Arnold Kling  

Self-Recommending could-have-been

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Concerning Paul Seabright's War of the Sexes, Tyler Cowen writes,


Paul is a splendid writer and thinker, and of course this is a topic of importance.

That is almost word-for-word Tyler's definition of self-recommending.

A subset of self-recommending books are those that I believe would have benefited from my editorial suggestions while they were still in manuscript. These are could-have-beens, and I place this book in that category.

Below, I will give what would have been my comments had this been sent to me as a manuscript to review.

I recommend publishing this book, but with some suggested revisions.

The author's choice to jump from "prehistory" to "today" is unwise, in my view. On p. 67, he writes,


One thing we can be reasonably sure of is that the subordination of women must have happened very recently in evolutionary time...Agricultural societies have often been able to impose heavy constraints on women, either by ensuring that they do not work outside the home or by making them do routine work under close supervision in the fields. But foraging societies cannot make use of the labor of women who cannot move, cannot take decisions, and cannot think independently.

This raises some interesting questions, such as:

--If our DNA still bears the imprint of the forager era, then our culture still bears the imprint of the farmer era, does it not?

--In what respects did the early stage of the industrial revolution (pre-1900) reinforce farmer culture, and in what respects did it undermine farmer culture?

--Ditto for the later stage of the industrial revolution (1900-70).

--Ditto for the information revolution.

These questions justify a section of the book that covers the period between prehistory and today. Incidentally, Robin Hanson has written a great deal on these matters on his blog. You should discuss his thinking, which has a lot of overlap with yours.

I found chapter 7, on the use of networks and coalitions, quite interesting. You describe males as forming flexible, opportunistic coalitions, while female relationships tend to be more kin-based and emotionally bonded. Readers of EconLog may recall that I was struck by Roy Baumeister's point that although women may be more socially adept in small groups, men are more adept at working with large coalitions. At large scale, a "systemetizer" may be more effective than an "empathizer." I would like to see this possibility considered by the author here, as he attempts to address the issue of gender inequality in the work place. In fact, although I strongly prefer Seabright's cautious, two-handed analysis, Baumeister's book deserves to be commented on and cited extensively by Seabright, because of the many overlaps, similarities, and differences in their treatments.

Chapter 8's topic, "charm," is one that interests me. In my first book, I wrote that entrepreneurs must have charm in order to get anywhere. (This makes the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" not credible, although I do love the movie.) Charm is not the same thing as being nice. Charm lets you get away with not being nice. But I did not see how this chapter fit in with the rest of the book. I would suggest cutting it.

The last chapter lacks the structure that one expects from a conclusion. The "visiting anthropologists" concept is brilliant, funny, and effective. But the chapter as a whole meanders, rather than reaching a crescendo. Perhaps some of the ideas for social reform should have been introduced as earlier chapters, leaving the final chapter to introduce the "visiting anthropologists" and to summarize more concisely the author's recommendations.

The author uses the term "police state" to describe social pressures for marital fidelity. There have been many attempts at escape, such as utopian communes and the hippie movement. They seem to have failed. Why? One possibility is that with complete sexual freedom, only a few males have female partners. The large set of frustrated males creates violence and instability. Perhaps the fear of income inequality can be rationalized as a fear that it will lead to society in which relatively few males are able to find female partners.

In any case, I do not think one should speculate on changes in moral norms without looking at outcomes of past social experiments. Based on what has worked and not worked in the past, what might we hope for in the future?



COMMENTS (3 to date)
jseliger writes:

That is almost word-for-word Tyler's definition of self-recommending.

To me, the problem with the book is that it didn't seem very novel. If you're already familiar with the evo bio / psych literature, very little in The War of the Sexes will come as a surprise.

Paul Seabright writes:

Thank you Arnold for these comments, on which I shall reflect. I don't know how many I shall end up agreeing with, but they do make me wish I had sent you the manuscript before publication...

Patrick writes:

I think you're exactly right with regard to income inequality and sexual inequality. This stuff really matters. Note that places in which plural marriage is the norm (Africa, the Middle East) are tremendously violent. Half the men have no realistic chance of marriage. That's a real existential crisis, not like the ones literature professors talk about. The sexual competition is so intense they don't have time to build much of a civilization. It's not so great for women, either. One in four South African men admit to having committed rape.

The monogamous marriage is a socialist reform of the mate market. No matter how rich Mitt Romney is, he only gets one wife. Osama bin Laden had five. That's redistribution of wealth, even if we don't count it in dollars.

In general, I think socialist impulses are about reigning in competition of all kinds. Negative externalities come with the benefits. Lots of people absolutely hate competition. A friend of mine, working much harder than he wanted to to keep his job and health insurance, said "Sometimes, I want to break into prison." I'm certain he'd be happier in Sweden, even if his house were smaller.

Of course, income inequality matters less if the sexual freedoms of women are restricted. Maybe that's why social conservatives are working harder lately to restrict abortion and contraception. Even the fight over gay rights may have some connection to this. While gays and lesbians are only about 1% of the population, about 10% of women are bisexual. If they marry each other, tens of millions of men miss their chance at marriage. If those women are forced to marry men or nobody, they may not like the arrangement as much, but they are much less violent than men, so it's less costly to oppress them.

The few who practice plural marriage here don't have much effect on the mate market, but only because they are so few. It makes me wonder: what would the murder rate in Libertopia be?

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