Darwinian Politics

Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom is a fine introduction to the sociobiology of politics. Rubin is a self-identified libertarian but he makes a serious attempt to avoid dogmatism and consider evidence that points in the opposite direction. For example, on the issue of personal freedom his research forced him to qualify his views about government regulation of personal behavior. In most other aspects, he believes that knowledge of evolutionary psychology can help us in recognizing irrational and wealth-destroying ancestral thinking and conduct. To what extent such recognition can alter our behavior is not a topic he discusses in much detail. In some cases, he seems to be of the opinion that there are general human traits that are so “hardwired” that it would be futile for politicians to go against them, but in other cases he seems to lament the persistence of other hardwired human traits in our modern society. I suspect that, ultimately, where one locates oneself in such debates is itself influenced by ideology, which presents some non-trivial challenges in drawing normative conclusions from sociobiology.

The main thesis of the book is that humans have spent most of their existence in small groups of hunter gatherers and our thinking and conduct concerning economical and political matters is greatly shaped (and constrained) by this.  Most of the chapters are aimed at working out the implications of this for various issues, ranging from conflicts between groups to the politics of envy.

Rubin is not a friend of social contract / state of nature theorizing. He not only believes that contractarianism provides little guidance about the State and politics in the real world, but that the social contract metaphor itself is harmful because it suggests that humans have more freedom in choosing the rules and institutions of their society than they actually have (and can have). He draws an interesting analogy to this view and the Standard Social Science Model (and its political offspring, Marxism) in which human psychology is basically a blank slate. He writes, “if real policies are based on false constructions, then real suffering may ensue.”

One of the strongest sections in the book is where Rubin explains why evolution is not incompatible with individual or group differences. His argument draws upon evolutionary game theory in demonstrating why we would expect individuals who employ different “strategies” to be present in varying proportions in the population, including a small proportion of sociopaths. It would be reasonable to conclude from this that different character traits give rise to different kinds of political beliefs, and that we should expect a permanent “war” between these various types of people. Rubin, however, does not pursue this line of thought and focuses on how general evolved human traits may conflict with rational decision making and welfare maximization.

He devotes a whole chapter to group conflict and this chapter is by far the least exciting because he rather uncritically adopts the outlook of progressive economists.  Rubin puts a lot of emphasis on the observation that individuals can be part of, and can identify with, all kinds of groups. There is little discussion, however, of the degree to which this behavior persists in decision making about personal and political matters. The author is correct that prejudiced consumers and producers decrease the economic gains available to them but he does not discuss cases where “discrimination” can contribute to economic welfare or safety. He also seems to treat the Western economy as a given and does not consider the possibility that (rapid) demographic changes can alter the popularity and functioning of a free market itself. This individualist position should be well known to libertarians (especially of the Objectivist variety) but the question of how a society of (secular) individualists should deal with internal and external threats of more collectivist groups of people is ignored in this context. He is a staunch opponent of affirmative action, however, because it strengthens ethnic identity politics and is extremely dangerous.

In the chapter on altruism, cooperation, and sharing I feel that the evolutionary perspective runs into limits. To some people, evolutionary psychology is just a bunch of just-so stories that allows for the (permanent) co-existence of competing theories and normative conclusions. Rubin thinks that a roughly utilitarian position is implied by human evolution, as opposed to Rawlsian income distribution or Marxism because the latter positions embrace views of human justice that are not compatible with human evolution. He counters the criticism that utilitarianism leads to undesirable implications if carried to its logical extremes by pointing out that such preferences would not have been fitness maximizing, which is an interesting evolutionary take on “rationalist” academic philosophy. This chapter is perhaps the most interesting for his exposition of the debate about the existence of altruism and whether it can be explained without resorting to group selection.

Rubin discusses the existence of envy in some detail and this is the topic where our evolved psychology seems to be highly incompatible with the characteristics of free market economies, in which economic transactions benefit both parties and the gains of the rich do not come at the expense of the poor. It should not be surprising, however, that most humans (including intellectuals) cannot distinguish between, what he calls, dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. As a consequence, people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that the wealthy people do not exercise power. In his discussion of political power, he returns to this topic when he notes that this failure to distinguish between economic success and political power leads many people to believe that government can be a countervailing power instead of a substitution of coercion for mutual benefit.

The author attributes the existence of religion to a form of enlightened anthropomorphism that also allows humans to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemma situations. He attributes the popularity of religions like Christianity and Islam to their universal non-ethnic nature. Unfortunately, the author does not treat the topic of how rising secularism in the Western world will affect such conventions about cooperation and altruism in much detail. In the same chapter, he also discusses a form of competition called “handicap competition,” in which humans engage in self-harming behavior to signal their superior fitness. The author does not draw this link but it is intriguing to think that a lot of the obligatory self-loathing that progressive intellectuals display in discussions about multiculturalism is actually a means to signal their superiority instead of an actual attempt to reduce their own power.

The chapter about how humans make political decisions is quite interesting for libertarians, and those of the anti-political variety in particular, because it documents in some detail how our inherited political conduct is mostly irrelevant and ineffective in today’s world. In particular, we vastly overestimate the importance of our own political views and behavior. As the author notes, “given the vanishingly small probability that a single vote will influence the outcome of an election, there is no reason for people to vote at all.” One important consequence of this is that individuals have a much greater incentive to make rational decisions as consumers than as voters. In politics, ancient zero-sum views on economic issues and envy persist. As such, Rubin provides an evolutionary explanation for the economic populism and political failure that the economist Bryan Caplan identified in his groundbreaking book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. In a sense, this indictment of mass politics as such is more radical than the political anti-statism that informs contemporary rights-based libertarianism.

One of the most interesting and far-reaching discussions in the book concerns the contrast between the study of rationality by behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists on the one hand, and evolutionary psychologists on the other. It has become quite trendy to document and highlight all kinds of cognitive biases, but Rubin contrasts this field with the work of Gerd Gigerenzer, who has shown that if problems are presented in a way that tracks our evolved abilities, respondents are much more likely to give the right answer. Rubin then gives a number of examples of cognitive bias and explores their evolutionary basis. Sadly, it seems that no matter how one defines rationality, it looks like most political activity remains irrational, wasteful, and divisive in today’s world.

The book ends with some analytic and policy implications of the materials presented in the preceding chapters. He basically restates his preference for limited government, against confiscatory income redistribution, and for more liberal immigration policies. Aside from the fact that the author seems to take the orthodox rationale for government as the preferred provider of public goods for granted (at least in this book), one would expect an evolutionary utilitarian such as Rubin to end on a more critical note about democracy, universal suffrage, and its effects on welfare. Otherwise, Darwinian Politics is an important book that warrants careful study and contains a lot of interesting ideas and references.

This entry was posted in Economics, Evolution, Politics, Voting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.