Bryan Caplan  

Freewheelers, Ring-Bearers, and Self-Interest

It's all in EC101... Martin Anderson, RIP...
Weeden and Kurzban's The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind uses two ideal types to explain the Culture Wars: Freewheelers and Ring-Bearers.
Freewheelers include people who sleep with more people, are sexually active outside of committed relationships, have more same-sex partners, party, drink, go to bars, and use recreational drugs more, live together outside of marriage, are less likely to marry at all, get divorced more when they do marry, and have fewer kids.  Ring-Bearers include people who wait longer to have sex, tend to have sex only in committed relationships (often waiting until getting engaged or married), go to bars and party less, don't cohabit outside of marriage, have long-lasting marriages, and have more kids.
The book then dissects the divergent interests of the two types.  The Freewheelers:
People who party and sleep around have an interest in other people not bringing legal or moral costs to bear on them for doing so.  People who want to delay having children while partying and sleeping around have an interest in the availability of family planning, including the backstop of legal abortion.  Their mental Boards of Directors will prefer moral and political policies that help them live the lives they want to live.
The Ring-Bearers:
For young Ring-Bearers, a big problem is finding suitable partners to share Ring-Bearer lives with.  Young women asking their boyfriends to wait for sex have to compete with young women offering more immediate rewards.  For both sexes, the fewer people fooling around, the more suitable candidates there are for long-term Ring-Bearer relationships.


For both Ring-Bearer men and women, the chances of maintaining a faithful marriage depend in part on what people around them are doing when it comes to low-commitment sex.  Ring-Bearers have an increased interest in minimizing temptations faced by their mates, and the fewer people fooling around, the less likely it is that one's mate will succumb.

An obvious way to make Freewheeling less common is to make it more costly.
These are some of Weeden and Kurzban's better just-so stories of selfishness.  But they're still easy to improve.  For starters, as long as you're straight (or even a straight-leaning bisexual), selfishness implies big gender splits within the Freewheeler and Ring-Bearer ideal types. 

If you're a Freewheeling male, you should staunchly oppose legal burdens on female promiscuity.  But you should be open to legal burdens on male promiscuity.  If a policy burdens all promiscuous males other than yourself, the Freewheeling male should enthusiastically support the burdens.  For example, a Freewheeling male who can demonstrate he's had a vasectomy has every selfish reason to ban condoms.  Why?  Because this gives him a huge competitive edge over all the fertile Freewheeling men.  The reverse goes for Freewheeling women.  As soon as they get their tubes tied, their self-interest urges them to become pro-life, giving them a competitive edge over all the fertile Freewheeling women.

Analogous results hold for Ring-Bearers.  Selfishly speaking, Ring-Bearer men should recoil to see fellow men in church; Ring-Bearer women should recoil to see fellow women in church.  Staunch Ring-Bearer men should favor secular sex education for men to reduce the supply of men competing to marry the best Ring-Bearer women; Staunch Ring-Bearer women should favor secular sex education for women to reduce the supply of women competing to marry the best Ring-Bearer men.

Once you account for these subtleties, however, Weeden and Kurzban's original claims seem worse than over-simplified; they could be totally wrong.  Consider: Freewheeler men (a) benefit from legal burdens on men other than themselves, (b) lose from legal burdens on themselves, and (c) lose from restrictions on women.  Some legislation comes forward that combines (a), (b), and (c).  Selfishly speaking, the key question is: "What is the NET effect?"  The general answer is: "Unclear."  This is a simple extension of what regulatory economists have known for decades: Regulated firms can and often do benefit from regulation, because differential burdens imply benefits.

Here's an additional complexity.  Weeden and Kurzban rightly emphasize that Ring-Bearers face a painful uncertainty: Is their spouse only pretending to be a Ring-Bearer?  (This is a mild problem for Freewheelers, since they invest little in long-run relationships anyway).  Now consider: What would happen if the law persecuted anyone who openly pursued a Freewheeling lifestyle?  Freewheelers would obviously respond by acting like Ring-Bearers!  This in turn raises Ring-Bearers' risk of accidentally marrying a Freewheeler-in-Ring-Bearer's-clothing.  Selfishly speaking, then, Ring-Bearers actually have a strong reason to amiably tolerate their Freewheeler rivals: Libertines are a lesser evil than hypocrites.

You could protest that my predictions about Freewheelers' and Ring-Bearers' opinions are wrong.  But that misunderstands what I'm doing.  I'm not describing how Freewheelers and Ring-Bearers think.  I'm describing how they would think if they were self-interested.  My arguments give readers a choice: Embrace bizarre claims about public opinion, or stop claiming that self-interest explains what people think about sexual politics.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Thomas writes:

The faux-Ringbearer problem struck me immediately also.

Ringbearers benefit from reducing limits on Freewheeler behavior, so that Freewheelers will disclose who they are and Ringbearers can avoid marrying them. Freewheelers also benefit from reducing limits on their behavior, so they aren't forced to spend their lives as unhappy Ringbearers.

Thus, anti-Freewheeler laws must have another explanation. I propose "signalling of approval". Ringbearers want laws against Freewheeling because it establishes that their culture is the one preferred by society. Being legally established as the "in group" makes Ringbearers feel good about themselves, which outweighs the disadvantages of facing faux Ringbearers in their midst. You see them same thing all the time, from laws establishing religion to - in my opinion - both sides in the debate on same sex marriage (especially the debate about whether domestic partner laws are equivalent - both sides agree they are not, because they signal a status less-approved-of than "real" marriage).

Ringbearers also have to contend with the fear that their own offspring may be inclined toward Freewheeling. It's my observation that most parents would prefer that their children stay in their "tribe" than be happy (sad, but think about it). Thus, Ringbearer parents will support prohibitions on Freewheeling in an effort to make their children stay in the Ringbearer tribe, even if it makes their children unhappy.

Not to say this as a special criticism of Ringbearers - Freewheelers might do the same, if there were anti-Ringbearer laws.

Jeremy Kauffman writes:

It strikes me that we should have a strong Bayesian prior towards all behavior being self-interested. Consider the following logic:

1) Self-interested behavior is behavior that increases the likelihood of my genes reproducing at the expense of others' making copies of their genes.
2) Manifested behavioral patterns like Freewheeling or Ring-Bearing are heavily influenced by genes.
3) Any reasonably prevalent gene expression must be self-interested, or it would have been out-competed.
4) Freewheelers and Ring-Bearers are therefore likely to be motivated, at some level, by self-interest.

This does not mean that it has to *feel like* self-interest to a Ring-Bearer or a Freewheeler. To them, their behavior most likely just feels like The Right Thing. But their behavioral patterns must have, at least at some point, conferred evolutionary advantage or the patterns wouldn't exist.

(Note that certain gene expressions could be considered to confer group benefits rather than individual benefits, but this would still meet our definition of self-interest, above.)

RPLong writes:

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think false dichotomies are a reasonable way to analyze human behavior and those who don't.

Jeff R. writes:

Well, I only have the quotes you posted to go off of, but I think you're overlooking something that maybe saves their just-so story from your criticism: the ring-bearers care not just about their own position in the mating market, but also the positions of their children, who maybe of either sex (or whose sex has yet to be determined because they haven't been conceived/born yet). With that in mind, I as a male might benefit from restrictions on men other than myself, but as soon as I'm married and a daughter enters the picture, that equation changes quite a bit, does it not? Now, I'd probably prefer a policy regime that nudges every man toward ring-bearer status so that my daughters' prospects of finding one are improved.

This probably increases as I age and my own status in the sexual marketplace declines further and further, decreasing the opportunity costs I face by placing further restrictions on freewheelers.

From a selfish gene perspective, if ring-bearers produce more offspring than free-wheelers, doesn't it make sense to me to support ring-bearer-friendly policies in order to maximize my number of grandkids and great-grandkids? But it's probably more fun to be a freewheeler yourself, so the utility maximizing position, as seems to quite often be the case, is hypocrisy. Libertinism for me, but not for thee.

Nathan W writes:

While I think this is partially true, and it is useful to present the idea of how these very real types of people would act if they were purely self-interested in hedonistic and/or puritan pushing sorts of ways, the inference that people use abortion as a means of facilitating non-Biblical lifestyles is more than a little unfair.

I continue to hold that it is not my body and I do not feel that it is my job to dictate to women what to do with their body.

Traditionally, it was males who would engage in infanticide (uncorroborated, but I think it is understood that this was quite common in many traditional societies, as documented more recently in Polynesian societies).

Generally, however, I appreciate perspective which illustrate the presence and potential natures of self interest, but much like chipmunks will bring risk on themselves to give warning when they see a hawk, humans are also naturally altruistic, although obviously not "perfectly" so.

Thomas writes:

Jeff R.,

With respect to policies that would push your daughter's prospective mates toward behaving like Ringbearers, what are your thoughts on how it might

a) result in your daughter ultimately selecting a closet Freewheeler, resulting in an unhappy marriage for both and/or

b) result directly in your daughter's unhappiness, should she herself be a closet Freewheeler (something she may have hidden from you)?

Brian writes:


No, I think Weeden and Kurzban get most of it right. Most of your conclusions don't seem to follow logically from self-interest.

For example, you say "If you're a Freewheeling male, you should staunchly oppose legal burdens on female promiscuity. But you should be open to legal burdens on male promiscuity." These don't necessarily follow. Any LEGAL restriction on other males will necessarily apply to you, and that's more problematic than the competition you face. On the other hand, legal restrictions on females have very little effect on you. If a society chooses to stone female adulterers but let males go (as happens in some societies), why would you care? The woman was just a one-time play toy anyway and easily discarded. And now she's less likely to hurt your reputation by telling on you.

Again, with the vasectomy, banning condoms might give you a leg up on the male competition, but other fertile free wheelers will tend to knock up the available women, which makes them much less available. A little competition is a small price to bear to maintain a target-rich environment. You don't seem to be accounting for opportunity costs.

Likewise for your ring-bearing arguments. In this case, there's no benefit to being the only male ring-bearer in church, because that would bring a large temptation to become a free-wheeler. But a ring-bearer doesn't WANT to be a free-wheeler, no matter how much benefit you think there might be to it. So there's a large benefit from having a healthy supply of similarly occupied ring-bearers.

The other piece of this that you are missing is that people often get large benefits by interacting with their in-group, so it is in their self-interest to choose policies that strengthen the in-group and, especially, their position in it. I think this is part of what Weeden and Kurzban are getting at when they talk about a broader definition of self-interest. It's possible to broaden the definition beyond what you mean by it without making it tautological.

I know you don't want to believe it, given your MRV book, but a significant portion of political behavior fits squarely into rational self-interest. That in-group dynamics might be one reason for that is possibly indicated by the bi-modal nature of political contributions, as seen here.

Jeff R. writes:


Good questions. With regard to question a) I think the answer is that a sufficiently long courtship interval should help weed out fakers. Also, I suspect that there are correlates that would help us identify anyone trying to fake it. Do his parents look like ring-bearers? What does he do for a living? What's his education level? Common sense tells me freewheelers probably have lower education levels and occupations that don't require joining some hierarchical organization like a law firm or large corporation.

As for b), one thing it's important to remember is that these things are flexible, as is much of human behavior. I suppose I fit the "ring-bearer" profile pretty closely right now, but I don't think that was quite so true in my younger days. And if I were to be named Sultan of a resurrected Ottoman Empire, you can bet I'd have a very large harem, despite my overall sensibilities. With that in mind, I don't think it's quite as simple as saying there are two types of people and the first type will be miserable under a set of rules devised by the second type, and vice versa. I think people can actually be nudged from being a type one to a type two, to some degree, whether by the birth of a child, as I mentioned above, or by social pressure, or by circumstances. For example, in the era before antibiotics, almost everyone was a ring-bearer because many STD's were basically a death sentence. Were lots of freewheelers unhappy back then because of all the promiscuous sex they were missing out on having? To some degree, I'm sure, but probably no more than I am right now, without my harem.

Tom West writes:

Ringbearers want laws against Freewheeling because it establishes that their culture is the one preferred by society.

I think Thomas nailed this in the first reply to the post. We are social creatures, and there are a ton of seemingly harmful behaviors motivated by the desire to be approved of by society.

To be honest, I think there's a grave danger at looking at these sort of just-so explanations for anything more than their entertainment value.

Reality just refuses to conform to any "laws" that we apply to humans, whether it be evo-bio, self-interest or almost any other generalization.

Thomas writes:

Jeff R,

Your answer a) doesn't eliminate the problem. The long courtship is necessary to weed out fakers because of the incentive to fake. This is a waste of your daughter's time and, if she strings more than a few of these fakers together, she may never find a mate. She would be better off if there were no incentive for males to be faux Ringbearers, which would allow her to select a genuine Ringbearer up front, and have a shorter courtship.

Your answer b) amounts to saying that legislation may nudge people toward their true self-interest, which takes us into paternalism, which goes beyond the scope. If the legislation is a "nudge", rather than a "real law", true enough.

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