Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong with the Thrive/Survive Theory of Left and Right

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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.  My top criticisms:

1. Unless you cherry-pick the time and place, it is simply not true that society is drifting leftward.  On the global level, leftism was mighty from roughly 1917 to 1975 - when the Soviet bloc was still strong and heartily attacked by even more radical leftists like Mao.  The triumph of Deng Xiaoping in China started a gradual but massive decline of leftism.  The fall of the Soviet bloc was an even sharper and far more rapid crash.  These changes echoed throughout the developing world.  And while pro-Communist parties never dominated any Western country, the collapse of Communism was a major blow to the ambition and morale of left-wing Western parties and intellectuals.

2. A standard leftist view is that free-market "neoliberal" policies now rule the world.  I say they're grossly exaggerating, but there's a lot more evidence for a long-run neoliberal trend than a long-run leftist trend.

3. Radical left parties almost invariably ruled countries near the "survive" pole, not the "thrive" pole.  And they generally had little or no sympathy for social liberalism, with brief exceptions (like the first year or so of the Soviet Union).  In fact, they punished deviance and dissent far more brutally than the typical traditional monarchy.  In the broad history of leftism, Bay Area-type identity politics is simply not very important.

4. You could deny that Communist regimes were "genuinely leftist," but that's pretty desperate.  When Communism was a viable political movement, almost everyone - including moderate leftists - saw it as part of the left.  An extreme, fanatical part of the left, yes.  But very much a part of it.

5 Many big social issues that divide left and right in rich countries like the U.S. directly contradict Thrive/Survive.  To take the most obvious case: unwanted pregnancies are much more burdensome - and legal abortion much more valuable - when life itself is insecure.  The same goes for the traditional Christian teachings of unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness.  If Scott were correct, rightists wouldn't just be pro-choice; they'd literally be pro-abortion for any fetus likely to burden society.

6. Major war provides an excellent natural experiment for Thrive/Survive.  Material conditions suddenly get a lot worse; life itself is on the line.  What really happens?  Almost all countries lurch toward what General Ludendorff termed "War Socialism" - replacing private property and material rewards with state ownership and forced egalitarianism.  When war ends, countries tend to back away from these policies - exactly the opposite of what Thrive/Survive Theory predicts.  Furthermore, political support for the continuation of egalitarian policies after wars tends to rest on "compensatory" arguments for the masses' wartime sacrifices.

If Thrive/Survive Theory is wrong, what's right?  I stand by my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right:
1. Leftists are anti-market.  On an emotional level, they're critical of market outcomes.  No matter how good market outcomes are, they can't bear to say, "Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?" 

2. Rightists are anti-leftist.  On an emotional level, they're critical of leftists.  No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can't bear to say, "The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them." 
Note the asymmetry: While leftists are emotionally anti-market, rightists are not generally pro-market.  Plenty are mercantilists, nationalists, populists, religious fundamentalists, and folks who find economics boring beyond belief.  What these diverse right-wing flavors have in common is not love of laissez-faire, but antipathy for leftists.

My Simplistic Theory intentionally fails to predict lots of details.  Why?  Because many of the features that Scott sees as quintessentially leftist - such as "freedom of religion, democratic-republican governments, weak gender norms, minimal family values, and a high emphasis on education and abstract ideas" - have been neglected or rejected by history's most influential, dyed-in-the-wool leftists.  The leftists Scott personally knows may cherish the items on his list.  To be frank, though, the leftists Scott personally knows are just a trendy subset of a diverse and enduring movement.

But doesn't prosperity push society in a predictable political direction?  Yes, but the direction isn't leftism.  It's moderation.  In rich societies, left and right make milder demands, and impose milder punishments.  Instead of expropriation, they push for taxation.  Instead of threatening death, they threaten jail, deportation, fines, or strongly-worded letters.  When society is on the brink of starvation, leftists and rightists slaughter each other.  When society faces an obesity epidemic, leftists and rightists troll each other on Facebook. 

COMMENTS (19 to date)
jj writes:

You can't compare a communist regime implemented through to a modern liberal party. China didn't become "leftist" after WW2. A small group of communists took over and implemented their views on the rest of society. If you look at non-Authoritarian regimes, they have shifted leftward quite a bit.

Your theory on the left still wouldn't explain why Left wingers hate Donald Trump more than any Republican of the last 50 years? Why would Leftists prefer a Ted Cruz (more capitalist than Trump) over Trump presidency?

David R Henderson writes:

Fantastic post!

Nick Rowe writes:

Good post.

I don't think your point 6 helps your argument though, because there's an alternative explanation for central planning in major wars. The standard argument against central planning (Hayek) gets weaker in war when there is only one major objective -- defeat the enemy -- than in peacetime, when millions of different individuals have their own different objectives.

Denver writes:

I almost feel as though Scott's theory is unfalsifiable. The obvious response to your communist comparison is to move the goal-posts. "Well, I wasn't talking about communist leftism. I was talking about my kind of leftism".

However, you could point to other examples, like African and Middle Eastern Americans who vote heavily democrat yet have stronger gender norms and lower levels of education achievement. Are they also an exception?

Richard writes:

To me, theories like these are more plausible the more they're rooted in evolutionary psychology. Why would attitudes to free market economics be fundamental, compared to differences over sex, religion, and ingroup-outgroup relations? Seems to me that our ancestors would've spent a lot more time dealing with the latter group of issues compared to something that is directly analogous to debates over tax policy and regulation.

Brandon Fishback writes:

The idea that leftism is defined by being anti-market is incredibly dated in our post-Trump America. There are plenty of Bona Fide leftists who will consider ideas such as less regulation in housing development or that the minimum wage is not necessarily the best way to help the poor(see Vox). I feel like your argument falls apart when you look at leftism as being more primarily about social liberalism than economic liberalism. Yes, it might be moving the goalposts but that doesn't mean it's wrong. Is there a major social issue in the last 150 years where the left came up with a position, it spread throughout society and then it was completely reversed?

That said, I still think the thrive/survive theory has some problems . Your point on abortion is a good counter example.

ChrisA writes:

I am going with the authoritarian vs libertarian axis myself (I never really understood the right/left classification, I mean why is National Socialism on the right but USSR communism on the left?).

Clearly, as in war time, there is arguably a need for better coordination which requires a more authoritarian style of government, other times, when the ideal solution to a problem is not obvious, it is better to have a more loose society of individuals who are free to try alternative solutions. Of course what is interesting is that the winners in most recent conflicts have been the freer societies - which suggests that liberalism is probably overall the more efficient model even in times of crisis.

You can speculate on which historical societies led to which ever style, but to say that humans have one default approach is definitely false. We have seen societies go from completely authoritarian to liberal or vice versa in very short periods of time in recent times.

Scott Gustafson writes:

"Is there a major social issue in the last 150 years where the left came up with a position, it spread throughout society and then it was completely reversed?"

Eugenics comes to mind.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think your point #6 punches the biggest hole in the theory. Societies almost always becomemore "leftist" (more cohesive and more socialist) when under external threat, not less so.
You really never see society break down into every-man-for-himself anarchism until you get to the point of actual defeat. One has to come up with some pretty wierd definitions of left/right to work your way around this. In some ways society gets more socially tolerant as you move towards a "thriving" state, but there doesn't seem to be a strong correlation when it comes to government spending or regulation.

Diane Merriam writes:

There is one aspect of the thrive/survive that does seem to stand the test of time. When a society is coming out of a period of extreme survival mode, is when populist protests and the like may start to happen. Prior to that, the effort merely to survive takes up everyone's energies. It's only when things get better that they have the time and energy to spare for demands that they want it all and they want it now.

Glen writes:

Left/Right seems to be somewhat ambiguous. I cannot say I have ever met someone so consistent in their political view that any simple theory would be a good descriptor. In any case, when I get into debates with those who would describe themselves as left leaning, they tend to worry more about survival than when I get into debates with people that would describe themselves as right leaning.

Charley Hooper writes:

Great post, Bryan.

We need to make a distinction between politicians and citizens. For politicians, Bryan hits the nail on the head. For citizens, both left and right, I think the issue is protecting against threats to the "natural order."

The right is trying to prevent our society from turning into Sodom and Gomorrah. The natural order is pretty clear: marriage between a man and woman, strong families, hard work, and upstanding behavior. God, family, and country. Anything that threatens these must be challenged.

The left is more complicated. Freedom is a beautiful thing, according to the left, unless it is mixed with money and the profit motive, at which time it becomes a toxic brew. The left fears stupid people giving money to opaque corporations, from which a fabulously wealthy man, working from a dark, smoke-filled back room, will pull strings, subvert the government, take away our power, and make us all slaves. A dark prospect, indeed.

Ron writes:


Defense buildups
anti-immigration, xenophobia, isolationism
oppose social spending, taxes, deficits
adhere to traditional values

De-emphasize military
Free trade
Welcome immigrants
social spending
lax on traditions

That looks much like the right/left divide to me.

Walter Clark writes:

A new way to catalog can be useful even if it doesn't account for as many attributes as another way.
In software, such as facial recognition, multiple measures are useful. They don't even have to be orthogonal. (One measure unable to detect any attribute of the other measure.)
Here's one:
People must think about their decision to act. A population of people can be a histogram on a spectrum of how deeply they think about decisions to act; where those with a degree in economics and deeply concerned about his grand children is at one end and an unmarried person who has no interest in the future, not even the next day, at the other.

OH Anarcho-Capitalist writes:

A better left-right paradigm is Rothbard's, with total individual liberty, i.e. anarchy on the left, and total state on the right.

This illuminates the progression from total liberty to total slavery under various means of establishing security....

Chuck McGlawn writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Hazel Meade writes:


oppose social spending, taxes, deficits

What government doesn't run a deficit and/or raise taxes during wartime?
These things just don't fit under the "survive" label.

Ben Kennedy writes:

Thrive/survive is pretty close to Arnold Kling's "3 axes" model. A drive to survive means you are probably conceptualizing things in terms of the civilization/barbarism axis because you think the main threats are from outside your civilization. The left is generally dismissive of these threats, and instead concerns itself with non-thriving population subsets within civilization, consistent with the oppressor-oppressed lens

Chuck McGlawn writes:

I do not see how a discussion on left and right can take place when every commenter has a different definition as to what left and right mean. History, our language, the names libertarians chose to describe ourselves shout that left means an advocate of more government, and right means an advocate of less government.

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