The Caveman Roots of Liberal Democracy?

Stimulating thoughts from Razib (aka “David Hume”):

But a dispositional conservatism serves more than a periodoc brake upon the inevitable march of history toward its final Utopian state.  In fact the empirical record shows some cyclical dynamics in human morals and values. After all, Western liberal democracy is a throwback in many ways to the individualism of the hunter-gatherer phase of human history. I believe that the institutions and norms of communitarian “traditional” cultures were in fact ad hoc kluges which attempted to reconcile our “caveman psychology” with post-Neolithic mass society. Conservative and liberal dispositions seem to be partly hardwired; as humans we place ourselves along the spectrum. It is not simply a matter of conservatives always being a few generations behind liberals along the inevitable secular ascent up toward earthly paradise. Rather it seems possible these different political tribes are like two cylinders which serve as the motive force behind a winding and unpredictable journey.

Why is the journey unpredictable? One reason: Cultural evolution is unpredictable and the content of the beliefs and norms attractive to those with partly-hardwired liberal and conservative dispositions — the parameters of the liberal-to-conservative continuum — at any given time is a matter of the forces of cultural history as they interact with the forces of population change. Ideas and norms can’t stick if our evolved minds are inhospitable hosts for them. So the fixed part of human psychology is a constraint on cultural transmission. If we find liberal individualism at all compelling, it’s because we already have a taste for it. Likewise thick communitarian socialism. Culture wars are wars in part over which tastes to gratify and encourage and which to stymie and treat as a threats to decent civilization.

I agree that our conservative impulses aren’t going anywhere. So, what if people with conservative impulses reproduce at a greater rate? It’s interesting to think about what happens when the cultural parameters of the liberal-to-conservative continuum shifts in a liberal direction faster than dispositional conservatives can breed. And maybe something like this is Razib’s idea. If the stipulated demographic trend continues–conservatives keep reproducing faster–then conservative dispositions will become relatively common and liberal ones relatively rare. At some point, this stalls further liberalization, even if it had a lot of momentum behind it. And then you’d think maybe we slide back in a “traditional,” communitarian, family-centric direction. But I guess this depends on what a native “conservative disposition” comes down to. If it’s a kind of conformist hesitancy to alter the social order, then a preponderance of conservatives may do little more to lock in liberalization, just as today’s conservatives praise to the Heavens the timeless verity of a bunch of extremely radical 18th-century liberal ideals.

This Argument Needs Cognitive Enhancement

Andrew Sullivan says this essay by Justin D. Barnard, director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, is “the most convincing case I’ve seen against cognitive enhancing drugs.” I guess that means Sullivan has yet to see a very convincing case against cognitive enhancing drugs.

Like the athlete who uses steroids, those who advocate the “responsible use” of cognitive-enhancing drugs among the healthy falsely presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole. They presume, in other words, that cognitive improvement (and by extension, human improvement) is exclusively a function “adding” information and “better” information processing. 

This presumption is simply false. For while the capacities to procure and to process information are indeed goods of human life, they are neither the highest of human goods nor are they ends in themselves. Yet, the use of cognitive enhancers by the healthy implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of one’s mental life considered as a whole. As our thought-experiment about robotic baseball makes clear, if merely thinking (very fast!) about lots of information were the most important or only good of the human mental life considered as a whole, why not simply replace us with computers? 

This is a blatantly poor argument. First, why is “responsible use” in scare quotes? If scare quotes can beg the question, then Barnard’s quotes are fallacious. Second, why does Barnard assert that proponents of the responsible use of cognitive-enhancing druges “presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole.” Who presupposes this? No one, I hazard. So what’s the point of this exercise?

This morning, like every morning, I had some coffee. I wasn’t thinking of it in quite these terms, but “cogntive enhancement” was part of my aim. I daresay I use coffee responsibly, but in doing so I presuppose nothing in particular about “mental life considered as a whole.” I recently bought new running shoes, which I certainly hope will (responsibly!) enhance my ability to run, but I do not therefore presuppose that the single good of physical life as a whole is to run as fast as possible. You can do lots of things with your body. You can do lots of things with your mind. Why not do them a little better? 

Does the fact that I would like to run faster imply that I ought to be replaced by my dog, who runs faster than me, or by my car, which moves faster than either of us? Does my interest in personal speed enhancement imply I should replace my dog with a cheetah, or my Honda with a Maserati? I’d think not. I want to run, so the point is to enhance my physical performance. I want to write an essay, so I use caffeine and methylphenidate to help me maintain my otherwise fragile focus. What do robots have to do with anything. Does Bernard really suppose that there is someone somewhere sitting around longing to maximize something or other’s information processing. That I am sleepy and I would like to stay alert implies the desire to be made obsolete by sleepless machines? 

Is there something special about drugs? A calorically sufficient, well-balanced diet is cognitively enhancing. A slide-rule is an effective mental prosthetic, not to mention a computer. Reading is utterly unnatural and learning to do it is a big cognitive upgrade. So is, for that matter, taking an elementary principles of reasoning course. Perhaps the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship should offer one. I’m sure they could manage to do it responsibly.

Conservative Schizophrenia?

Interesting stuff from Conor Friedersdorf on the tension between Galt-going and rightwing elite-bashing populism:

But do you know why we are in a position where this sort of massive expansion of government is possible? It is partly because America’s professional class — its lawyers, engineers, and doctors, those meritocrats who “got into the better colleges and grad schools” — voted in large numbers for the Democratic candidate. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that affluent professional meritocrats, who often live in urban centers and prize competence, spent the 2008 campaign being told by the GOPticket that big city professionals live in fake America, that a diploma from an elite college is reason for suspicion, that the wine these folks drink marks them as less authentic than the beer of their compatriots, etc.

The GOP cannot wage a culture war against elites when it is convenient to rally the base, and later make a credible claim to be the champion of those same elites when it comes time to talk about marginal tax rates. What does the average, apolitical law firm partner or neurosurgeon or mechanical engineer think when he flips on the television and sees Joe the Plumber being held up as the face of the Republican Party? Do they think, “This is a party that is going to reward meritocrats like me,” or do they think, “I’ve got a choice between a party that’s going to insult my intelligence, and another that’s going to take a slightly higher percentage of my annual earnings.”

I think this tension slackens a bit if we look at one of the most interesting charts in Gelman et al’s Red State, Blue State, which shows the changing voting trends among different occupational groups [the Y axis label, which I couldn’t manage to snatch from Amazon is “Republican vote compared to national average” Thanks to Alphie for the link to Andrew’s blog post about this, which I couldn’t find when I looked.]

Republicans have been losing doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other white-collar types in droves. This is now a pretty solidly Democratic bloc. Let’s just say that these people are important to the economy but they aren’t very entrepreneurial either. Their jobs tend to be pretty secure and sometimes even involve guild-like licensing requirements. Meanwhile the Republicans have strongly consolidated their advantage among business owners and proprietors–people who personally  bear a lot of economic risk bringing products and services to market. It’s this strongly Republican group that I’d guess will most acutely feel increases in taxes and regulations and who are most likely to get mad about it. Meanwhile, the shift of “skilled workers” toward the GOP and the solid gains among “non-skilled workers” helps bring sense to the increasing appeal of bashing latte-sipping elites. That’s one gloss, at least.

The Crisis of Conservative Incoherence

Reflecting on Limbaugh’s CPAC bloviations, IOZ offers this treat:

Conservatives are for opportunity, but not equality of outcomes, but we are born equal, but we succeed or fail on our own merits, but conservatives will try to stop you from failing, but if you do, that’s too bad, and we need everyone to succeed as an individual for the country to succeed, except for those who don’t, because it’s their fault, and the fault of the war on poverty, or . . . some such. The Donk is deluded by the allure of technocracy, by the notion of scientific government; the Gopster is a set of cultural phobias, affected regular-guy affinities, and catch phrases. It’s probably appropriate that they draw their inspiration and spokespeople from the ever-more-irrelevant and anachronistic medium of radio.

The Donk complains that the Republicans are crass obstructionists. Would that it were true. The contemporary GOP wears the guise of obstructionism but lacks the wherewithal to oppose effectively. Superjesus Black Reagan rules the airwaves, and the supposed opposition is sequestered away in a chintzy hotel ballroom listening to C-list newsmedia celebrities extemporize around the posthumous legacy of Romulus and Remus Ronald Reagan. If there is anything we need right now, it’s a cranky minority party that reacts with zealous incredulity at the vast outpouring of expenditure and views with innate suspicion the claims of managerial liberalism. Instead we get awkward governors mumbling anathemas at the US Geologic Survey and talk-radio hosts giving recursive stemwinders to the choir. The Donk spent eight years under George Bush getting along by going along, but as polite acquiescence seems to have been bred out of the rightward faction of national politics, they’ll endeavor to continue the trend by creating the most thunderously loud irrelevance the world has ever known.


Also, I believe IOZ deserves a prize for “Superjesus Black Reagan.” Could Mencken have done better?

The Statist Elephant (Ha!) in the Room

John Schwenkler:

While we’re on the subject of war, though, isn’t that the elephant in the room here? I mean, I’m not a tenth the social liberal that Will is, nor am I an open borders devotee, etc. etc., but the fact remains that I wouldn’t think of supporting the GOP so long as it remains the party of bloated defense budgets, unapologetic support for the Iraq war, and bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran, not to mention freedom fries, FISA, the PATRIOT Act, torture, and the rest. That’s statism, my friends, and if Jonah Goldberg really can’t see why a committed libertarian might regard such a party as a lost cause to be jettisoned in favor of an admittedly unattractive other, then he clearly needs to think things through again.