Bryan Caplan  

The Tribal Trap

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I recently argued that the high informal envy tax common to primitive tribes helps explain why economic growth was so low for so long. Matt McIntosh at Conjectures and Refutations faults my story for failing to "really explain the phenomenon he’s discussing." He's right, and it's time to remedy it. But unlike McIntosh, I will not appeal to social utility, but to individual self-interest.

Put yourself into an envious tribal environment. Anyone who is more successful than anyone else has to share his bounty or lose friends and status. Suppose you accept my argument that this system is highly inefficient. What can you do about it? Not much.

You could stop bugging your most successful neighbors for hand-outs. But that just leaves more for the other beggers. Even if you stealthily returned your hand-out to its original owner, there would only be a miniscule effect on the overall rate of the envy tax. After all, the envy tax is the sum of ALL the begging, and you're just one person.

You could refuse to share your bounty. But then you'll quickly be a hated pariah, and maybe your envious neighbors will "accidentally" stick you full of arrows during the next hunt.

You could preach against the envy tax. But that's probably the surest way of all to become a pariah. You may as well denounce motherhood.

Finally, you could leave the tribe and find another one with a lower envy tax. I'm sure I'd want to do just that if I were in a primitive tribe. Paraphrasing Cartman, "Screw you guys, I'm leaving home!"

Big problem #1: Your tribesmen might kill you for this affront. The chief might demand your head for disloyalty.

Big problem #2: Productive people who want a lower envy tax are only one segment of tribe-leavers. The other segment is jerks and criminals exiled by their own tribe. When you go looking for a new tribe, they're going to be worried. You can say "They didn't exile me, I left!" but that's what they all say. It's a Stone Age adverse selection problem.

OK, so a high envy tax is an equilibrium. But why does this equilibrium tend to emerge over and over? Again, individual self-interest. You see that your neighbor is doing well. Maybe if you beg he'll share; and maybe if you give him the evil eye when he turns you down, he'll think twice about saying no the next time. It's worth a try!

If a lot of people think this way, of course, the tribe gets a high envy tax, poverty, and stagnation. But the selfishly optimal strategy even in a poor, backwards society is to keep begging. The size of the pie stays small, but at least you'll get your piece.

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The author at Asymmetrical Information in a related article titled Envy in equilibrium writes:
    Earlier, Bryan Caplan wrote an intriguing post about envy in tribal cultures, and how it prevents economic development. Now, he's followed up with a post discussing why this would be an equilibrium: Put yourself into an envious tribal environment. Anyo... [Tracked on September 8, 2005 9:22 AM]
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Matt McIntosh writes:

No argument here, it's the standard prisoner's dilemma. I was just going one level deeper and trying to explain why that custom may have evolved in the first place.

Robert writes:

For hunter-gatherer societies, sharing insures against the variability of each forager's daily hunt. When I make a big kill I share with you, and when you make a big kill you share with me, because giving up a portion of our bounty, when we have bounty, means we all go hungry less often.

Now, institutionalized sharing does act as a disincentive to any individual making greater efforts. So we might suppose that in some tribe that doesn't practice sharing, everyone will spend more time foraging, and the total amount of food gathered by the tribe will be greater. Since this is the Stone Age, there's not much else to spend it on, so the increased wealth of this tribe translates into having more kids. If they inherit their parents' work ethic, this larger tribe of hard-working foragers puts more stress on their food supply, and in the end they will depopulate their food supply until food is scarce enough that they have to work hard just to get by.

In foraging societies, underproductivity is a means of maintaining stable demographics.

Kerry writes:

In many societies sharing your bounty has a definite pay-back in both social and material returns. Norsemen in the Dark ages are a good example. By sharing your food, drink and lodging in the winter, you create a group that you can later lead on Viking raids. The more people you support, the more you can plunder. Also, you can gain a reputaion as a generous host, which brings more men to continue the cycle. Even though the rich man ends up with the same amount of food, etc. as the beggers, he gains thier allegiance.

monkyboy writes:

I guess we are safe from this system in America. The minimum wage for anyone creating our laws is $165,000/year. Not bad for 6 months work...

John writes:

I wonder what the relationship is between tribal societies and groups of "rugged individualists". Which one ends up richer in the long run. Does working together with the eventual returns from specialization earn a higher standard of living for a society than a more Darwinist approach where only the most innovative and hardest working members of a society of rugged individualists survive.

Randy writes:


Good question. It seems to me that the rugged individualists ran early societies as warrior elites, early modern societies as serf holders, and modern societies as capitalists. The average human being may indeed be a begger at heart, but these do not, and never have, run the show.

spencer writes:

When you look at a small tribe aren't you looking at a social organization that resembles a "family" much more then we are use to dealing with a modern society. Within a family, even the mafia families, such behavior is still very common in modern societies.

The other issue that emerges here is the question of "capital". In a primitive society the individual having more "goods" is more likely to acquired them thru luck or better personal skills.

It is not how we look at capital accumulation
as economists. We look at the capitalist being better off because he accumulates capital and uses it to create new and better means of production. This generates a profit or rent.
But in a primitive society once someone discovers a better way it is shared by everyone almost immediately-- there is no profit or rent.

So maybe the real problem is not an envy tax,
rather it is the absence of profits.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I suspect a general equilibrium model could be developed similar to the one developed in this paper on child labor.

There appear to be two stable points, one of poverty and tribalism/socialism (which I'll call "highly socially connected"), another one of being rich and more capitalism (which I'll call "less socially connected").

It may take a major perturbing force (say a sudden unexpected increase in wealth, or sudden unexpected decrease in social connection) to force the movement from one equilibrium point to another.

This model is simple, of course. I think there are probably many "local minum energy points" of equilibrium, such as European social states which are richer but less socially connected than say Nigeria, but relatively poorer but more socially connected than the USA.

My pet theory is that tribal socialism is an evolved trait (and perhaps that impersonal "free market" trade between tribes is as well).

Andrew writes:

Kerry points out that, as high status is valuable, the custom does not deter individuals from (say) hunting effectively.

What it does deter is hoarding, which in other circumstances can be known as investment. So it's not counterproductive for the society in a hunter-gatherer paradigm, it just acts against moving to a different kind of economic structure that requires investment.

Your description of an "envious tribal environment" sounds very much like a description of New York City.

Bob Knaus writes:

Since we are talking about Envy, one of the 7 deadly sins (and at least 2 others, Sloth & Avarice, as well) I'd like to point out that religion can be a force for breaking the tribal trap, as well as creating it.

In particular, it is possible to find religious societies which retain some "tribal" characteristics but which have adapted well in terms of material success.

I grew up in an Old German Baptist Brethren family. On-line photos are scarce, since they prohibit Internet for members, but this and this and this should give you some flavor.

Members assist each other with the money and work required for barnraising, housebuilding, health care, disaster relief, and other communal needs. However they hold property privately, not communally. There are a multitude of written rules, and even more unwritten ones, which pressure members to conform to the norms of the church. I left because I found it stifling and airless.

Envy, Sloth, and Avarice are simply forbidden, which eliminates the sins that lead to the Tribal Trap. More importantly, the church has several mechanisms to deal with financial freeloaders.

Bankruptcy (voluntary or involuntary) will get you excommunicated. While this would seem less than charitable to most people (and is blatantly unscriptural to most serious Christians) it does have the effect of weeding out financial misfits from the church.

Writing bad checks will get you an offer of a church committee to take over your finances, or you are out of the fold. Drunkeness and drug use, while not monetary sins, do correlate to reduced earnings... and they will get you kicked out too. The list goes on.

Between the Darwinian financial selection and the lower spending of a simple lifestyle, it appears to me that the average member of my family's church has a good bit more money saved up than the average American.

Not sure that's what the man from Galilee had in mind when he said "Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth... for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Anthony writes:

Who says that a high informal envy task doesn't exist now? Both my wife and I grew up in small towns (she in the Philippines and I in Pennsylvania) and we both left because to better yourself there too far above the others would make you a social outcast. Even now she doesn't want to visit her home village because while she is there she is constantly badgered for money.

El Presidente writes:

Good stuff. But please! When quoting a source as sacred as Eric Cartman, quote accurately.

"Screw you guys; I'm going home."

Keep up the good work.

El Presidente writes:

One more thing . . . I think "envy tax" is a value-laden term that encourages a reader to assume that, in this context, tribal people really do value money above all else (just like we supposedly do) but are unjustly kept from pursuing it by the envious amongst them. Have we entertained the possibility that they really might have different priorities, or that ours are socially conditioned just like we think theirs are? Then we might want to ask ourselves if we are really better off or if we are simply predisposed to measure success after the fact and in terms of our distinctive competencies.

Dezakin writes:

Is this sort of emotional baiting really what economics is about?

Whats with the obsession with envy and the elevation of sociopaths to perfect economic players in Bryan's economic utopia. Is this what good economics is? I mean classic Ricardian comparative advantage illustrates how it can benifit parties and the whole pursuing self interst and trading, but these arguments sound more like justification of ideology than economic modeling.

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