Darwinian Markets

Economist Paul Seabright on how homo sapiens evolved into homo economicus

(Page 3 of 3)

The upside of modern communications is that people are thinking conscientiously and intellignently about the wider impact of the way they live, and that’s clearly desirable. But a little bit of thinking outside the tunnel can be a dangerous thing. You can wind up, in a fury of moral fervor, harming the very people whose cause you purport to advance.

REASON: Is there something in our evolved background that makes us susceptible to this?

PS: One problem is cognitive: It’s just difficult to master all the information about how the world actually does work. The other is emotional. Realistically, if you’re trying to think “should I buy trainers from Nike, or do I think Nike’s employment practices suck?” it’s difficult to get all the information, for one thing, but for another you’re surrounded by other people, many of whom you admire, who are sending you strong emotional messages: “These are disgusting capitalists; these are the enemy.” So you may be motivated as much by hatred of Nike as by love for the people employed in their factories. If you’re motivated by that, it’s going to be quite difficult to evaluate information coming from different sources about what’s actually a desirable policy in different circumstances.

I’m not, incidentally, saying there shouldn’t be regulation of employment practices by multinationals. But a simple stance that says it’s outrageous that they’re employing people at some wage that seems low to you and me may have very bad consequences. 

So the problem, I think, is at least as much emotional. I have friends in the anti-globalization movement who get thrilled when a big demonstration imposes humiliation on some multinational or Starbucks windows get smashed. It’s the thrill of the chase, the thrill of the battle. They’d be completely incapable of explaining why this particular result advances the interests of anybody that they care about. Yes, the fact that it’s hard for us to engage in political activism without the emotional highs and lows of the tribal experience is a big problem.

REASON: You say we should think of liberalism as a tradition that goes back far further than, say, the aftermath of the wars of religion in Europe.

PS: I think you can view philosophers, particularly political philosophers, as doing two kinds of jobs. On the whole, academics tend to think one of these jobs is more high status than the other. You can view them as acting as sages and mediators to societies wracked with problems, offering advice about how to resolve these various difficulties. Or you can view them as more like psychotherapists, helping societies to articulate things they probably already know about themselves. I tend to view political philosophers, the good ones, as more in the psychotherapist mold. What the great philosophers of liberalism did was appeal to stuff about ourselves that we sort of knew that had gotten obscured or overlaid. What they said was that thinking about other people in a certain way does come more naturally to us than you might think.

You can see why they needed to say this after the wars of religion, which were exceptionally bloody. It took very clear heads among the political philosophers of the age to say: Look, toleration of people who don’t share your religion is not something completely foreign to human nature. Sometimes they did it in a combative spirit, like Voltaire, who took on in a very polemical way some of the forces of religious intolerance. But actually he was preaching a message that was less confrontational than it seemed. It was not: You guys are prejudiced religious bigots who have to be faced down. It’s more: All of us have some capacity for hatred and bigotry in us, but all of us have a capacity to overcome that and to treat other people without being upset that their religion is different from ours.

Most of the conventional stories of the origins of liberalism imply that it’s something we discovered in response to these horrific events, a new way of living that nobody had ever thought of before. But if you go back to the Athens of Pericles, you find that a lot of the ingredients were there. Only some of them, of course: The Athens of Pericles practiced slavery. Nobody was arguing that slaves should have a say; nobody in their right mind then thought women should get a say. But in terms of a frame of mind in which you don’t automatically think you can kill somebody just because they bow down in front of a different altar from yours, the elements were there.

REASON: How fragile or robust is our “great experiment” of extended social order today?

PS: One aspect of that is: How should we react to the view that the whole edifice of modern social life just rests on convention? Convention is just what people have decided to do; maybe tomorrow they could decide to do something completely different. Maybe the conventions that underpin your ability to call me from across the Atlantic with both of us sitting reasonably securely in our respective offices having this conversation could disappear tomorrow. It may look, in a general sense, almost vertiginously contingent. But on the other hand it’s also remarkable how robust some of the conventions are. That’s partly because the conventions aren’t masterminded in any one place. Most of the conventions that underpin modern society are extremely decentralized: Nobody’s actually enforcing the fact that we all behave in a certain way. We reinforce it ourselves through billions of everyday decisions about how we treat our colleagues and our friends. There’s that general question of the fragility of the system.

What the sophisticated modern terrorist organizations are trying to do is find a symbolic point of weakness that can threaten the whole edifice, even though the edifice itself doesn’t have any kind of central pillar. You could knock out the White House or many other places and society wouldn’t collapse. It would be bad news, but in terms of how I respond to my neighbor in daily life, I’m not doing it because it’s been politically commanded; I’m doing it because it’s an equilibrium of my interactions.

You can think of terrorist organizations as saying: This doesn’t seem to have a genuine central pillar, but could we find a symbolic pillar we can knock out such that people will be so scared that they begin to modify their behavior to each other in other ways, even though strictly speaking they don’t have to? That’s why they chose the Twin Towers, and why a lot of modern terrorist organizations are very media savvy.

Religious conflicts come to the fore in this because religious ideologies are so heavily symbolically weighted toward objects of veneration. If you’re trying to launch a terrorist attack on some boringly secular bourgeois republic, it’s pretty hard to know where to hit. Whereas if you’re launching it on a society that has a collective religious allegiance, you’ve got the Pope or you’ve got symbolic sources authority that don’t seem as easily replaceable. It’s always more attractive to attack a king than some Scandinavian style president whose name nobody can remember. The exception that proves the rule is when the Swedish foreign minister was stabbed by a loony in Stockholm a few years ago, and people realized that senior Swedish politicians had been walking around for ages in the streets without any kind of bodyguard, because they’re too boring for anyone to want to attack on symbolic grounds. And that’s how they should be; it’s great. I’m a fan of that kind of boring, secular, bourgeois society. But to the extent that modern conflicts take a religious tone, they kind of up the stakes because they create more symbolic hostages.

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