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Folk Activism…Signaling

May 29, 2009

Robin Hanson points out that our intuitive politics is even less effective than I described it in Beyond Folk Activism:

In large polities, the main function of our politics in our lives is how it influences the way others see us; its influence on us via policy is far weaker.   But it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy.  So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are build to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.

Our ancestors argued beliefs and negotiated actions in groups ranging from size two to a hundred.  No doubt they evolved to adapt their behavior to the size of the group, at least within this range.  And for the largest groups, the main payoffs from their arguing and negotiating behavior was not via influencing the resulting group beliefs and actions, but from how their words and deeds influenced how others thought of them.  This is all the more true for modern group sizes, and I suspect our strategies are adaptive enough to emphasize impression management even more for larger groups.

So not only are our behaviors adapted to the wrong size group, but they are mainly about signaling and achieving status within the group, not actually accomplishing change.  After all, increasing status gives a private gain, while improving policy helps the whole tribe, and selfish genes are focused on private gains.  Makes sense – no wonder activism is difficult!

Which suggests that we should try to give status to those with the greatest achievements, so that status-seeking selfishness results in gains for all.  We’re pretty good at doing this in some spheres – idolizing the champions of charity, but terrible at it in others – taxing, mocking, and demonizing success at business, even though entrepreneurs capture but a small fraction of the wealth they create.  I think libertarians are pretty bad at this – we tend to grant recognition and status to speakers and thinkers based on their passion and eloquence in the cause of liberty (signaling their role as members and potential leaders of our tribe), as opposed to actual effects at increasing it.

If we actually want freedom, as opposed to wanting membership in a tribe with passionate and eloquent leaders, perhaps we should change our standards.

  1. Mike Gibson permalink*
    May 29, 2009 2:53 am

    To follow up Robin’s comment, with respect to liberty, perhaps we shouldn’t even care what someone’s intentions are, but instead focus on his or her accomplishments. It may be that a top 20 list of liberty-creators in history contains but a few libertarians or liberals. A revolutionary technology–the automobile, perhaps–may have created greater mobility and freedom than many libertarians created with their own projects at the time.

    But as for someone whose accomplishments far outweigh the value of his rhetoric, I nominate Sir John James Cooperthwaite and his positive non-interventionism in Hong Kong.

    This Cooperthwaite Telegraph obituary recounts some of his private beliefs, which certainly had a strong libertarianish streak, but I would say his accomplishments–Hong Kong’s prosperity and the subsequent example it set for the rest of China–far outweigh whatever pronouncements he gave.

    It’s sad not too many people know of him. But I’m happy he spent less time proselytizing.

    • May 29, 2009 2:56 am

      Heh, synchronicity on the technology – I totally agree that the greatest contributions to freedom are probably from entrepreneurs.

      Cooperthwaite is a good example, maybe Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew deserves similar credit?

  2. May 29, 2009 1:39 am

    OK, to attempt to switch the status metric, it might help to create and celebrate a list of the libertarians who have actually increased liberty, rather than talked eloquently about it.

    • May 29, 2009 1:53 am

      The one example normally given is Milton Friedman helping to get rid of the draft. On the other hand, he also came up with income withholding. Those who ascribe to the ideology of libertarianism may not actually have had much to do with most increases in liberty.

      • May 29, 2009 2:55 am

        Right, but I don’t know if it’s true about the draft. Was it mainly ended because it was the right moment historically after the failure of Vietnam, and he just happened to be the individual taking advantage of it? Or would it not have ended so early had it not had such an able champion? I have heard each claimed, and don’t have the historical context to judge.

    • May 29, 2009 2:55 am

      I wonder whether people like the founders of Google and Southwest Airlines are the ones who have done the most to increase practical liberty.

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