Bryan Caplan  

Fukuyama's Perfectly Horrifying Example

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Ayn Rand's newsletters used to end with a "Horror File" of monstrous but true quotations.  I thought about the Horror File when Ron Bailey's Liberation Biology quoted Frank Fukuyama:
Life extension seems to me a perfect example of something that is a negative externality, meaning that it is individually rational and desirable for any given individual, but it has costs for society that can be negative.
I couldn't believe my eyes.  Did Frank Fukuyama actually mean that when a person has another year of healthy life, the net effect on other people is negative?  If so, why do people cry at funerals, instead of celebrating?  Fukuyama's statement was so hateful and twisted that I wondered if he was being quoted out of context.  So I dug up the full paragraph:
The second argument [against life extension] --and this should appeal to libertarians that take individual choice seriously--is really a question of the social consequences of life extension. Life extension seems to me a perfect example of something that is a negative externality, meaning that it is individually rational and desirable for any given individual, but it has costs for society that can be negative. I think if you want to understand why this is so, you just think about why evolution makes us, why we die in the first place, why in the process of evolution populations are killed off. I think it clearly has an adaptive significance, and in human society generational succession has an extremely important role. There is the saying among economists that the science of economics proceeds one funeral at a time, and in a certain sense a lot of adaptations to new situations--politically, socially, environmentally--really depend on one generation succeeding another.
The extra words definitely make Fukuyama's position more confusing, but they take away none of the horror.  You'd think that a "perfect example" of a negative externality would be easy to explain and hard to dispute - like air pollution.  But to make his case, Fukuyama has to appeal to the controversial notion of group selection: Human beings evolved to die because it's adaptive for society.  His specific mechanism - death stops elders from impeding progress - would be controversial even for believers in group selection.  After all, during our evolutionary history, there was almost no progress to impede!

The real mystery, though, is why Fukuyama thinks that this argument would "appeal to libertarians."  Even if you couldn't care less about human liberty, there are plenty of non-lethal ways around the "dead hand of the past."  If aging CEOs refuse to give young upstarts a chance, what happens now?  The upstarts don't wait around for "generational succession"; they open a competing firm. 

On purely pragmatic grounds, then, Fukuyama's argument is about as feeble as "Life extension is bad for morticians."  Since libertarians would add moral objections to government coercion on top of purely pragmatic concerns, why would they of all people see the "appeal" of Fukuyama's argument against life extension?


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Jason Malloy writes:

The most obvious hypothetical externality from life extension (at least the more sci-fi versions) is the population pressure. A cheap "cure" for natural death could quickly spiral into a global Malthusian nightmare.

kebko writes:

"After all, during our evolutionary history, there was almost no progress to impede!"

If the pre-enlightenment power-brokers and moral leaders were still alive, don't you think that we might still be in that predicament?

Tom West writes:

Another hypothetical externality is a massive increase in the pressure towards stasis. Your upstart is prevented from opening up another firm by government. And with a life-extended eternity at risk, the upstart may be willing to wait a few thousand years working in the muck for a possible chance a few thousand years later than risk his long-extended life.

As for crying at funerals, we mourn those we love or like, but many consider the death of a non-friend CEO an opportunity for either advancement or change.

After all, in all likelihood Bryan would not hold his present post if the professor previous never retired. And how could he retire if he could live a very long time indeed?

Dezakin writes:

I think you're reading too much into it. If you think that there are no negative externalities to life extension, I'd suggest you aren't thinking that hard about it. However, that's not the same as suggesting that the negatives outweigh the benefits.

Imagine if you will that the average human lifespan was 400 years instead. We would be living under the value's system of the 1700's. Or perhaps imagine that you can triple the lifespan but not the productive lifespan, creating a vast population of invalid dependents, and that's currently the trend of life extension today, with negative social externalities partly because of entrenched entitlement programs and also because a large number of occupations simply cant be performed by infirm elderly. Medicare cost overruns anyone?

Now, this isn't suggesting that there aren't obvious benefits for life extension, but reacting with horror and derision at the notion of a price of a longer life doesn't strike me as a fully fleshed out argument. Perhaps Fukuyama's argument about the price of life extension is feeble, but I read this as too broad a brush against all such arguments.

Jeff writes:

I don't think it makes a compelling case against life extension, but I think Fukuyama's correct in thinking there will be negative externalities of one kind or another. For instance, it's hard not to be pleased that segregationists like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond are no longer in the senate. Give radical life extensions to the "Greatest Generation" or their forebears, and the culture wars of the sixties (civil rights, feminism, etc) are probably still ongoing.

There's an interesting question lurking in there. Fukuyama seems to think that the attitudes and ideas of older generations impede social progress, so the longer you keep old people around, the less progress you get. I don't know how true that really is, but I'd point out that not every change that's initially thought of as progress really deserves to be viewed as such. The rise of socialism, for example. I'm no conservative, but I would be inclined to think that there is some value to the sensibility of people who stand athwart history yelling "stop!"

Matt writes:

Fukuyama said, economics proceeds one funeral at a time. The negative externality is the conservatism that is wrong and impedes progress. Same as in physics when quantum physics started out, the old school died off and then the whole field was swept with QM. Of course that is not much the case, even for QM it didn't have to have a whole generation die, so too in other sciences, people change their minds much more often then they did a century ago. So I think his premise is wrong. But the appeal to libertarians is probably because he sees stupid dogmatic conservatism as helping create a giant state, and the young generation is more in favor of freedom.

JamieNYC writes:

Bryan, one frequently finds these kind of arguments against life extension, and it is astonishing how poorly thought out they are. Another example: famous scientist, Leonard Hayflick (discoverer of 'Hayflick limit' on cell divisions) dismissed longevity research out of hand because "aging is inevitable - it is obvious from the Second law of thermodynamics - the entropy always goes up!". Well, any bright high-school graduate knows that entropy always goes up in a *closed* system. Living organisms, by definition, are not closed systems. Bacteria have been alive for billions of years, etc., you get the point.

What I think is going on, is that a lot of people are afraid of this momentous change, and grab at the first thing that comes at their minds as a justification.

By the way, the world mortality rate is currently below 1%, while the population growth rate is 1.1%, so there is no threat of 'immediate Malthusian war'. Longer term, we would need to stabilize the population, and if you want a quick and dirty solution, here it is: only one child per person allowed. The world population would never double again!

Keep up the good work!

Loof writes:

Fukuyama says:
Life extension seems to me a perfect example of something that is a negative externality, meaning that it is individually rational and desirable for any given individual, but it has costs for society that can be negative.

Bryan reacts:
I couldn't believe my eyes. Did Frank Fukuyama actually mean that when a person has another year of healthy life, the net effect on other people is negative? If so, why do people cry at funerals, instead of celebrating?


While no fan of Fukuyama’s neoconservatism and right-wing Hegelian stance, he says life extension "has costs for society that can be negative.” The context is relative (“can be”) not an absolute (only be) negative that seems to be the position Bryan takes to drive him around the bend with hate, non-believing eyes and viewing the quote as monstrous.

Society is not “other people”; zilch to do with "people crying at funerals". Society is the structure that we, people, socially establish (Gesellshaft in Hegelian terms). Fukuyama is talking about the unequal development that can occur due to the way society is socially constructed. The rich get to extend their lives with all the biotechnology that ever more money can buy for them personally – and the poor do without. The negative of biotechnology entails the social engineering that would construct a grim society for the majority of people.

While Fukuyama focuses on negative costs to society that can be; L wonders if he has considered the positive benefits that could be with biotechnology improving the quality of life and extending it, equally and fairly for all.

hacs writes:

First, group selection, a misconception since "Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior", an influential book by the ornithologist V. C. Wynne-Edwards (1962), at least, has been rebutted systematically by evolutionary biologists, and almost every biologist has been convinced, but it continues popular in social sciences. Once more, group selection does not exist.

Fukuyama's entire argument is based on a fantastic group logic. It is an absurd.

Brian Moore writes:

There's also a conflict between FF's vision of today's world; exactly the same but with life extension, and what would actually happen.

Even if we grant the assumption that old people are a negative externality (scary), all the people who are afraid that immortal older conservative people would impede progress are right that in the past they may have, but to a large all the younger people could be reassured that one day soon they would die.

If everyone knew they would not, people would treat them differently -- take for example how people react to racism from a 90 year old to that of a 20 year old. I don't know what methods exactly would be used, but it's pretty certain that all the young people who will still be getting born aren't going to just shrug and say "well if they aren't dead we have to do what they say."

Brian Moore writes:

Also, our life spans have tripled over a relatively short period of time, while our species has advanced incredibly, both technologically and culturally. Why would tripling it again suddenly start to retard that growth?

Loof writes:

According to hacs:
First, group selection, a misconception since "Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior", an influential book by the ornithologist V. C. Wynne-Edwards (1962), at least, has been rebutted systematically by evolutionary biologists, and almost every biologist has been convinced, but it continues popular in social sciences. Once more, group selection does not exist.

Fukuyama's entire argument is based on a fantastic group logic. It is an absurd.


Wynne-Edwards (1962) is really well known for ADVOCATING group selection, which Williams (1966) and Dawkins (1976) severely criticized. Bryan provided a link to Wikipedia on group selection if hacs wants to learn a little bit about the evolution of the group selection concept since then. Loof also posted a rebuttal to hacs’ absolutism on Bryan’s Applied Economics Assumes Selfishness, and Rightly So thread.

What’s this absolutism about “fantastic group logic”? Appears fantastic!

GU writes:

"If aging CEOs refuse to give young upstarts a chance, what happens now? The upstarts don't wait around for "generational succession"; they open a competing firm."

In libertarian fantasy land, yes. In the world we live in, not so much. I wish we lived in libertarian fantasy land, but alas . . .

JPIrving writes:

Just thought of another benefit of life extension. Libertarians and sympathizers must be among the highest in contentiousness (the opposite of the homeless man in Bryan's post yesterday)

With no death from aging, the prudent would grow as a share of total population, as they are also less likely to die in accidents. Combined with all their hard earned, exponentially growing wealth, in the limit they would dominate politics!

There are some assumptions at work here, just thought people were taking themselves too seriously.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"There is the saying among economists that the science of economics proceeds one funeral at a time"

Then the simplest way Fukuyama can advance the science should be obvious...

q writes:

read "death with interruptions" (i think that is the name in english) by jose saramago. he deals with these issues.

Colin K writes:

One thing which I think has exacerbated the problem of incumbency is communication technology.

In the 19th century, the navy captains were not only seamen but diplomats. Men in their late 20s might attain command of a small ship and find themselves negotiating on behalf of the President. A junior agent of the Dutch East India Co. might be sent to some distant corner of the empire with some money and a few dozen fusiliers, and told to come back in a few years when he had established a new port or trade route.

Today, that same navy captain sits in the Gulf of Aden while 4-stars and JAGs in Washington watch the live feeds from drones deciding whether he should be allowed to fire on a few pirates.

Meanwhile, businesses have continued perfecting the art of micro-management, building towards a future that looks more like Chile's Project Cybersyn than anything else.

And while the entrepreneurial exit remains available, the frontiers are fast closing. The American West grew for decades--in some places close to a century--with a complete lack of government for many purposes. The IT industry retains some of this still, and so it's full of software companies run by non-conformists with low agreeability scores like me. But how much longer before the regulations start to multiply and it too becomes as dull as every other business?

Vacslav Glukhov writes:

Foucault said that current technology allows for practically unlimited extension of one biological existence given unlimited costs. At some point we always or frequently must decide - when to disconnect the equipment.

A great fraction of the total medical expenses incurred to extend the life of a dying human is spent in the last couple of months of his/her life. In this sense yes, Fukuyama is right: prolonging one's life has negative externalities - but only in the socialized medicine.

Fazal Majid writes:

I tend to agree that life extension will mean more power accruing to the elderly (the relatively modest gains in lifespan since the last century have already led to a majorshift in power, just look at how Medicare is bankrupting the country.

For a fictional description of what the world would look like if life extension therapy were available that would extend lifespans by 50% while preserving quality of life and productivity, but at extreme financial expense, have a look at "Holy Fire" by Bruce Sterling.

2999 writes:

I think Bryan is right that it is horrifying to say old people should die because they have old-fashioned beliefs. The negative externalities are their, but it's horrifying to refuse to admit that they aren't swamped by the continued the positive externalities most people generate.

The irony is that Fukuyama is trying to make the case to libertarians, but libertarians would likely say that the competitive non-coercive libertarian society wouldn't suffer from sclerosis, sclerotic firms would fail, smarter new ones would rise, etc.

Doc Merlin writes:

"But how much longer before the regulations start to multiply and it too becomes as dull as every other business"

Not long, the business themselves are already asking for it. Google for example asking for enforced net neutrality. Oracle asking for MS to be broken up, etc etc.

hacs writes:

Loof,

I do not use wikipedia as a reliable source. Articles express different (sometimes conflicting) point of view about the same subject when the language is changed.

I know there is a debate about the subject, but group selection is not mainstream (and I am not a revolutionary thinker) in biology (perhaps, it will be mainstream in the future, but I would not bet on it) and even the idea of group selection, originally an extrapolation from sociobiology (humans as ants thinking, superorganism, eusocial animals, etc), has been changed several times (now it is multi level selection). Anyway, it is philosophical speculation yet (as I said above, I am not a revolutionary thinker, at least in biology), and science rests on the majority of the scientific community, not a specific individual (as David Sloan Wilson and his followers), even a brilliant one (as E O Wilson).

I have read an interesting book - 2000. R. Thornhill and C.T. Palmer. A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. MIT Press -, and the authors are very clear and emphatic about the misconception that is represented by the group selection paradigm. Why is group selection (humans as ants thinking) assumed instead of interaction selection? Group selection should remain in history books as the founder of a new line of thought in biology, and go no further.

No, I am not an absolutist, but a conservative (as opposite to progressive) in science. Besides, I do not trust in new scientific standpoints from small groups. Science is not just consensus, but consensus is a necessary condition, and the remaining ideas are hypothesis and conjectures.

A gift for you (something more avant garde, not as conservative as me): RETHINKING THE THEORETICAL FOUNDATION OF SOCIOBIOLOGY by David Sloan Wilson
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/522809

Some ideas about longevity and evolution: Evolutionary Theories of Aging and Longevity by Leonid A. Gavrilov* and Natalia S. Gavrilova
http://longevity-science.org/Evolution.htm

Loof writes:

Hacs,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. Wikipedia may not be such a reliable source, but it’s relevant, handy and you can take part in the process of making it more reliable and thereby improve validity. Before Internet when working in the field it could take months to get good source material.

The language problem is similar between disciplines. And, when one like economics has hundreds of peer-reviewed journals, overspecialization to an extreme is an understatement. Also, even when you understand the language, core concepts like “selfishness” are inherently unreasonable, even irrational.

Positively, though, relative to group selection and interdisciplinary work believe behavioral economics “bounded selfishness” is on the right track: though the comprehensive Ego’n’Empathy Hypothesis puts both selfishness (egotism) and selflessness (altruism) within bounds for economic science to proceed, L believes. While not understanding the mathematics of the formal Hypothesis, the reasoning, empirical evidence, the falsifiability criteria makes sense. Indeed, all together it appears as a true paradigm shift.

A relevant quote: “Affirming the Hypothesis also indicates an overall paradigm shift when making a place for empathy as an equal opposite and complement to ego [self-interest]…but does not stray far from the dominant neoclassical economic theory of the day in that we use similar analytical devices…. Intriguingly, neoclassical economics and the microeconomic tool of homo economicus as we know it becomes a special case of the metaeconomic model. If empirical testing results in failure to reject the null hypothesis of ‘no empathic, other-interest at work’ and ‘no lack of substitution possibilities’, we are back to the standard neoclassical economic model. All testing to date, however, suggests we cannot go back.” (Hayes & Lynne, 2004, Towards a Centerpiece for Ecological Economics, Journal of Ecological Economics, P. 299.)

Thanks for the articles. The Wilson & Wilson article Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology is excellent. A quote from it illustrates how multiple models in evolutionary biology are coming to the same conclusions and refutes Thornhill & Palmer’s “misconception” regarding group selection.

“All of these models obey the following simple rule…Selfishness beats altruism within single groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. The main exception to this rule involves models that result in multiple local equilibria, which are internally stable by definition. In this case, group selection can favor the local equilibria that function best at the group level, a phenomenon sometimes called “equilibrium selection” (Boyd and Richerson 1992; Samuelson 1997; Gintis 2000; the model by Peck 2004 described earlier provides an example).”

Tom Pearson writes:

It's passages like the one cited above that made me horrified to discover several years ago while researching my father's family tree that his cousin (and therefore my cousin) married a "Frank Fukuyama." Yep, that Frank Fukuyama.

Guy writes:

I support life extension, but I think the guy's argument is fairly obvious. Natural selection, the death of individuals who are less well adapted, has been a critical factor in why life has survived 4 billion years, and why our species is what it is. I can think of no other advancement that would need to be considered so carefully. The real question is, why would you consider it a "horror" to point this out?

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