Bryan Caplan  

Friedman vs. Doherty: Help Me Take a Side

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I had a strange feeling reading the latest Cato Unbound.  I find Patri Friedman completely convincing when he writes:

Our brains have many specific adaptations tuned for the hunter-gatherer environment in which we evolved, which in some ways differs wildly from the modern world. Consider the prevalence of obesity: we eat according to outdated instincts, feasting before a famine that never comes, rather than adapting to our new world of caloric abundance.

Similarly, many people have an intuitive "folk economics" which includes a number of biases such as the anti-foreign and make-work biases... While economically literate libertarians delightedly skewer those who argue mistakenly from folk economics, we constantly engage in what I shall call folk activism.

In early human tribes, there were few enough people in each social structure such that anyone could change policy. If you didn't like how the buffalo meat got divvied up, you could propose an alternative, build a coalition around it, and actually make it happen. Success required the agreement of tens of allies -- yet those same instincts now drive our actions when success requires the agreement of tens of millions. When we read in the evening paper that we're footing the bill for another bailout, we react by complaining to our friends, suggesting alternatives, and trying to build coalitions for reform. This primal behavior is as good a guide for how to effectively reform modern political systems as our instinctive taste for sugar and fat is for how to eat nutritiously.

Yet I find Brian Doherty's reply extremely compelling, too!

Patri may be right to rely on a sort of pop-evolutionary biology explanation for why people like trying to use verbal and written reasoning to convince the people around them or the world at large to turn more libertarian...

But I think a more likely explanation can be found in that old favorite social science of the libertarian: economics. It's simply a lot less effort, a lot lower personal cost, to pursue the path of folk activism. For decades many libertarians have upbraided others to start putting their money where their mouth is, to start building real libertarian institutions, even to start actively meeting the social needs that most people think we need a government for, to show-not-tell the world that this unbridled individual liberty thing can really work. And for decades most libertarians have found writing, talking, and thinking a more congenial path, one whose costs seemed easier to manage.

So who's right?  Is all the chatter an evolutionary hangover - or a low-cost way to enjoyably pass the time?

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Erich Schwarz writes:

What makes you think that your two proposed explanations are, in any way, logically exclusive of one another? I think they're both true, simultaneously.

RL writes:

Opponents of the "let's just talk and explain our position and change society" position need to explain why it works so well for Obama and other pols. Obama did not grow up in wealth. Neither did Clinton. Neither did Edwards. While the system is filled with Bush and Kennedy dynasties, the wall is porous and can be breached. Both used the current system to obtain great power by talking and interacting in ways that worked. No one has yet built a sea-city.

Zac writes:

Erich beat me to it. Both positions are true. In fact, you might see them as very related points, as the reason we are drawn to the behavior and find it enjoyable and low cost is an evolutionary hangover.

The question isn't whether it is enjoyable and low cost, but whether it is effective if our real goal is to increase overall freedom. On the one hand you can point to Milton Friedman and the like and say their folk activism made a difference. On the other hand, you might say it was a brief blip in the rising tide of statism.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

It seems to me that they are both right. You need both blades of the scissors to cut. Without "folk activism" who is going to want to experiment with new forms of social organization?

Patri Friedman writes:

Both of us are right, I think. I have my objections to some of what Doherty wrote, but the section you quoted is a good point.

To the degree that libertarian socializing and organization are done as an enjoyable way to pass the time, with some small positive externalities for the political movement, that's great. It is the self-deception caused by bias which makes us feel these efforts will actually get us to Libertopia that I object to.

This is a classic thing in political activism, people who do something easy but ineffective to assuage their desire to act without affecting real change. The problem is, if they hadn't fooled themsleves, they might have actually done something useful. Many would have done nothing instead, but the net impact would still be higher.

Al Fin writes:

As other commenters have said, it is quite obvious that both viewpoints express similar points of view, both plausible.

RL's comment (April 10, 1:43 PM) is confused. There is no logical contradiction between Obama's success in the primaries and general election, and PF's evolutionary theories of folk economics or folk politics. Obama feeds the crowds high sugar, high fat populist content. Obama's professional contingent of evolutionary psychologists told the campaign precisely how it needed to cook the junk food to suit the crowds.

Obama's style of sweet-tooth populism is much better refined to the taste of his audiences than most previous populists, precisely because it depends upon much better data and data processing.

Arare Litus writes:

"In early human tribes, there were few enough people in each social structure such that anyone could change policy."

Folk activism may not change global collective action, but it can change your standing in your local group - and thus give you social status.

While I agree that both factors are at play, the stronger one is: "it's simply a lot less effort, a lot lower personal cost, to pursue the path of folk activism."

Not only is it easy & fun, but it connects you with your social group - the fact we like social group connection so much may be evolutionary, but it is also logical (if you get something from it: such as appointments, book deals, connections, ...). As such it is the easy route that is sugar coated with the benefits of fun & possible profit.

Randy writes:

I've gotta go with simple ego. They piss me off. I say things to piss them off. I feel better. End of story.

Franklin Harris writes:

Can't help you. I agree with both of them, too.

Troy Camplin writes:

They're not mutually exclusive, you know.

Sam Kass writes:

There is a school of thought that "enjoyable" is just a synonym for "evolutionary hangover". The feeling of enjoyment serve as our personal reward and is how our genes induce us to perform evolutionarily beneficial activities. I would think Libertarians, especially those who read too much Ayn Rand, would find that a natural conclusion, at least.

Zhaofeng writes:

The British Hong Kong set an example where millions of citizens embraced the free market system without knowing anything about the theory of free market. The trick was rather simple: Don't give them franchise.

David writes:

Did early human tribes build coalilitions for negotiation, or were they more likely to take up arms and take what they wanted by violence?

Troy Camplin writes:

Look at what chimpanzees and bonobos do. They build coalitions first. Violence comes second. Especially among bonobos.

guthrie writes:

Was it Truman who longed for one-handed economists?! :)

Patri Friedman writes:

David - within the tribe, negotiation. Between tribes, violence. But most interaction was within the tribe.

Troy Camplin writes:

Patri is right. Humans are far, far, far more peaceful toward each other than are chimpanzees -- within the tribe. In fact, if you look at the way chimpanzees treat members of other troupes, humans are often even kinder to each other when dealing with other tribes. HUmans do form coalitions within the tribes, though, to keep power. But even that happens far more often when tribes become cities.

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