The Evolutionary Psychology of Lou Dobbs

Fly Bottle regulars will probably enjoy this post riffing on Paul Rubin more than the average Economist reader. A taste:

Rather than emphasize our grasp of positive sum interaction, or lack thereof, I think it would be better to say that we do not understand economic growth—the periodic increase in the size of surplus from cooperation. This is, I take it, what Rubin is getting at when he talks about “technological change,” which is generally what drives the productivity increases behind growth. Because we do not find intuitive the idea that the output from a unit of labor, and thus the size of the pool of wealth, can continually increase, we are likely to see total wealth as more or less static, and the division of the fixed pool as a zero sum game. But this is a game that my team plays against your team. We cooperate internally to compete externally over the wealth “commons.”
But how helpful is this in understanding “free trade” and “immigration” policy? I say: sort of. Evolutionary psychology helps illuminate why we have a tendency to in-group/out-group thinking, and why we are unlikely to grasp the nature of an ever-growing surplus from cooperation. But, as far as I can tell, it does little to help us understand why we draw the in-group/out-group boundaries where we do. Trade and immigration, as political issues, embody nationalist assumptions — people and goods going over political boundaries. But the modern nation state is a new idea: there were no nation states in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. …

There are some interesting comments over there, but the registration process is so onerous, I'm amazed anyone bothers.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

5 thoughts

  1. Fantastic post, as usual Will. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, this distinction between small and limited, and where one can draw the line and say, no this government is already limited enough in this area. Privatization is not the answer here. It’s a very difficult question to muddle through, however, because your not likely to find many people who agree on many of the various possibilities. This is the trick with the concept of liberaltarianism, too. A rights-based approach is also inherently objective. Nevertheless, I think you’re precisely right that “Limited” and not merely “Small” is the best approach to determining where to extend or retract the public sphere. At least in this context the discussion can proceed with integrity.

  2. It turns out that under a relatively restricted or negative sense of liberty, across the world government size does not predict less freedom. Look at the components of the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom index–the government size component correlates negatively with all the ones related to business, secure property, and freedom from corruption. Now, in a longitudinal sense–over time in the US, for example–you might have a case. But then you have to start weighing, say, the liberty to own other people as property against the liberty that derives from prohibitions against making me someone’s property.

  3. Anarchists often argue that if the public goods argument for state protection of rights (and the system of public finance it implies) is sound, then there is no principled basis for stopping at “minimal” government.”
    Tthis does not make sense. If you like coffee with a spoon of sugar, does it mean you will like it with ten?
    In a Democracy, then, shouldn’t it be the people that decide whether their government is to be small/limited/whatever? Isn’t that what we have elections for?
    Sure, this is subjective and dynamic. And that’s the point: there is no objective measure of the size of a government.
    – Sreedhar

  4. Jim M – is it possible that fairly free liberal democracies are more common among prosperous states that can afford a lot of government? And that poorer societies tend to have less freedom, but also can afford less government?

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