Bryan Caplan  

Genetics, Politics, Culture, and the Future

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On Facebook, I opined that boosting libertarians' Total Fertility Rate to 3 is the most realistic long-run path to liberty.  The underlying assumption is that political philosophy, libertarianism included, is fairly heritable.  Will Wilkinson then presented an interesting objection:
Even if personality is passed along genetically, and personality has a lot to do with our political sympathies, the way those sympathies are expressed at any time is a cultural matter. The difference in the content of American conservatism... now and thirty years ago is large. Likewise, in a generation, the ideology most attractive to those with a psychology that inclines them toward libertarianism will undergo cultural evolution and may not be recognizably libertarian in two or three generations. I think there's a good chance that had Bryan and I been born in 1910s, instead of in the early 1970s, we would have been communists.
Will's basic point is sound: People alive in 1910 adopted different political philosophies than they would have adopted in 2010.*  But his appeal to "cultural evolution" is needlessly vague.  The key difference between 1910 and 2010 is that people in 1910 were exposed to a narrower range of political philosophies during their formative years (roughly ages 15-25).  Libertarianism was outside that range.  As a result, even people genetically predisposed to libertarianism failed to adopt it before their minds closed.

In the modern world, however, political genotypes are much more likely to translate into matching phenotypes.  During the 20th century, political philosophers covered most of logical space.  And thanks to the Internet, almost everyone hears about views likely to appeal to them before their formative years end.  The upshot: If you're genetically predisposed to be a libertarian, Leninist, social democrat, conservative, liberal, green, or liberaltarian, you now discover that position during your formative years and adopt it.

Application: During the 60s and 70s, few libertarians had libertarian relatives.  Many tried to convert their parents, but few succeeded.  When I talked to the Students for Liberty, however, about half had at least one libertarian parent.  These patterns are just what my story predicts.  The parents of the older generation of libertarians didn't hear about libertarianism during their formative years, so the trait never expressed itself.  The parents of today's college students, in contrast, usually experienced the key environmental catalyst in time.

If novel political philosophies emerge in the 21st century, a new political generation gap could easily emerge.  Otherwise, I expect the match between political genotype and political phenotype to get pretty tight - and the political generation gap to shrink back to its pre-modern levels.

* Personally, I doubt either Will or I would have been communists for long; the groupthink would have been too much to endure.

Update: Will fleshes out his argument.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Could you clarify why more libertarians in the world implies more liberty? It seems to me it just means there will be more libertarians. You see this with a lot of political agendas - the presumption that the stated goals of a philosophy are somehow the necessary consequence of a philosophy. Indeed, I'm sure the communists of 1910 would have suggested more communists would make a more free society. I'm not sure what value that claim really has, and I'm not sure I'd want to live in a world with considerably more libertarians.

razib writes:

the sex difference among the number of male vs. female libertarians poses a long term problem.

SB7 writes:

I am on a mission to convert my wife, who has weakly held center-left beliefs, into libertarianism before having children. That addresses at least a single instance of the problem Razib mentions.

Eric writes:

Bryan,

You don't seem to have a link to the Wilkinson quote, but I think you might be misunderstanding his argument. The "Libertarian gene" seems to be a contrarian "gene" rather than one for a particular political philosophy (if the libertarians I run into are any indication.) I see this in the Liberaltarianism and Obama voting which to me, as a libertarian who is not particularly contrarian in other aspects of life, seems crazy. The contrarian bent takes over and libertarians wind up voting for a government health care mandate to be different from the "normal" libertarians.

If libertarian children will really just be contrarians, then they will not necessarily be libertarians when libertarianism becomes a feasible political philosophy. You hint it this when you say that you and Wilkinson wouldn't have been communists for long because of the groupthink. If libertarianism becomes mainstream, it will start to acquire groupthink and be less attractive to the types of people that are currently attracted to it.

By the way, I'm not certain I agree with this argument but am presenting it for discussion.

Joe Marier writes:
* Personally, I doubt either Will or I would have been communists for long; the groupthink would have been too much to endure.

So you would have ended up neoconservatives? Awesome.

Tom West writes:

the groupthink would have been too much to endure.

Well, maybe in 1910, but by the time I was in university in the 80's, the communists were the most atomized community I'd ever encountered. Pretty much every one hated every other single one, mostly because of minute differences well beyond the ken of mortal men.

Jonathan Monroe writes:

In 1910, small-l libertarian thought in the form of classical liberalism was widely available (as in advocated by an important faction within a political party capable of winning elections) in every major democracy.

In the UK the Liberal party (which always maintained a significant classical Liberal faction) was in government in 1910 and didn't become insignificant until WW2.

In the US, Lochner was still good law in 1910 and the dominant faction within the Republican party wanted to keep it that way.

I don't know as much about the Continental European democracies, but they all had significant classical liberal parties.

Ricardo Cruz writes:

Daniel Kuehn writes "Could you clarify why more libertarians in the world implies more liberty? It seems to me it just means there will be more libertarians."

If you want to be pedant about it: "more libertarians imply more individual freedom". "more communists imply more collective freedom." etc.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ricardo - well I'm not even clear on how more libertarians imply more individual freedom. I could see how it could imply less domestic government, I suppose. I suppose it's not an assumption that libertarians really feel needs articulating, but I just found the phraseology funny.

Jim writes:

IIRC Newt grew up in a union, Democrat voting home. The kids don't always follow the parents' political values.

Craig writes:

Where is the "gene" which contains our political ideas, Bryan?

Genetic determinism is about as credible as phrenology.

Sharon Presley writes:

There are genetic influences on personality but not "genes" for particular traits, let alone political ideology. HOWEVER, one of the traits that seems to be genetically influenced is open-mindedness (one of the "Big 5" universal personality traits). This may be what Caplan is referring to. It is not at all the same as contrarian. Conservatives tend to score lower on open-mindedness and liberals higher. Few studies of libertarians exist.

This is straight out of the psychology textbooks I used when I taught personality and other psychology courses so it's not some wild-eyed idea. It's not genetic determinism at all. Genetic influences are only one of many influences on behavior but they do exist.

Jason Collins writes:

The interesting conundrum with this post is that the number of children is heritable. On the one hand, you are expecting political leaning to become closer to underlying genotype (heritability will be higher), while you hope that for family size, libertarians will accept the logic of your argument and that the heritability of the number of children will fall.

Steve Sailer writes:

If your son inherits your contrarianism, how do you know it won't manifest itself in contrarianism against your ideology?

Evan writes:
The interesting conundrum with this post is that the number of children is heritable. On the one hand, you are expecting political leaning to become closer to underlying genotype (heritability will be higher), while you hope that for family size, libertarians will accept the logic of your argument and that the heritability of the number of children will fall.
Or to be more exact, he's hoping to replace whatever current gene complex controls family size, with the "libertarian gene complex."
If your son inherits your contrarianism, how do you know it won't manifest itself in contrarianism against your ideology?
That's possible, but it seems to me part of the appeal of contrarianism is that it gives you a small ego boost, because it lets you feel superior to the vast majority of the population, since you're actually thinking about things they take for granted. Therefore, it seems to me the optimal contrarianism position is one that's against a common, popular ideology or belief, rather than an obscure one. If Bryan's sons do become contrarian to him, they'd likely be socialists rather than liberals or conservatives.
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