Bryan Caplan  

Does Prosperity Make Us Utilitarian?

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Scott Sumner has some thought-provoking reactions to my critique of Scott Alexander's Thrive/Survive Theory of left and right.  Here's my reaction, point-by-point.  Scott's in blockquotes; I'm not.

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.

This is deeply puzzling. 

First, if "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," are we talking about selfish optimization or social optimization?  If the former, then how does being rich make caring about outsiders "selfishly optimal"?  If the latter, then it sounds like utilitarianism requires illiberalism in unsafe environments.

Second, classical liberalism, social democratic liberalism, and neoliberalism have all been widely accused of ignoring the interests of wide swaths of the population.  Classical liberals and neoliberals allegedly ignore the interests of the poor; social democrats allegedly ignore the interests of taxpayers and entrepreneurs. 

Third, most - perhaps all - of what Scott calls "illiberal" views have been defended on utilitarian grounds.  See e.g. James Fitzjames Stephen, noted 19th-century conservative utilitarian.  You could say, "I'm classifying views based on whether they really maximize total happiness," but then why include three disparate flavors of "liberalism"?  They can't all be right.

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.

Concern for the welfare of others is part of the utilitarian ethos.  But so is sober cost-benefit analysis and, as a corollary, hostility to Social Desirability Bias.  1966 may have been a period of relatively high sympathy for blacks (though probably little for Indochinese), but it was also an era of rampant wishful thinking.

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.

Unless I greatly misunderstand Scott, I think he agrees with me that the middle class is doing much better today than in the mid-60s.  So how does this example illustrate the positive effect of prosperity on concern for others?

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?

I agree that societies that value the utilitarian package - hard-headed pursuit of general happiness - tend to prosper.  But I don't see much sign that the reverse mechanism works well.  As I originally said, there is plenty of evidence that prosperity makes societies moderate.  That blocks radical changes that harm the general welfare (e.g. mass murder), but also blocks radical changes that help the general welfare (e.g. open borders).

PS. Immigration reform was enacted in 1965.

Yes.  But the liberalization was accidental!

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Ivan writes:

Here is my version of a simplistic model:

Illiberal movements focus on a perceived threat from the outgroup. Their recommended solution is usually to exclude/exterminate the outgroup. Liberal movements usually focus on expanding the in-group both economically and politically.

I see more themes in this model in common with both Scotts than with Bryan’s.

Thaomas writes:

I have a different idea of "neo-liberalism" as favoring cost benefit analysis of public expenditures and being hostile public ownership and to interfering in markets in order to redistribute income, but not redistribution per se.

Peter Gerdes writes:

I think you and Scott are using different definitions.

When Scott talks about optimizing for a safe/unsafe enviornment he doesn't mean the agent based notion of optimizing meaning choosing the best of all possible payouts (at least relative to any natural payout function).

Rather, I think what Scott has in mind is picking from the list of easily socially/psychologically achievable ways of behaving that human nature (at least in normal societies) offers us. And doing so in a selfish fashion.

That is, his claim is that of the range of human behaviors that seem to be frequently and easily achieved those people who pick a liberal leaning package tend to do better in safe societies and those who pick a illiberal leaning package tend to do better in unsafe societies.

Of course, a truly rational agent who could simply select from actions would do none of the above but instead do things that aren't open to real people, e.g., give the responses to suggest you are a illiberal religious extremist to gain the benefits of their support but only when they are looking.

Weir writes:

Wealthy white women in Berkeley won't vaccinate their kids. The welfare of others isn't uppermost in their minds.

I think they just see a free ride. But then the schools have no herd immunity, so it's backfired on them.

Maybe they have superstitious ideas about their kids somehow catching genetics at eight years old. Maybe they think the word rubella refers to some obscure artisanal wine.

Zambia and Vietnam now have higher rates of vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella than Britain. Rich people have rich people taboos.

Rich people love government subsidies for the most expensive and least reliable forms of electricity. Poor people are more practical.

Rich people get upset, for example, every time a new coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China and a little village gets electric light. Rich people talk about the carbon footprints of these greedy, consumerist peasants, and when rich people jet halfway round the world (selecting the option to offset their emissions) they're looking for picturesque, untainted hovels. They don't want to see peasants buying big new TVs.

Rich people love pure symbolism. Peacocks, likewise, show off their plumage. For whom is the welfare of others more important than signalling our superior status?

Rich people love the mortgage interest deduction. Rich people hate Betsy DeVos. Rich people love their own hothoused children, their golden children, more than fact or reason.

Handle writes:

The first step in this kind of analysis is to notice that one really does observe behavioral and social instincts shift in dramatic ways in all kinds of situations depending on perceptions of context and instinctive reactions to environmental cues regarding plenty or scarcity, as one of the "construals" from social psychology which tend to trigger alternative mental modes of operation. Other examples include the famous "pecking order" switch, which one can observe in animals as well, and "construal level theory" or what Hanson calls "Near vs. Far" mental modes.

In lots of games it only makes sense to experiment and take big risks for potential big rewards when one has lots of slack in case things go wrong. Otherwise one is better off playing it safe, and if things get really desperate, one cannot deviate an inch from optimal behaviors which includes a ruthless enforcement of certain social norms.

Two good opportunities to observe these mental modes in action regarding risk taking are in sexual relationships (hard times / low alternative options triggers loyalty but plentiful options encourages attempts at infidelity) and in corporate or bureaucratic environments (hard times discourage experimentation and boat-rocking, good times encourage bolder proposals and an increased willingness to experiment).

The question then becomes when a society emerges from a circumstance of widespread subsistence to steadily increasing material conditions, and in a special environment of a society of relatively open traditions regarding political advocacy, expression, and debate, what kinds of proposals for reforms will tend to be forwarded?

The idea of this theory is that the general shape of the answer seems to be relaxed (that is, liberalized) enforcement of severe social norms and increased tolerance for individual experimentation, idiosyncracy, and risk taking, as well as a suite of instinctive social values such as equality that anthropologists tell us are typical among forager groups with plenty to eat.

That lines up reasonably well with what we actually observe relating to the single-dimensional axis of modern political debates, with leftism or liberalism on one end, and conservatism on the other.

Clearly a long development of that trend will not be identical with the social reforms implied by a crude, first-order utilitarian analysis, but there will be a decent overlap if for no other reason than the focus on individual emancipation from traditional social constraints and restrictions.

This will also eventually tend to go against liberalism or utilitarianism in favor of leftism when the forager-mode instinct in favor of equality runs out of control in a "social faliure mode" and the social group creates novel and increasingly severe constraints against individual trading and market activity that tends to create unequal material positions.

Nathan Smith writes:

Bryan-- I think your theory of left and right is brilliant, the best on offer, brilliant enough to actually be helpful. Before I read it, I doubted that the words had any general meaning, that is, any larger coherence across times and places, over and above the way they get connected to the partisan alignments of particular times and places. You convinced me that there is, if not quite ideological coherence, at least a basis of common impulses in the two camps.

By contrast, I think the Scotts, Alexander and Sumner, are quite off base. As you argued, Thrive/Survive misses as often as it hits. Leftist revolutionaries in the late 19th century were sometimes in practice, and much more often rhetorically, in Survive mode, desperate people demanding that the state help them meet basic needs. Free-market doctrines then appealed more to the thriving. It's tenable NOW that Thrive/Survive mentalities correspond to left/right politics, but if so, that just shows how far things have shifted.

To identify liberalism with utilitarianism is far too glib and reductionist, and it's doubtful whether there's even a correlation. In the Cold War, if anything, the Soviets had the more utilitarian ideology. Their ideology was oriented towards the greatest happiness of the greatest number, whereas in the free West all sorts of other elements were mixed up in it, e.g., a deontological respect for individual rights of property and free speech, and great influence for the mystical and transcendental doctrines of Christianity. Of course, in an ULTIMATE sense, you could even argue that Christianity is utilitarian, inasmuch as it believes present pleasures are being sacrificed to ETERNAL happiness, but at that point, the utilitarian doctrine has been expanded so far as to be nearly meaningless. In the Cold War, you had one scientific materialist, reductionist, utilitarian power, the Soviet Union, facing off against a power that had more mysticism and deontology about it, the United States, and it was the mysticism and deontology that kept the United States comparatively liberal.

I'm not quite so convinced of your claim that prosperity leads to moderation. It seems to me that US politics has gotten more polarized over the past 20 years or so, through good times and bad. It strikes me as plausible that extremist ideologies are actually a luxury people indulge in when times are good.

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