Scott Sumner  

Does prosperity push us to the left?

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Bryan Caplan recently posted the following:

A while back, Scott Alexander defended what he called the "Thrive/Survive Theory" of left and right. Digest version:
My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you're optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you're optimized for thriving in a safe environment.
Scott defends the theory vigorously, but seems most impressed by its ability to explain why "society does seem to be drifting gradually leftward." The more the world thrives, the more the leftist approach genuinely makes sense.

Many people in my circles now seem to take Thrive/Survive Theory as the default position; if it's not true, it's still the story to beat. But to be blunt, I find essentially no value in it. It's not always wrong, but it's about as right as you'd expect from chance.


Bryan then lists 6 reasons why Alexander is wrong, which seem fairly persuasive. On the other hand I do find something appealing in Alexander's theory. So let me try a slightly different formulation:

Liberalism is what happens when you are optimizing for a safe environment, and illiberalism is what happens when you optimize for thriving in an unsafe environment.

Now of course this raises a whole new set of issues. What do I mean by 'liberalism' and 'illiberalism'? When I say liberalism, I am including classical liberalism, social democratic liberalism and neoliberalism. I'm basically referring to utilitarianism. When I say illiberal, I am referring to a wide variety of non-utilitarian views, including class warfare (Mao), fascism (Hitler), white nationalism (Bannon), racism (KKK), reverse racism (SJWs), tribalism (Afghanistan), religious fanaticism, militarism, etc.

For utilitarianism to thrive, people need to be comfortable enough to think of the welfare of others. I believe that 1966 was the period when whites had the greatest sympathy for the (economic) well-being of American blacks. And America's middle class was doing very well in the mid-1960s. As America became more violent in the late 1960s, and more troubled by unemployment in the 1970s, some of this sympathy dissipated.

So I think Bryan's right that the left/right distinction is not as meaningful as Scott Alexander assumes, but I also think Scott's intuition led him to something important. I don't know if society is moving to the left, but I do think it is gradually becoming more liberal. Is my suggested version an improvement, or not?

PS. Immigration reform was enacted in 1965.

And for a brief period in late 1965, (liberal) John Lindsey was the face of the Republican Party:

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
John Hall writes:

"Now of course this raises a whole new set of issues. What do I mean by 'liberalism' and 'illiberalism'?"

Also, what do you mean by 'safe' and 'unsafe'?

BC writes:

The greatest lurch leftward in the West happened during the Great Depression, which would seem to cut against Alexander's hypothesis. The Great Depression was at least a desperate environment, if not exactly an "unsafe" environment. The leftward lurch was about desperation to survive the Depression, not thriving.

Scott Sumner's hypothesis does match the Great Depression. The New Deal programs were illiberal in the sense of moving away from classical liberalism and rule of law (Supreme Court packing, reading new government powers into the Constitution, etc.).

Miguel Madeira writes:

"The greatest lurch leftward in the West happened during the Great Depression"

No - The greatest lurch leftward in the West happened after the WWII; during the Great Depression there was some left-wing governments (New Deal in US, Popular Front in France) but the general trend was for the illiberal wing of the Right.

Shane L writes:

Lately I've been thinking over the discussion of "toxic masculinity", cultural expectations of masculine behaviour that Wikipedia says include "dominance, devaluation of women, extreme self-reliance, and the suppression of emotions." The British actor Robert Webb has published a memoir describing his tough childhood with a violent, hard-drinking father, which nicely describes these concerns:

"What are we saying to a boy told to “man up” or to “act like a man”?

Often, we’re saying, “Stop expressing those feelings.” And if a boy hears that enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, “Stop feeling those feelings.”

It sounds like this: “Pain, guilt, grief, fear, anxiety: these are not appropriate emotions for a boy because they will be unacceptable emotions for a man. Your feelings will become someone else’s problem – your mother’s problem, your girlfriend’s problem, your wife’s problem. If it has to come out at all, let it come out as anger. You’re allowed to be angry. It’s boyish and man-like to be angry.”"
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/20/robert-webb-autobiography-how-not-to-be-a-boy-peep-show

It struck me that these expectations of tough, emotionless stoicism in men, which can seem quite harmful in modern society, may be beneficial in times of violent chaos, i.e. most of history. If society collapses and we enter a world of roaming gangs, violent macho men could be quite useful to the survival of one's group.

What I am getting at is that some of the cultural concerns of modern prosperous countries presumably derive from the lower risk of violence too, leading to a cultural shift "left" - away from conservative norms. I would expect traditional masculinity to survive in violent places, including violent parts of otherwise safe countries.

Pajser writes:

Leftism is attractive in two different situation. First, situation of anger and despair. People start dreaming big, brand new, much better world, and equality is either main, or big part of it. It is leftism from anger.

Then, it is other situation - when they are so comfortable that they have enough time and live without worry, that they can look at others. It is leftism from empathy. It is better because it is stable; leftism from anger degenerates once original reason for anger disappears; and it certainly disappears for those who grab the power.

One possible way to recognize it is - animal rights. Angry people do not think about animal rights, empathetic people do.

Tom DeMeo writes:

Prosperity increases complexity. Complexity requires coordination, cooperation and standards. And that can feel like a left leaning agenda.

Andrew_FL writes:
When I say liberalism, I am including classical liberalism, social democratic liberalism and neoliberalism. I'm basically referring to utilitarianism.

So you use it to mean 3 completely different, incompatible things, and "basically" mean a fourth thing that has nothing to do with any of them?

Scott Sumner writes:

Everyone, Thanks, lots of good comments.

John, By "unsafe" I mean a world full of unemployment, crime, disease and war.

Andrew, They can be incompatible in terms of policy preferences but all use the same underlying value system, as long as they differ on their worldviews. It's the distinction between positive and normative views

Mark writes:

Scott, I continue to be puzzled by your definition of utilitarianism. If anything, classical liberalism seems most coherent with - and follows best from - deontological absolutism. Indeed, it's practically the most common criticism of libertarians: they're Quixotic devotion to individual rights, and refusal to make exceptions for, say, public accommodation laws or hurricane price gouging, for the sake of the greater good.

Meanwhile, Bertrand Russell saw 20th century communism as very much within a utilitarian framework, and I tend to agree. What's more utilitarian than Eric Hobsbawm's remark that the many millions of deaths caused by communism would be worth it if they led to a better society?

This is not to say utilitarianism is necessarily inconsistent with classical liberalism. I just find it very bizarre to classify the latter as a subset of the former.


Lastly, I think we need to define "thrive." Does Norway thrive more than Singapore or Hong Kong? To me, leftist policies aren't so much an exercise in 'thriving' as they are the purchase of societal luxuries. Maybe that's what thriving is, I don't know. Can it be said that Charlie Sheen is thriving more than Warren Buffet then because of the latter's frugality?

Hazel Meade writes:

@Mark,
Thanks, I was also puzzled by Scott's use of the word "utilitarianism". While it's not impossible to be a liberal and a utilitarian, most liberals, especially libertarians, tend to argue for liberalism by way of deontological principles about individual rights.

@Scott,
I think your formulation is better. Lots of aspects of "leftism" are illiberal in nature (even if they are justified on the basis of utilitarianism!). I'm guessing people could probably find a few examples of "liberal" tendencies that increase in survival periods, and "illiberal" one's that dominate in thrive periods, though. The definitions of "liberal" and "illiberal" are still pretty vague.

Weir writes:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of rent-seeking.

History barely moves for tens of thousands of years under the weight of these punishing rents. Then suddenly at the far edge of the graph, after 1798, history races ahead.

People start creating actual wealth instead of just collecting rents at the whole world's expense. There's a reaction, of course, against these arrivistes, these cashed-up, aspirational, vulgar materialists.

The smartest among us figure out how to optimize and thrive by, once again, collecting these rents. So history slows down, once again, as the rulers reassert themselves, adopting much more effective names than "the ruling class" or "the aristocracy."

Today's landed gentry cleverly convinces itself that it isn't even collecting a rent. The data in Thomas Piketty's book points in one very unflattering direction, but Piketty himself and his wealthy readers insist that zoning laws have nothing to do with their wealth.

Likewise with the reality of our college degrees. And likewise with the cultural capital that we accumulate so effortlessly every time we talk to other people like us. We eat the right food and wear the right clothes, just in case it's not enough to exclude poor people's kids from our suburbs and schools with a lot of legal legerdemain.

We keep other people's kids drugged and entertained and uneducated and fat, and all the while we talk about all the good that we do, helping them. We get married, and we save for our future, but we preach this ideology of not judging those bigots and racists who don't know how to help themselves get ahead.

We mock these savages in the hinterlands for their superstitious beliefs about Caitlyn Jenner's choice of bathroom, or even more vitally, the choice of pizza shop when we're planning the catering for our wedding receptions, but then we mock Amy Wax for saying out loud that poor people should do what rich people do, in saving for their futures or tying the knot.

That's how our ideology works. We want to halt progress the better to entrench our privileges. We see ourselves as liberal and enlightened even while we censor and regulate and ban and make illegal everything that would threaten our accumulating rent. We certainly thrive in this world we've created. We are the apex predators, and we've optimized our environment to our benefit.

Mark writes:

Actually, I'm going to posit that what we really see is 'survive = communitarian, thrive = individualistic.' Poor societies tend to be communitarian, while wealthier ones tend toward political individualism.

Not just fascism and communism, but also traditional pre-industrial agrarianism, are highly communitarian (though the latter more decentralized).

This is because, in my opinion, it's exactly the opposite of how Tom DiMeo argues: cooperation is most necessary when we're poor farmers/miners/factory workers producing necessities of life. In wealthier societies we can afford to be more individualistic: to choose our own profession and to profess it with relative independence.

E. Harding writes:

OK post, Sumner, but I don't think reverse racism has ever existed in an unsafe society; that is a classic disease of safe societies. Haiti and the USSR were racist in a pretty straightforward manner when they were racist; they never had any tinge of racial guilt among their people.

John Hall writes:

Scott,
You are thinking about safe/unsafe in an absolute fashion. I think it would also be worthwhile to think about it relatively as well. Safe relative to other countries, safe relative to history, safe relative to expectations.

For instance, Econtalk's recent podcast on distributional GDP talks about how growth has slowed for the bottom 50%. These people may feel unsafe because things aren't getting better, as they expected.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Scott Sumner wrote, "society does seem to be drifting gradually leftward.”

Thomas Jefferson, in the biography of Adam Smith, was quoted as saying something very similar. I, also, agree.

My current theory is the drift "leftward" is due to the near monopolization of schools by government. It is in the interest of teachers to support, or at least not decry, the behaviors of their employer. Importantly, according to Danial Kahneman, "what you see is all there is." So if all a child hears growing up is that government is good and that Democracy is saintly, that child will think and behave as if it is true and not ever question if it could, in fact, be false. Incidentally, I don’t think this fact is obscure, as it is the entire reason religious private schools are founded and maintained and is the reason some words are considered obscene and their utterance discouraged, especially in the company of children.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Apologies. It was the biography of John Adams by David McCullough, not Adam Smith.

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