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Saturday
Jun162012

Overcoming Welfare - Expecting More from the Poor and from Ourselves

The debate over welfare often gets stuck in a dispute over moral principles, or worse, degenerates into ad hominem attacks on both sides. James L. Payne moves beyond ideology and rhetoric and examines the matter empirically. Which ways of helping the needy really work and which do not? He investigates what the essential characteristics of effective and ineffective (or downright harmful) helping are respectively, and how can we promote the former over the latter. Payne points out that those who oppose welfare programs don’t do so because they are selfish and lack compassion, but because they see that such programs do not work. We could all agree that helping the needy is a good thing, the question remains how this can be done in a constructive manner.

 

Payne makes a distinction between sympathetic giving (giving “handouts”) and expectant giving (offering “a hand up”). Sympathetic giving is something-for-nothing-giving. This type of giving does not demand anything in response to the help and is “governed by the degree of sympathy or pity we feel for the recipient”. One example of this kind of helping is giving alms to a beggar. This kind of helping tends to be counterproductive and undermine the pride and self-confidence of recipients and reinforce dysfunctional behavior and attitudes. Sympathetic giving doesn’t lift the poor out of poverty but instead tends to lock the needy into a destructive state of permanent dependency. The aim of expectant giving, by contrast, is to help people get back on their feet, to “help people to help themselves”; it is “giving with a definite expectation that the needy person will do something constructive in exchange for the help rendered”. One example of that kind of helping is helping someone to get a job so that he can earn what he needs himself. This kind of helping bolsters the energy, self-esteem, and productiveness of people in unfortunate circumstances. 

 

As Payne points out, most people agree that it is expectant giving that is the healthy type of giving. Yet we keep getting policies based on sympathetic giving. Payne offers an in-depth analysis of how this initially paradoxical situation has come about and why it persists over time. One central component of the analysis is that government welfare programs have an inherent tendency to lapse into something-for-nothing-giving: “… fiscal, bureaucratic, and institutional pressures inherent in government […] push even programs with the best of intentions into the handout mode.” Payne points toward a fundamental inconsistency in our thinking: “we insist on using government to help the poor, yet government’s way of helping is the much-deplored handout.” 

 

Welfare is not like a machine, a simple toy that one can fix by tightening some screws here and there. The welfare programs we deplore are outgrowths of our own errors of reason and perception. Until we identify and transcend these fatal biases, welfare programs will never come right. We oversimplify by saying that welfare is something we need to reform; it is rooted in a flawed mindset that needs to be overcome.

 

As Payne points out, human beings are naturally compassionate. Giving to the needy is an extremely simple, primitive reaction to their plight. When we see a suffering person, our first impulse is to end his suffering by giving him what he lacks. But this is taking the easy way out: “Programs of sympathetic giving are always probable when people are acting impulsively – which, in politics, in not an uncommon situation.” The kind of helping that really works (expectant giving) makes considerable intellectual demands on donors. One reason for this is that it requires taking account of the special circumstances and abilities of each individual recipient, a task much better suited for small, local charities than for large and anonymous government organizations. While governmental welfare programs are inherently structurally biased in favour of sympathetic giving, private charity organizations are naturally biased in favour of expectant giving.

 

When we directly give our own resources to those in need, we don’t want our aid to create an open-ended dependency because that would drain us financially. So we look for ways to help that will make the recipient independent and let us end our aid. […] In an institutional system of assistance, with workers being paid to help the needy, the incentives run in the opposite direction. Welfare officials are not dispensing their personal funds; they are giving away other people’s money. They do not suffer financially from open-ended giving. For them, the financial pinch comes when the money stops being given away, when the program is shrunk or closed down and their jobs disappear. Thus, the self-interest of workers and managers in institutional systems creates pressures to keep caseloads up, even if the program is ineffective, and even if it causes harmful dependency.

 

Payne rightly points out that this self-interested motivation of social workers need not be conscious. There are a number of psychological defense mechanisms that prevent employees from noticing what’s wrong – and from telling anyone when they do notice. One of these is task commitment: we have a tendency to believe that whatever we are doing is worth doing. It would be psychologically stressful for an employee to admit to himself (and to others) that what he or she does is wasteful and harmful. The well-established phenomenon of self-deception (humans are better at deceiving others if they first deceive themselves) can encompass the recipients of welfare as well. As pointed out by the economist Paul H. Rubin, when “interest groups seek benefits, they typically use a public interest justification. That is, they do not simply assert that they have sufficient power to get benefits; rather, they allege that the benefits will also benefit the public. […] the theory of self-deception indicates that they may well believe these assertions themselves.” See Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics (my review) for an interesting discussion of welfare (among many other topics) from an evolutionary perspective.

 

Private charity organizations are also, though to a lesser degree, vulnerable to institutional problems, especially when they grow larger. However, “in any kind of organization based on voluntary donations, no matter how large, there is one ultimate check” 

 

If programs become too unattractive – if they are clearly seen to create dependency or to assist recipients who are not trying to help themselves – donors are free to stop contributing. In the end, notoriously bad programs will be cut back or terminated. Programs based on the tax system – whether operated by government agencies or nonprofits using tax money – lack this safeguard. If donors are forced to give through the tax system, they cannot decline to support programs, no matter how much they disapprove of them. 

 

Payne points out that in theory democracy should provide a way for the public to terminate failing programs, but in practice, it is almost never possible. As Rubin also pointed out, because of the phenomena of loss aversion and status quo bias, once a program is established it is extremely difficult to terminate it. Rubin writes that

 

Any program creates beneficiaries, and these beneficiaries will strongly resist any change that reduces their incomes. This resistance will be stronger than might be expected based on the amount of potential loss. Moreover, even if the program has potential gains for the losers (e.g. offers to pay compensation), the losers may still resist because the sure losses are overvalued relative to potential gains. 

 

Rubin’s advice to policy makers is to “be very careful in imposing new programs because the political cost of later eliminating the programs […] will be higher than might appear.” 

 

Another factor that pushes welfare programs towards sympathetic giving is ideology. Payne writes:

 

For generations, many philosophers and reformers have embraced the doctrine of income redistribution, believing that government should take from the rich and give to the poor. A handout policy follows almost automatically from this approach. If the poor are morally “entitled” to government payments, it is wrong to demand that they do anything in return for them. Thus, the policy of income redistribution has seriously harmed the cause of sound assistance policy.  

 

This ideology is strong among contemporary government-employed social workers who are supposed to be the “experts” on the matter (in sharp contrast with the nineteenth-century social workers who worked in local, private charity groups and from whom Payne gathers much inspiration). Payne also points to a “naive idealism about human nature” in certain circles that has led people to believe that state redistribution of income by taxing the wealthy and giving it to the less well-off does not have negative effects on their motivation. 

 

Another ideological aspect is the preoccupation with equality. Payne thinks that equality is “a noble social goal” when pursued through voluntary means. When force is used to implement equality, however, “the ideal turns sour”.

 

Relying on the coercion of the state to promote equality mocks generosity and poisons the wellsprings of genuine community. In the end, the welfare state produces donors who resent recipients, and resentful recipients who clamor for their “rights”. 

 

And because of the obvious risks of fraud and shirking, both taxpayers and welfare recipients need to be monitored. This results in us all being “ensnared in a Big Brother apparatus of surveillance and control operated on the assumption that everyone is trying to cheat everyone else.”

 

How then can we possibly get out of this situation? Payne is rightly sceptical about political means:

 

Opponents of [governmental welfare] programs make the mistake of assuming that the way to rein in welfare spending is to gain political control of the purse strings. Their theory is that to cut welfare, all you have to do is cut welfare. Several decades of failure on this front should have revealed the flaw in this approach. Welfare handout programs exist because there is a powerful, if shallow, sentiment in favor of them. The public’s natural sympathy for the needy is mobilized by administrators and special interest leaders who present these programs as compassionate and who suppress their unfair and dysfunctional aspects. When attempts are made to limit welfare spending, these forces swing into action, accusing budget-cutters of trying to starve Grandma. The press and much of the public accept this interpretation […] Cutting programs does nothing to correct this imbalance in information and perception. Hence, welfare programs start growing back even before one has finished trying to cut them.

 

Payne stresses that the only effective way to limit programs is to expose their flaws and faulty premises. In parts three and four of the book, he also describes various voluntary alternatives for help and uplift. Overcoming Welfare is an inspiring book for those who really care about helping the needy (rather than about promoting their own view of the "good society").  

Saturday
Apr282012

A History of Force - Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem

If we had been alive in times past, we say, we would have condemned human sacrifice, the torturing of criminal suspects, the slaying of religious heretics, and so on. How - we ask in disbelief - could anyone have endorsed these practices? This attitude of superiority blinds us to the real complexity of the evolution that operates against force-based institutions. When a coercive practice is ascendant, it is not condemned. To the contrary, it is seen as essential for the health of civilization. It is endorsed by the best citizens, and its critics, if it has any, tend to be society's deviants and outsiders.

 
The present book by James L. Payne came seven years earlier than Steven Pinker’s impressive treatise The Better Angels of our Nature (my review) and puts forward the same general thesis: that there is a broad historical trend against physical force. Pinker quotes and refers to Payne's book on numerous occasions and rightly calls A History of Force an insightful book. While Pinker is a psychologist, Payne is a political scientist. As such their perspectives differ somewhat which makes the two books excellent companions to each other.


 
Like Pinker, Payne too emphasizes just how vital it is for freedom and prosperity to overcome violence. Without overcoming political murder (political actors killing each other to gain access to power; not to be confused with politicians being murdered by political outsiders with no prospects of assuming power themselves as a result of the murders), democracy could never have replaced more authoritarian political systems. And without overcoming widespread violence in the streets, the economic development we have seen would not have been possible.

 

Payne discusses separately human sacrifice, genocide, war, revolution, criminal punishment, terrorism, street violence, slavery, and more. All of these forms of violence have declined and some have even disappeared altogether. He makes the following general comments concerning those uses of force that have been abandoned:

 

At first, people believed that life couldn't go on without these violent practices, that civilization would "collapse" if they were set aside. Yet history did set them aside - and life went on, indeed somewhat better than before because human beings have the ingenuity to devise noncoercive approaches.

 

In their heyday, [these uses of force] are thought to be inevitable, something no one can do anything about. Nevertheless, generations later, they have disappeared. It is likely that the same pattern still applies, and that uses of force that today seem ingrained and even essential are also destined to disappear.

 

Payne believes that war and taxation and ultimately government itself will eventually go the same way as slavery and human sacrifice. While most of the force-based practices he discusses more or less belong to the past, he devotes a few chapters at the end of the book to force-based practices of the present. One of these is taxation. He says that

 

... taxation gives a fair picture of how a force-based practice looks in its heyday. On the one hand, the practice provokes a great deal of dissatisfaction and a pervasive feeling that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. But, on the other hand, there is a virtually universal belief that the practice is inevitable and necessary.

 

He traces taxation to its historical origin and notes that it is almost as old as war and closely bound up with war. He comments that it is indeed paradoxical that a practice with such a disreputable background has become the foundation of the modern welfare state: "It is rather like a finding a day care center set up in a medieval torture chamber". Payne claims to detect a growing tension between taxation and our sensitive modern values. He thinks that the ancient technology of extracting funds through force and the threat of force fits increasingly badly with modern ethical, cultural, and political values.

 

It is also noted that there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with politics that increasingly undermines the (supposed) legitimacy of the state. Payne comments on the future of contemporary electoral politics thus:

 

We no doubt shall go on using elections that make voters choose between candidates, even undesirable ones, thus maintaining the pretense that the victors have public support. But in the long run, growing apathy and political dissatisfaction seem bound to have an effect, in one form or another, in undermining government's vitality, scope, and importance.

 

In the final chapter of the book Swimming in History's Tide: Lessons for Voluntarists, Payne outlines his own voluntarist attitude. He points out that force isn't the only way to get people to do the right thing and that force-based methods are very often counterproductive. He also stresses that the evolution away from force and towards voluntary alternatives is slow and uneven, and that those who associate themselves with voluntary efforts are on a "more secure path to progress".

 

A History of Force is highly recommended reading!

Wednesday
Mar282012

An Error Theory of Political Obligation

Like Bryan Caplan, I am also excited about Michael Huemer's upcoming book on political authority. The table of contents looks very interesting indeed (the link takes you to the whole first chapter of the book). I have previously commented on Huemer's paper Why People are Irrational about Politics. It seems that the book will include critical discussions of political social contract theory, democracy, consequentialist arguments for political obligation, criminal justice, and defense without government, among many other things. What especially caught my interest though is a chapter on The Psychology of Authority, discussing things like the Stockholm Syndrome and the famous Milgram experiments in relation to political authority. 

 

In a comment to a post on the PeaSoup blog from 2006, Huemer briefly states his case for what he there calls an "error theory of political obligation". He says that a good error theory may cite a number of factors that explains the false appearance of political obligation and legitimacy, and he goes on to list three such factors:

 

a. People in general have a strong instinctive drive to obey and even identify with those who have power. It is easy to see why this would have evolutionary survival value. And there is plenty of psychological evidence that people have this drive even in cases in which it is entirely uncontroversial that obedience to the person in power is wrong. (I'm thinking of things like the Milgram experiment, and the Stockholm syndrome.)

 

b. Also, most of the laws that people readily think of prohibit things that are really wrong (murder, rape, etc.) So it's easy for people to acquire an association between morality and law.

 

c. There are also strong prudential reasons for obeying most laws, most of the time, and people may sometimes confuse prudential with moral reasons. Apropos of this, parents teach children what is wrong by punishing them for doing the wrong things.

 

He concedes that these things may seem a bit "too intellectually unsophisticated to explain the beliefs of intelligent, sophisticated political theorists".

 

But they aren't too unsophisticated to explain how children might form their attitudes, and it is during childhood that many of our intuitions are formed. When we grow older, rather than changing these intuitions, we may decide that good philosophical methodology is to devise some clever, sophisticated theories to rationalize these intuitions whose source we can't directly apprehend.

 

Hopefully, the book expands on this argument. I sent Huemer an e-mail asking when the book will be published and he replied that it will probably appear in the fall of this year or in the spring of 2013.

 

Sunday
Mar042012

On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection

 

[The] history of human societies from hunting and gathering to early industrialism is, in many ways, a history of structural elaborations that imposed constraints on individuals and that legitimated these constraints with ideologies.

 

In his Darwinian Politics, the Paul H. Rubin made repeated references to a book by Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner called The Social Cage – Human Nature and the Evolution of Society published in 1992. The present book from 2008 is by the same two authors and (from what I understand) revisits some of the same themes. Compared to Rubin, Maryanski and Turner discuss some of the same topics and even reach somewhat similar conclusions. However, they do it from very different perspectives. Rubin is an economist, while Maryanski and Turner are sociologists. Though anchored in their own academic discipline, On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection is as much a book in biology as it is in sociology and contains some powerful internal critique of sociology and the social sciences in general. Maryanski and Turner reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model that has downplayed biological and evolutionary perspectives and led to a "social constructivist" outlook in sociology and elsewhere in the social sciences. On the other hand, Maryanski and Turner also distance themselves from what they take to be “the other extreme”, that culture and social structure is to be explained largely by biology – “a mistake that early sociobiologists once made”.

 

As its title indicates, the book traces the evolutionary origins and transformations of human societies. The discussion is incredibly detailed and goes back to the very beginnings more than 65 million years ago to find the common ancestor of monkeys and apes. The first human societies (hunter-gather societies) do not enter the scene until chapter six. Chapters seven, eight and nine discuss horticultural societies, agrarian societies, and industrial (and post-industrial) societies respectively. By far the most interesting chapter of the book is the tenth and final one, entitled "Strangers in a Strange Land: Evolved Apes Living in Sociocultural Cages". This concluding chapter can be read by itself, and for many readers this will be all they need.

 

Rather than starting out with ideological assumptions or utopian presuppositions about "the good society", Maryanski and Turner ask "What behavioral propensities did natural selection install in hominids over the long course of their biological evolution?", and by answering this question they can answer another: "What patterns of social organization are compatible or incompatible with these propensities?" The general conclusion they reach is that industrial (and post-industrial) societies are far more compatible with human nature than any other societal formations since hunting and gathering.

 

For many generations, social critics of many stripes have held a highly romanticized view of pre-industrial societies as pleasant places to live. Whatever the hypothesized pathology of industrial society - alienation, marginality, egoism, anomie - early sociologists never questioned the validity of their comparisons of individuals living in pre-industrial to those in industrial societies. In fact, they tended to have a collectivist view of human nature that fit monkeys more than apes.

 

... criticisms of modernity are based on a flawed view of human nature. Humans are not the descendants of monkey ancestors, as most sociological criticisms of modernity imply. A monkey might like the world that sociologists hypothesize existed before industrialism [...] In contrast, an ape would find pre-industrial societies after hunting and gathering highly constraining. And, if we look at the historical record, humans left pre-industrial formations of horticulture and agrarianism as quickly as they could, once another option presented itself.  

 

In contrast to the chronological disposition of the book, I will opt for a more thematic approach and comment on a number of the themes in the book.

 

On human nature

Maryanski and Turner note that "many sociologists reject the idea of talking about human nature, even as they incorporate untested assumptions about human needs". The authors insist that by ignoring biology, "we miss important insights that can add a great deal to sociological explanations". They appealingly suggest that we view human nature as "a weak but persistent pressure, manifesting itself as individual preferences or a sine qua non to behave in certain ways". These "subtle and persistent pressures from humans’ biological nature have always been present", they write, "pushing sociocultural formations toward those more compatible with humans’ ape ancestry". After all, humans are animals that evolved like all other animals, and

 

... despite the spectacular, if not dangerous, cultural systems and social structures that our large brains allow us to construct, these do not obviate the influence of biology on human behaviour and social organization, now or in the distant past.

 

On individualism

The authors point out that "even with some hardwired bioprogrammers for sociality, there can be little doubt that the great apes (and the common ancestors of the great apes and hominids) revealed clear behavioral propensities for individuality". Humans are "programmed to feel comfortable in fluid, weak-tie groups". They further note that humans are indeed "far more individualistic than many sociologists feel comfortable admitting, given their collectivist ideological biases". Interestingly, the conflict between individualism and collectivism may, they think, "be lodged in human neuroanatomy, as much as in cultural ideologies" and that, "given a choice, humans appear to gravitate to sociocultural formations that give them choice and options".

 

On social cages

The history of human societies is, in many ways, a history of constraints imposed on individuals. Maryanski and Turner call these (systems of) constraints "social cages". They stress that there was not just one social cage, but many, and that they were often successively embedded in each other. They talk about the cages of kinship and power:

 

  • The cage of kinship was based on kinship-units like nuclear families, lineages, clans, phratries, and moieties, successively encompassing the entire population and leading to individuals being "trapped in a web of kinfolk".
  • This cage of kinship was eventually replaced the cage of power. A bureaucratic structure was first superimposed over the kin-based structure, eventually replacing the kinship system with a more bureaucratized state.

 

These social cages came increasingly in conflict with human nature as they

 

... limited individualism and mobility, imposed pervasive systems of authority from which there was no escape, and converted community into yet another cage that restricted rather than facilitated individualism and free movement.

 

On the evolution of the state 

Once the economy could generate a surplus of resources over and above those needed for survival, this surplus could be taxed. As power was consolidated and centralized, more of the economic surplus was usurped and used to support elite privilege and repress dissent over the perceived unfairness. Ideologies are employed to legitimate the power of leaders and to convince subordinates of their obligations to conform. Religious beliefs also began to legitimate power, with leaders being seen as god-like or as sanctioned by the supernatural. Religious elites often entered into "unholy" alliances with political elites to justify and legitimate the use of political power to maintain elite privilege.

 

Later on, law was also used as a more secular alternative to religious edicts to increase the power of the state: "law increasingly gave polity the rights to regulate and control. When law was effective, it could bestow legitimacy on the state".

 

The authors emphasize that once political leadership was given, it could not so easily be taken away. Once consolidation of power was initiated, "it continued because those with power used their power to gain more power". As the state evolved, the options of individuals to escape the cage of power declined. They may have migrated when possible, "but they typically left one cage and entered another".

 

In the end, it remains somewhat unclear whether they see government as arising as a response to some societal need, or if governments took control simply because they could. They repeatedly talk about governments growing in response to "selection pressures from regulation", but never explain what they mean in detail.

 

On capitalism 

It was possible to see trends that provided an escape from the many social cages which humans had been forced to live in: "The most significant trend revolved around the gradual expansion of economic activity outside the landed estates and the rise of markets". Over time, this emerging capitalist system "changed people’s cognitive orientations and beliefs, leading them to believe that it was their right to pursue, as individuals, the opportunities generated by markets."

 

A capitalist system [was] preferable to an evolved ape [over] the feudal system [with its] subordination to elites on landed estates [and] to clergy bent on controlling the masses for their own power and privilege.

 

However, Maryanski and Turner also think that capitalism was guilty of some “horrific early abuses”, mentioning the “truly degrading conditions” under which people had to work in factories during the early days of industrialism. The only reference provided for this claim is a quote by Friedrich Engels (sic)!

 

On money

Maryanski and Turner point out that governments "increasingly had a vested interest in controlling the coinage of money and its viability in markets generating the wealth needed to finance government and elite privilege". Indeed, money became yet another aspect of the symbolic base of political power.  

 

I recently listened to a podcast from Econtalk in which George Selgin talks about this subject. In his book The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply Under Competitive Note Issue, Selgin writes

 

States monopolized their coinage early in history. But this does not mean that they were the best makers of coin or that coinage is a natural monopoly. Rather, state coinage monopolies were established by force. Once rulers had set up their own mints they prohibited private issues, making their coins both a symbol of their rule and a source of profits.

 

On democracy

Maryanski and Turner also argue that as markets grew and as more people in a society "became part of the market system as consumers, wage earners, or capitalists (large and small)", pressures thereby increased for new democratic forms of politics: 

 

Once individuals have choices in new arenas within the economy, they begin to seek choices in political leaders [and in doing so] they begin to exercise resistance to the cage of power.

 

They point out that "humans have a desire to determine who their leaders will be and to have some ability to limit the power of these leaders". But they fail to note that, in a democracy, some people inevitably choses for others, which obviously entails that, in fact, only some will determine who their leaders will be, while most will be ruled by the leaders chosen by others. 

 

On inequality

Another slightly annoying aspect of their discussion is that they seldom distinguish between inequality of wealth and inequality of political power. They rightly point out that humans have a strong propensity to want to limit the power of dominants (as can be seen in hunter-gatherer societies, for example). But, as Rubin argued, this propensity is useful only when applied to power and it becomes wasteful and counterproductive when applied to material inequality. I think that Maryanski and Turner could learn a lot from Rubin's book in general, but their own book is worth reading as a compliment. 

Wednesday
Feb292012

Why People Are Irrational about Politics

Why is politics a subject matter about which there is widespread, strong, and persistent disagreement? In this paper, the philosopher Michael Huemer (following Bryan Caplan) argues that the phenomenon of rational irrationality is (a large part of) the answer to this question. In short, the idea behind rational irrationality is that people can rationally adopt irrational beliefs because acquiring rational beliefs involves a "cost" that exceeds its benefit. There are certain things that people want to believe "for reasons independent of the truth of those propositions or of how well-supported they are by the evidence". Given this there is a cost to thinking rationally, "namely, that one may not get to believe the things one wants to believe". The idea is that "most people will accept this cost only if they receive greater benefits from thinking rationally". And since there are almost no benefits to be received from thinking rationally about political issues, we can predict that many people will often be irrational about politics (and it is easy to find examples where this prediction holds true).

 

Elaborating on the theory of rational irrationality, Huemer appeals to the distinction between instrumental rationality and epistemic rationality. Roughly, while instrumental rationality consists in choosing the best available means to the ends one has, epistemic rationality consists in forming beliefs in a truth-conducive manner (accepting only things that are well-supported by evidence, revising beliefs in the light of new evidence, avoiding contradictions and logical fallacies, etc.). With this helpful distinction at hand, Huemer says that the theory of rational irrationality holds that it can be instrumentally rational to be epistemically irrational.   

 

In order to explain why some people adopt irrational beliefs, we need only assume that these people prefer to believe certain things to a higher degree than they prefer to be epistemically rational. Huemer points out that for some people, being epistemically rational may itself be preferred with sufficient strength to outweigh whatever preferences they might have with respect to their beliefs, but for many people this will not be the case. Huemer argues that the phenomenon of rational irrationality is particularly common when it comes to political beliefs.

 

As argued by Caplan, voters have systematically biased beliefs about economics. The policies that voters choose are, for example, systematically less free market and more anti-immigrant than what would serve the those voters own ends. But because of the miniscule chance that a single vote makes any difference to the outcome, it can be rational for the individual to indulge in irrationality in the political domain. Like Caplan, Huemer considers the competing explanations for political disagreement and concludes that neither of them (separately or jointly) can fully explain the salient features of political disagreement (without appealing to the phenomenon of rational irrationality). The commonly given explanations include that political issues are unusually difficult, that people are ignorant, and that people have different fundamental value systems. No doubt, these things are true as well (at least the second two), but they are not sufficient to explain disagreement. Commenting on the view that disagreement might be due to there not being any objectively true answers to value questions, Huemer boldly states that "value questions are objective, and moral anti-realism is entirely unjustified". I strongly disagree with him on that point (I think it is realism that is unjustified), but I agree that many political disagreements cannot be fully explained that way.

 

The irrationality hypothesis is superior to alternative explanations of political disagreement in its ability to account for several features of political beliefs and arguments: the fact that people hold their political beliefs with a high degree of confidence; the fact that discussion rarely changes political beliefs; the fact that political beliefs are correlated with race, sex, occupation, and other cognitively irrelevant traits; and the fact that numerous logically unrelated political beliefs—and even, in some cases, beliefs that rationally undermine each other—tend to go together. These features of political beliefs are not explained by the hypotheses that political issues are merely very difficult, that we just haven’t yet collected enough information regarding them, or that political disputes are primarily caused by people’s differing fundamental value systems.

 

Why do people have preferences over beliefs? Huemer's answer is that

 

The beliefs that people want to hold are often determined by their self-interest, the social group they want to fit into, the self-image they want to maintain, and the desire to remain coherent with their past beliefs. People can deploy various mechanisms to enable them to adopt and maintain their preferred beliefs, including giving a biased weighting of evidence; focusing their attention and energy on the arguments supporting their favored beliefs; collecting evidence only from sources they already agree with; and relying on subjective, speculative, and anecdotal claims as evidence for political theories.

 

Here I feel that this otherwise excellent paper tells only half the story. It is reasonable to ask why people are self-interested (and besides, it is in general not true that they are, especially not in the voting booth); why people want to fit into social groups; why we are more prone to be biased in certain directions (and not in others), etc. Our cognitive biases and preferences are not random and there is an evolutionary story to be told about how and why they came about (as Caplan noted). As Steven Pinker said in The Blank Slate,

 

Our minds keep us in touch with aspects of reality – such as objects, animals, and people – that our ancestors dealt with for millions of years. But as science and technology open up new and hidden worlds, our untutored intuitions may find themselves at sea.

 

For many domains of knowledge, the mind could not have developed dedicated machinery, the brain and genome show no hints of specialization, and people show no spontaneous intuitive understanding either in the crib or afterward. They include modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and mathematics. It’s not just that we have to go to school or read books to learn these subjects. It’s that we have no mental tools to grasp them intuitively.

 

Therefore:

 

Understanding in these domains is likely to be uneven, shallow, and contaminated by primitive intuitions. And that can shape debates in the border disputes in which science and technology make contact with everyday life. […] with all the moral, empirical, and political factors that go into these debates, we should add the cognitive factors: the way our minds naturally frame issues. Our own cognitive makeup is a missing piece of many puzzles, including education, bioethics, food safety, economics, and human understanding itself.

 

Huemer does provide a nice list of things we can do to try to overcome our biases, but learning about the evolutionary origins of our cognitive biases should be added to his list as it may well be essential to overcoming bias. Still, Huemer's paper is very well worth reading in addition to Caplan's excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter.   

 

Here is a short clip where Huemer talks about why people are irrational about politics: