about why average wealth correlates with average levels of self-reported life satisfaction. For example, here is Aaron Ahuvia in the Journal of Happiness Studies:

Rather [than increasing happiness directly through increased consumption], economic development increases SWB [subjective well-being] by creating a cultural environment where individuals make choices to maximize their happiness rather than meet social obligations (Coleman, 1990; Galbraith, 1992; Triandis, 1989; Triandis et al., 1990; Veenhoven, 1999; Watkins and Liu, 1996). This cultural transformation away from obligation and toward the pursuit of happiness is part of a broader transition away from collectivism and toward individualist cultural values and forms of social organization.

Got that? Wealth, which produces all sorts of hugely desirable human goods, also weakens orientation toward pre-assigned roles and their obligations and strengthens the orientation toward individual fulfillment, resulting in more fulfillment. Collectivist moral cultures do serve an important function in the typical human condition. But we are lucky when that function has become unnecessary  —  when collectivist values become a vestigial organ of the body politic. Ahuvia puts it nicely:

Collectivism revolves around face, honor, and public reputation. Collectivism is associated with poor countries because it is a cultural survival mechanism born of the necessity for group solidarity. Indeed collectivism is a survival mechanism that is positively correlated with well-being if one looks only at a sub-sample of poor countries (Veenhoven, 1999). Survival mechanisms are serious business. It is not surprising, then, that collectivist societies often rely on social coercion via threats and rewards to one’s public reputation to ensure compliance with group norms, since the stakes for the group are so high.

Does Brooks really want to fight so hard for a morality of poverty? It is true that in straitened circumstances we are forced to close ranks and get with the program, but this is and ought to be repulsive to a free people.

Brooks mentions Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as “conservatives” (WTF?) who really understood social embeddeness. They sure did! So they’re not individualists? Well, in Friedrich Hayek’s brilliant essay, “Individualism: True and False,” he says this:

The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke…

The difference between Brooks and Hayek on this score is that Hayek understands Western political thought, and, more generally, he grasps that sociality is an enabling condition, not the antithesis, of the ethos of individualism that created modern liberty and the wealth of the Western world.

America is reputed to be the world’s most individualistic culture, and has been for a long time. Our individualism is the foundation of the mind-blowing innovation and variety of the American scene. Our individualism is a main source of our world-historical prosperity and high levels of happiness. Yet Brooks, unembarrassed or unaware, wheels out a fallacious appeal to nature specifically to discredit this — the most distinctive and valuable feature of American culture.

It clearly tickles Brooks’ collectivist fancy “when John McCain talks at a forum about national service.” But that is precisely when McCain exposes his martial animosity to the character of his own country. Brooks may wish to join McCain in an effort to efface the separateness of lives, to degrade the dignity of self-creation and self-command by denying its possibility, to cultivate in Americans the docility of subjects ready to kill and die for the state. In Prussia this may have been a “conservative” project. But this is America. And defending American individualism is my one conservative impulse!

So, David Brooks, here’s a line. Paine, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Garrison, Spooner, Tucker, Twain, Mencken, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, and America are over here on this side. And there’s you over there. You are most welcome to step across and attempt to wrest the individualism from our cold dead fingers. Bring McCain! In fairness, I should say that Emerson is a vicious Indian leg wrestler.

Raising Kids in Cages

In response to my claim that:

It is tyrannical for parents to attempt to reproduce their ideologies and prejudices in their children, especially when this requires social isolation and emotional coercion.

Robin Hanson replies:

So is the principle here that parents should go beyond their simple judgment when choosing to what to expose our kids?  For example, should we let polygamists argue for their way of life directly to our kids?  Should we let pedophiles argue their case directly to our kids?  Or is the principle here that we know we are right and those other parents are wrong, obligating us to make those parents give their kids what we judge best?

Yes. Parents morally ought go beyond their “simple judgment.” I’d be happy to have polygamists make their case to my kids. Pedophiles too, as long as they’re not philing my peds. The thing is, these will likely be bad arguments that appeal to dubious values and I intend to help my kids develop a sound sense of epistemic and moral judgment. If they can’t tell these are bad arguments (by a certain age), then I’ve probably failed. The principle here is that freedom is good, that psychological freedom is a kind of freedom, and that psychological freedom has some developmental preconditions — it requires the cultivation of certain moral and epistemic capacities. Part of that cultivation comes from practicing judgment in a complex world of moral diversity.

I don’t find the fact that people disagree about this any more interesting than the fact that people disagree over the wrongfulness of foot-binding or genital mutilation. Decent people  agree that there are minimal developmental conditions parents must provide their children. No one may raise their kid in total darkness, say, so that the child never develops sight–even if the kid is well-nourished, etc. You can’t lock your kid in a cage in the basement and teach it to be your personal slave. And, yes, the minimum is historically and culturally relative. It is simply not OK to intentionally raise an illiterate child, even though illiteracy is the natural human condition. So, yes, “we” just do decide that “we” are right and some other parents are wrong “obligating us to make those parents give their kids what we judge best?” Is this even controversial? Who thinks clitoridectomy or breast ironing ought to be legal in the U.S.?

Libertarians are touchy about this issue. They agree parents can’t raise their kids in a cage, but they also don’t want the state to be telling parents they can’t teach creationism, either. I agree! But it seems like lots of libertarians are so jealous of the right of parents to teach their kids about saddled dinosaurs, that they’re a bit too motivated to wave away the very real violence to freedom that comes from neglecting the conditions under which kids come to be able to meaningful exercise their freedom. If you don’t think it ought to be legal to raise malnourished kids, or blindfolded kids, or mute cage kids, then I think you’ve got to think harder about why not. And then you’ve got to think about whether some actually existing conditions are more like that than you might have thought.

Uncooperative Collectivsm

Gated summaries of gated papers are annoying, but the result is interesting, so I thought I’d pass this along:

Put four Boston students-all strangers-in a game where they must distribute tokens among themselves using rules that reward both selfish and cooperative moves; allow them to punish each other by taking back tokens (albeit at a cost to themselves); and then watch the chips fall. The students not only penalize freeloaders- that is, players who don’t give enough tokens to the group- but also respond to each other’s punishment by giving more to the group in subsequent rounds. So do students in western European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Denmark.

But half a world away, in the more collectivist cultures of Istanbul, Turkey; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Muscat, Oman, the play is a little rougher. Students give less overall to the public weal. And when punished, the freeloaders strike back, exacting revenge from the do-gooders who penalized them in earlier rounds. Closer to home, students in Greece, Russia, and Belarus likewise act less altruistically and more readily ding their cooperative colleagues.

Having watched college students play the token game in 16 cities, the researchers conclude that “culture strongly influences cooperation and punishment,” says Simon Gächter, an economist at the University of Nottingham in England and one of the study’s authors.


Ironically, a distaste for civic cooperation and the rule of law tends to travel with collectivism, data from the World Values Survey show. Collectivistic societies stress interdependence between people and the pursuit of group goals. But not just any people or group’s goals count, explains Gächter: “In these societies you cooperate with people inside your network, which is organized along family and friendship lines. In our experiments, everyone is an outsider to everyone else. You might not accept punishment from outside your network.”

Conversely, individualistic societies view each person as independent and value the pursuit of individual goals. These mores are more prevalent in wealthier democracies, notes Herbert Gintis, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, in an accompanying article. “In modern, market-based societies, group boundaries aren’t very important,” explains Gächter. “You have to be able to cooperate with unrelated strangers.” And so rather than being hotbeds of cut-throat competition, capitalist democracies are actually kinder and gentler than more traditional economies—at least for strangers.

Similar results have been rolling in for a while now. So it should be considered scientifically and thus intellectually bogus to characterize individualist cultures and markets societies as encouraging some kind of atomized dog-eat-dog ethic. There is tribalist solidarity, which certainly has its share of mammalian gratification, but leads to vicious conflict between tribes. And then there is liberal, market solidarity, which is based not in exclusion, or a feeling of warmth for our kinsmen, but in a perhaps less “meaningful” yet much more materially significant relations of extended mutual advantage.

[Thanks to Ashley March for the article.]

Collectivism and Meaning

Great stuff in today’s WSJ from Cato executive veep David Boaz on the collectivist blowhards running for president.

Messrs. Obama and McCain are telling us Americans that our normal lives are not good enough, that pursuing our own happiness is “self-indulgence,” that building a business is “chasing after our money culture,” that working to provide a better life for our families is a “narrow concern.”

They’re wrong. Every human life counts. Your life counts. You have a right to live it as you choose, to follow your bliss. You have a right to seek satisfaction in accomplishment. And if you chase after the almighty dollar, you just might find that you are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do things that improve the lives of others.

Right on. So why the nonsense? Arnold Kling says it’s Hansonian altruistic signaling. Sure, there’s some of that. But why does this get a grip on us? Why are people such suckers for the idea that collective sacrifice is a source of meaning.

Here’s a question. Is sacrifice for grand collective projects really meaningful? Probably it is. But the reward, the compensation for sacrifice, is indifferent to the content of the project. Probably genocide is meaningful for those who devote themselves to it. Religion is meaningful, too. But it’s a pack of lies. Meaningfulness is too promiscuous, justifies too much. I suspect there’s little sense in mounting an argument against meaning, per se. Everybody wants it, even if we badly overestimate how much we need it. But I think we’re obliged to do better in discriminating between sources of meaning and their effects. We tend to indulge people’s irrational fixations when they claim that they find them “meaningful.” But why? That it is “meaningful” to X may be a reason to be especially hard on X, if X is dangerous and meaning is really so attractive. Collectivism is meaningful, but it is mindless, pathetic, and the essential fuel for the greatest cruelty. That it does feel sublime to submit to the will of the whole, to lose oneself in something bigger, that it is a special kind of bliss to transcend the small grubby thing that is one’s own small life, is why human beings will so cheerfully slaughter one another. This should probably be discouraged.