Does Disease Cause Autocracy?

New studies say that lowering the rate of infection helps lead to political liberalization.

Greater wealth strongly correlates with property rights, the rule of law, more education, the liberation of women, a free press, and more social tolerance. The enduring puzzle for political scientists is how do the social processes that produce freedom and wealth get started in the first place?

Many political theorists have associated democracy with the rise of wealth and the establishment of a large middle class. As Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, and Christian Welzel, a political scientist at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany explain in the 2009 edited volume Democratization, “Growing resources are conducive to the rise of emancipative values that emphasize self-expression; and these values are conducive to the collective actions that lead to democratization.”

A group of researchers led by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Sachs recently noted that a billion people live on less than a dollar per day [PDF] and “are roughly as poor today as their ancestors were thousands of years ago.” Why? The researchers suggest that high disease burdens create persistent poverty traps from which poor people cannot extricate themselves. High disease incidence lowers their economic productivity so that they can’t afford to create the resources needed to improve sanitation and medical care, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to more disease. And so it goes.

University of New Mexico anthropologists Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher pushed the disease thesis further with their “parasite hypothesis of democratization,” arguing that disease not only keeps people poor, but it also makes them illiberal. The two researchers test this hypothesis “using publicly available data measuring democratization, collectivism–individualism, gender egalitarianism, property rights, sexual restrictiveness, and parasite prevalence across many countries of the world.” The idea is that the lower the disease burden, the more likely a society is to be liberal. 

Thornhill and Fincher argue that the risk of infectious disease affects the willingness of elites to share power and resources, the general social acceptance of hierarchal authority, and the openness of innovation. Their central idea is that ethnocentrism and out-group avoidance function as a kind of behavioral immune system. Just as individuals have immune systems that fight against pathogens, groups of people similarly evolve with local parasites and develop some resistance to them. People who are not members of one’s group may carry new diseases to which the group has not developed defenses. “Thus, xenophobia, as a defensive adaptation against parasites to which there is an absence of local adaptation, is expected to be most pronounced in regions of high parasite stress,” assert Thornhill and Fincher. In another study, they find that where disease prevalence has been historically high, cultures tend toward collectivist values such as ethnocentrism and conformity. Why? Because these inward-looking cultural values inhibit the transmission of diseases.

Using prevalence data for 22 diseases, the researchers find a correlation with a number of cultural values, including democratization, property rights, gender equality, and sexual liberalization. Where disease prevalence remains high, autocracy reigns, property rights are weak, women have fewer rights, and sexual behavior is restricted. Disease prevalence lessens the further one gets away from the equator. Thus, Thornhill and Fincher argue that it is not surprising that the development of democratic institutions began in high latitude Western Europe and North America. In 1820, Britain’s average life expectancy of 40 years was the highest in Europe; France's was 37 years and Germany's 32 years. (Britons and American colonists had more available calories per capita which also boosted their ability to fight off disease.)

Furthermore, Thornhill and Fincher assert that more recent advances in medicine and public health are similarly implicated in the post-1950s wave of liberalization that swept over the United States and Western Europe. The advent of penicillin, polio vaccines, the elimination of malaria, chlorination of drinking water, and the reduction in foodborne illnesses all combined to dramatically reduce disease prevalence. The authors suggest that if people actually experience few infections as they grow up, they perceive strangers and novel ways of life as safe. Tolerance and the embrace of social, economic, and technological innovation follow. They note that areas of the world in which disease rates remain high have not experienced this trend toward liberalization.

A new study led by University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand published last week in Science looks at the “differences between cultures that are tight (have many strong norms and a low tolerance for deviant behavior) versus loose (have weak social norms and a high tolerance for deviant behavior).” In this case, Gelfand and her colleagues consider a wider number of possible threats including disease prevalence, but also population density, resource scarcity, and territorial conflicts. Again, adversity correlates with higher levels of social conformity, autocratic rule, religiousness, and media control. Of the 33 countries in Gelfand’s survey, Pakistan scored highest on tightness (12.3 points) while the least tight country was Ukraine (1.6 point). The United States scored a pretty loose 5.1 points.

Disease causes autocracy, in turn causing poverty, resulting in more disease, producing continued autocracy, and so on. However, if Sachs, Thornhill, Fincher, and even to some extent Gelfand is right, then reducing disease burdens in a country would promote the rise of liberal institutions. In fact, Fincher and Thornhill explicitly conclude, “If the parasite hypothesis of democratization is supported by additional research, humanitarian efforts to reduce human rights violations and to increase human liberties and democracy in general will be most effective if focused on the most fundamental causal level of infectious disease reduction.” Unfortunately, ignorant ethnocentrism has gotten in the way of eradicating diseases like polio.

Nevertheless, as life expectancy across the globe has increased, liberal institutions have spread. The nonprofit Freedom House reports that since 1972 the percentage of free countries has risen from 29 percent to its current rate of 45 percent. During that same time average global life expectancy has risen from 58 years to 70 years. If these studies are right, they bode well for the future of humanity. Biomedical and sanitation innovations developed by already-free and rich countries will likely continue to spill over to poor autocratic countries sparking in them the virtuous circle of health producing wealth, which eventually promotes liberty.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  • Warty||

    Come on, don't be one of those people who confuses correlates with causes. You know how many crimes against science have been correlated with that.

  • ||

    Warty: Disease causing autocracy is a hypothesis which the researchers test with various statistical analyses of relevant data. The goal of such research (not dispositive here) is to show (eventually) that other explanations of autocracy do not do as well as the disease hypothesis. One fairly conventional hypothesis is that wealth causes democracy. The researchers here are arguing that both are caused by something else, e.g., lower disease prevalence. They supply some interesting data and statistically significant correlations in support of that hypothesis.

  • rather||

    FFS, the difference between them and us is our genetic train has more cars. We ALL flowed from Africa.

    Men who have better resistance, are so because they have dipped their genetic pool in many rivers, and taken immunity with them.

    Another factor, may be the actual drive for wanderlust; a man more likely to build the best society and answer the genetic call to Go West, young man

  • Paul||

    I haven't dipped my genetic pole into that many rivers.

  • Paul's mommy||

    good boy :-)

  • ||

    Actually, Africa is the most genetic diverse continent, by far.

  • rather||

    How so?

  • rather||

  • Neu Mejican||

    Actually, Africa is the most genetic diverse continent, by far.

    Indeed, for humans at least. As would be expected given that humans started out there.

  • Realist||

    Sure just like AGW!

  • ||

    The danger with these kind of studies is that including a variable for one thing (disease) can be highly misleading if the statistical model fails to include other relevant variables, because the variation in the independent variable of interest ends of proxying for the effect of something else. I.e. if they didn't adequately control for wealth or income inequality, then their disease variable might actually just be proxying for those things and does not actually show a relationship between disease and liberalization. The article is gated so I can't tell whether their controls are complete.

    There's also the important issue that the disease burden is higher in the lower latitudes, and those areas were the colonized states, and Acemoglu and Robinson showed pretty conclusively that post-colonial states tended to retain autocratic institutions into independence.

    What I'm really saying is that I hope they had some political scientists who actually study liberalization help them build their model.

  • Name Nomad||

    Pakistan scored highest on tightness (12.3 points) while the least tight country was Ukraine (1.6 point).

    I guess Ukrainians have a lot of fiber in their diet.

    Also, since this can never be said too many times, correlation does not imply causation.

  • Jim||

    Plus, a lot of Ukrainians are racist as shit (like many Europeans, though they won't admit it). I remember reading about the first prominent black player a Ukrainian club team brought on (he was from Nigeria, IIRC), and the fans all made monkey noises every time he touched the ball. He got death threats, etc.

  • Paul||

    Plus, a lot of Ukrainians are racist as shit

    Take solace in the fact that eastern Europeans are racist against each other.

    My mother is from Czechoslovakia. Don't get her started on the Ukranians-- or the Poles, or the Slovaks, for that matter.

  • sevo||

    And *DON'T* get the Poles going on the jooz.

  • Res Publica Americana||

    A great deal of it is pretty much eastern Slavs versus western Slavs, and northern and southern Slavs against each other similarly. The Ukrainians I know would lynch a Pole or a Romanian if they ever met one.

  • rather||

    I always found it odd that groups who are visual and ancestral 'cousins' hate each other

    IOW, y'all look the same to me

  • Wind Rider||

    Same same applies to - Ireland, a lot of the middle east. . .so, what type of Semetic are you again?

  • ||

    The person I dislike most in the world is my sister, so it actually makes sense that people would dislike those most closely related to them. Have you ever notice the farther away from home you go the prettier the woman become and the more sociable you become.

  • James "Almanian" Brown||

    I'll be the judge of "tight" around here. And it ain't no Pakistan or Ukraine.

    HIT ME! GOOD GOD!

  • rather||

    FFS, yes it can
    Post hoc ergo non propter hoc
    google some other shit, idiot

  • ||

    Cogito ergo sum.
    Sum Money My Man!

  • Jim||

    I dunno...Russia's pretty freaking cold, and they don't seem to be historically prone to hopping on the ole Freedom Train.

  • Name Nomad||

    Cold AND low population density.

    There's also Australia which, in the north, is just teeming with disease. I guess since most of the population is in the east, this example doesn't work all that well.

  • ||

    Jim: True, but interestingly life expectancy for men fell almost 7 years and 3 years for women in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Infectious diseases did not increase tremendously. Interestingly, Putin's authoritarianism followed in the wake of this health crisis.

  • Jim||

    Interesting, but did not Putin's authoritarianism follow only a precious few years of quasi-liberty, which itself was preceeded by hundreds of years of despotism? It just seems that if the latitude argument holds water, Russia would be closer to England than China on the liberal democracy scale.

    Of course, I shouldn't jump to conclusions based on research in a field in which I am most assuredly not a specialist, but I'd like to study their controls in this case. I'll look carefully at the study at home later.

  • rather||

    I shouldn't jump to conclusions based on research in a field in which I am most assuredly not a specialist

    And you call yourself a libertarian! ;-)

  • Res Publica Americana||

    Lololololololol.

  • MJ||

    How does this square with theory the Black Death liberalized Western Europe as it forced a relaxing of feudal obligations as an incentive to move into depopulated regions? Though it appears it had the opposite effect in Eastern Europe.

    "The great population loss brought economic changes based on increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants' already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. In the wake of the drastic population decline brought on by the plague, authorities in Western Europe worked to maintain social order through instituting wage controls.[18] These governmental controls were set in place to ensure that workers received the same salary post-plague as they had before the onslaught of the Black Death.[16] Within England, for example, the Ordinance of Labourers, created in 1349, and the Statute of Labourers, created in 1351, restricted both wage increases and the relocation of workers.[19] If workers attempted to leave their current post, employers were given the right to have them imprisoned.[16] The Statute was strictly enforced in some areas. For example, 7,556 people in the county of Essex were fined for deviating from the Statute in 1352.[20] However, despite examples such as Essex, the Statute quickly proved to be difficult to enforce due to the scarcity of labour.

    In Western Europe, the sudden shortage of cheap labour provided an incentive for landlords to compete for peasants with wages and freedoms, an innovation that, some argue[weasel words], represents the roots of capitalism, and the resulting social upheaval "caused" the Renaissance, and even the Reformation. In many ways the Black Death and its aftermath improved the situation of surviving peasants, notably by the end of the 15th century. In Western Europe, labourers gained more power and were more in demand because of the shortage of labour. In gaining more power, workers following the Black Death often moved away from annual contracts in favour of taking on successive temporary jobs that offered higher wages.[21] Workers such as servants now had the opportunity to leave their current employment to seek better-paying, more attractive positions in areas previously off limits to them.[16] Another positive aspect of the period was that there was more fertile land available to the population; however, the benefits would not be fully realized until 1470, nearly 120 years later, when overall population levels finally began to rise again."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C.....lack_Death

  • ||

    MJ: Thanks for reminding us of this argument. In truth, I have always been skeptical of it because it sounds too much like the broken windows theory applied to the destruction of human capital.

  • MJ||

    I am not sure I buy into either theory. If disease in itself is enough to keep a people down and it's been a universal constant in the human condition, how did any culture overcome it? On the other side, if the effect of the plague was to increase the per capita food supply, it only could have come because agriculture did not require the numbers of people it did before. I think while disease is a factor, there's too many other factors that can change a society's reaction to illness to say that if there a disease level of "x" then the effect on society will invariably be "y".

  • rather||

    If disease in itself is enough to keep a people down and it's been a universal constant in the human condition, how did any culture overcome it?

    Why did early man band together to form tribes?
    Disease, injury, old age were the physical roots, and companionship, the emotional. Disease itself, is a ying/yang of man's existence

  • sevo||

    "Disease itself, is a ying/yang of man's existence"

    Only if your chakras need a tune. Are you familiar with the term "woo"?

  • rather||

    Spent months in Nepal, and visited Tibet but no, It's not my thing

  • sevo||

    "Spent months in Nepal, and visited Tibet.."
    And I'm sure they were happy to see you leave. Other than that, do you have a point?

    "but no, It's not my thing"
    Right:
    "Disease itself, is a ying/yang of man's existence"

  • rather||

    Holy shit, you are a baby

  • sevo||

    You seem to think your bullshit doesn't stink. It does.

  • rather||

    Sorry, my autism spectrum disorder translator isn't working today

  • Robert||

    I've suspected for a few years that the medieval plagues, along with the Crusades, contributing to the establishment of what survives today as traditionalist-economic "conservatism". There arose a need to increase the population and provide more warriors.

  • ||

    lets not forget that the black death occured during the little ice age and as things warmed up crops grew more abundantly and with good food supplies came a healthier diet which helps supress disease's

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    However, if Sachs, Thornhill, Fincher, and even to some extent Gelfand is right, then reducing disease burdens in a country would promote the rise of liberal institutions.

    It's almost as though you're suggesting that giving the Delaware Indians smallpox-infected blankets might have actually been counterproductive.

  • Jim||

    Hey, that's some good correlation / causation there! You could be a scientist!

    "Well, we gave these stupid Indians a bunch of smallpox, and now 200 years later, they all suck and live on shitty, poor reservations. Viola! Our theory is proven!"

  • Almanian||

    Casinos - The Red Man's Revenge®

  • MJ||

    There are not liberal institutions in Delaware?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I don't think there are any in Pittsburgh, where the siege took place.

    And little known fact: 2005's Land of the Dead was a reimagining of that incident.

  • Robert||

    I like that!

  • Spur||

    How come most the zombie infections I've seen occur in rich western countries and Pennsylvania?

  • Doc S.||

    Because philidelphia is a shithole and yinz deserve it.

  • rather||

  • Jim||

    Is it possible to determine if disease incidence decreased with access to wealth amongst the general populace, and not the other way around? Seems like a chicken-or-egg type of question.

  • ||

    Jim: That's exactly what the researchers are trying to tease out of the data. The disease hypothesis is being tested in this research, but it is not the only one. The usual model has been that wealth causes health. Interestingly, 1993 Nobel economics prize winner Robert Fogel argues that improvements in nutrition is what jumpstarted economic growth.

  • data||

    Don't be teasin' me. bitches.

  • sevo||

    "Interestingly, 1993 Nobel economics prize winner Robert Fogel argues that improvements in nutrition is what jumpstarted economic growth."
    Which is a loooong way from arguing that fewer infections = more liberal government policies.

  • ||

    sevo: It would work like this: Rich new farmland in the Americas supplied more grain to Britons who because of the extra calories were better able to fight off diseases which meant that they could work harder producing a relatively wealthy middle class who then demanded more political rights.

  • sevo||

    Ron,
    OK, but poverty-stricken nations don't have the resources to:
    A) colonize lands, and
    B) ship the goods home, and
    C) distribute them to the population.
    Just back of the envelop, it looks like "prosperity" was the earlier development and a virtuous circle followed.
    BTW, you're probably familiar with Michael Kremer: "Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million BC to 1990." Anyone shot down that hypothesis?

  • Jim||

    In addition, I'd like to hear their thoughts on the impact of Anglo-Saxon social institutions (such as the witan) on the English commonlaw landscape prior to the time when Englishmen enjoyed any greater levels of health than their continent-bound compatriots.

    To abuse an over-used example, the Magna Carta, though only guaranteeing "rights" for nobles, was still a more progressive notion than what was prevailing at the time elsewhere, and when England was still as relatively poor as many of her neighbors.

  • ||

    There is also some good work coming from MIT in developmental economics showing that de-worming leads to more education. They tested many, many things including just bribing the families, but what predicted the most kids to showing up to school was if they they were dewormed or not.

  • ||

    What jump starts economic growth -- economics means all matters relevant to man regarding wealth; and only those things that have exchangeability can get deemed wealth, e.g., chattel, labor, rights -- in EVERY INSTANCE in recorded human history is the mechanization of farming, which yields surplus to landholders, who become an enriched elite. From the demands of the enriched elite follows the rise of city life.

    Such city life gets characterized by ever greater degree of specialization in pursuit of satisfying rich landholding elite first.

    Several additional factors fuel economic growth from the first rise: potable water and sewage, which supports a growing city population; transportation, which lets more distant lands come into production, under the Law of Prices; and perhaps most importantly, a system of credit, which lets producers call forth from the future and into the now, products, which satisfy the landholding elite first, and then subsequently, an elite who grown from townspeople.

    The problem with 21st High Priests of the Church of Quackademia is that these jokers have never read the likes of Cantillon, MacLeod and others who have shown already what gives rise to economies, including the effects of economic geography.

    If [life terminating] disease causes autocracy, it should be easy to show through all time that during cases of epidemics within a sequestered population, that any previous system of governance has been thrown over, immediately, for autocratic rule by a strong arm man.

  • ||

    Exactly from what life-terminating disease were the Cubans suddenly stricken by and suffering when Fidel Castro partnered up with Ernesto "Che" Guevara?

    During that time, Cubans' economy rivaled Italians as measured by per cap GDP and far surpassed that of the Japanese.

    Cubans' literacy rate was higher than the rate for Spaniards.

  • rather||

    I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear

    JFK

  • ||

    As an aside, shouldn't the word 'autocracy' mean something positive?

    The word many want is monocracy and not autocracy.

    After all, auto~ comes from the Greek meaning "self, one's own" and ~cracy comes from the Greek meaning "power, might; rule, sway; power over; a power, authority."

    Thus, the true meaning of 'autocracy' is self-rule, which sounds good.

    Mono comes crom the Greek meaning "single, alone." Thus, a monocracy would be one alone in power, ruling over all.

  • Shane||

    Except that it doesn't actually mean rule OF the self. That construct refers to the source of authority, not who is governed. Plutocracy means that wealth is the source of authority, Democracy means that the people are the source of authority.

    Monocracy, aside from being a linguistically bizarre construct, would mean each ruled himself alone, and would most accurately be interpreted as excluding collective actions and institutions.

  • ||

  • Almanian||

    Everyone loves Abortionplex, but true fans know that the real magic is found in the secret menu. A 2x3 lets you sandwich in movie screenings at the theater before, between and after ridding yourself of potential twins. An 8x8? Spend your day easily breezing from Octomom to Oscars noms. Hold the butter on that popcorn though - you're not eating for 9 anymore!

    Fuck yeah!

  • ||

    The "prep room" just cracks me up. Good lulz.

  • ||

    Got any Holocaust jokes while you're at it?

  • Almanian||

    OK, so this is why we need the gummint to tell us what to eat and how much to weigh and not to smoke and so on. Cause if we're all really healthy, then we'll be more freer, right?

    So we need some Health Panels to force ensure everyone complies, and then teh Freedomz Trainz comez, rite! Rite?! Do I have that right?

  • rather||

    The researchers suggest that high disease burdens create persistent poverty traps from which poor people cannot extricate themselves. High disease incidence lowers their economic productivity so that they can’t afford to create the resources needed to improve sanitation and medical care, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to more disease. And so it goes

    AKA, why we need HR reform

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Hit and Run is just fine, thank you.

  • rather||

    H&R's 'over-the-cliff bitches' won't work for grandma

  • rather||

    *HCR*

  • Grandpa Whithers||

    Happy Cunt Rape?

  • DK||

    I agree. We need HCR reform - health care reform reform. I'm sure this is what you meant, rather.

  • rather||

    DK, I'm sure you know I meant what I said; after all, I am not a man

  • sevo||

    "The authors suggest that if people actually experience few infections as they grow up, they perceive strangers and novel ways of life as safe. Tolerance and the embrace of social, economic, and technological innovation follow."
    I'd suggest with equal evidence that people who listened to R&B music perceive strangers and novel ways of life as safe. Tolerance and the embrace of social, economic, and technological innovation follow.

    "They note that areas of the world in which disease rates remain high have not experienced this trend toward liberalization."
    Those would be the same areas that never heard Bill Doggett play Honky Tonk parts one and two.

  • ||

    sevo: Have you run some regressions on that?

  • sevo||

    Not yet. I'm trying to work Global Warming into the title to apply for some grants.

  • Paul||

    Win.

  • Realist||

    Good one!

  • cynical||

    War famine plague is the health of the state.

  • TheCheeseStandsAlone||

    "Disease prevalence lessens the further one gets away from the equator."

    This makes sense, especially considering that most of modern
    civilization thrives in the "Northern Hemisphere", as opposed to
    equatorial regions, and points south...

  • DK||

    Could that have more to do with land distribution than anything else? Most of modern civilization lives in the Northern Hemisphere (90% of the population of earth). About 70% of the earth's land area is in the Northern Hemisphere. So it would make sense that most

  • sevo||

    "This makes sense, especially considering that most of modern
    civilization thrives in the "Northern Hemisphere", as opposed to
    equatorial regions, and points south..."
    Not a whole lot of land or population in 'points south' if you include the latitudes where prosperity blossomed in the north.

  • Jim||

    Someday, the People's Equitorial Democratic Republic of the Central African Congo, or whatever the fuck they're calling themselves this month, will rise to be the new superpower, and we'll all have to eat our words.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    If I remember this right, South Africa had nukes in the aparthied* days. They've since gotten rid of their stockpile.

    *Almost certainly misspelled.

  • rather||

    Country: South Africa
    Status: Dismantled
    The government of South Africa began a nuclear-weapons program in the 1970s, and later acknowledged completing six nuclear warheads. But with the apartheid-era government under serious international pressure, it became the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear program—a decision that was easier because the major security threat at the time was internal tension. Pretoria destroyed the bombs before even admitting they had existed.

    Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, South Korea, Sweden, Libya, Ukraine, Kazakhstan: dismantled/defunct
    Belarus, Japan: stalled
    Iraq: destroyed
    Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Iran: almost nuclear

  • ||

    >a billion people live on less than a dollar per day

    Don't environmentalists want us to "live lightly upon the earth"? According to enviro-logic, we should emulate these extremely frugal people, not try to raise their living standards by, say, treating them for parasitic worms; the treatment might make them feel better and able to work for more income.

  • sevo||

    What are you, some sort of speciesist? Parasitic worms have rights too, ya know!

  • Doc S.||

    There's a difference between living frugally to mimimize your impact and having all of the nurishment you put in your body divided between tapeworms and GI infections. If you could rid them of the parasites they could actually eat less and diseases they could actually theoretically eat less!

    Although both sound fun.

  • sevo||

    Doc S.|5.31.11 @ 10:12PM|#
    "There's a difference between living frugally to mimimize your impact and having all of the nurishment you put in your body divided between tapeworms and GI infections."

    Yes there is, and there is no reason to 'live frugally' unless you're a malthusian 'bleever'.

  • rather||

    Sounds like a Libertarian think tank solving world hunger

  • ||

    libertarianism != libertinism

  • rather||

    libertarianism != libertinism but we still aren't getting laid

  • MNG||

    Fantastic article Ron. Great summary and tying together of some very interesting research results. Thanks.

  • Realist||

    Once again one of the dumbest fucks on this site likes Ron's article.
    Bailey this must be a great source of pride for you.

  • ||

    Interesting article. Two points. While xenophobia could protect against diseases, it can also increase birth defects due to inbreeding.

    Also, isn't it true that the "sexual revolution"/liberalization of the '60s-'70s resulted in a huge jump in STDs? The "loose" behavior resulted in a distinct disease increase, but has there been a political/social reaction to that?

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    I was wondering about that. It seemed as though rational behavior (avoiding disease) was taking a back seat to individual rights, suggesting that freedom is irrational. I consider individual rights to be rational (guess my favorite philosopher), and protecting from disease to be in one's self-interest. The article, on the other hand, suggests a dichotomy between trade and avoiding disease.

  • sevo||

    Doktor Kapitalism|5.31.11 @ 9:47PM|#
    "I was wondering about that. It seemed as though rational behavior (avoiding disease) was taking a back seat to individual rights, suggesting that freedom is irrational."
    Maybe and maybe not. Most STDs are pretty easily cured, and quite rationally, I might chose a possible exposure (and relatively easy fix) in trade for a hot date. I'd bet it's an odds-on (rational) choice to get a cold from a desirable sexual partner rather than say, 'uh,...."

    "... The article, on the other hand, suggests a dichotomy between trade and avoiding disease."
    Or a choice between the two; no choice is free of costs.

  • ||

    Here it would seem since the liberals would have died off without better care ......So does that mean the "Liberal Progressivism" is a genentic defect that darwin would have used as a pointer for "why the sub-spicies" went extinct ....

  • Realist||

    Ronald Bailey is Reason's junk science correspondent.

  • Hobie Hanson||

    Libertarians should then support sensible public health measures to prevent epidemics like obesity and smoking, epidemics which according to your logic leads to autocracy. But you're too weeded to the idea of doing whatever you want to your body, regardless of how it affects others in society, to even see what's in your best interest. Like wasps to flames.

  • sevo||

    Hobie Hanson|5.31.11 @ 10:11PM|#
    "Libertarians should then support sensible public health measures to prevent epidemics like obesity and smoking, epidemics which according to your logic leads to autocracy."

    Gee, hobie, flunked that remedial reading comprehension class did you?
    Hint: obesity and smoking *aren't* infectious diseases.

  • Matrix||

    I dunno. Everytime I see a smoking fatty, I wanna go to Five Guys and get 2 burgers with everything, a large order of fries and the biggest size cup they have full of coke... then top it off with a pack of lucky strikes.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Since centralized top-down anything produces inferior results to free choice that would be a NO. Also, this is not endsjustifythemeans.com. Also, it's *mothmen* to the flame.

  • ||

    There are organizations where top-down control makes sense and indeed is an absolute necessity...sports leagues are a prime example. Of course you can embed such lumps of collectivism inside a larger individualist system.

  • Realist||

    "Like wasps to flames."
    ....or moths....!!!!

  • Cytotoxic||

    I'm not quite sold. One problem is the statement that Europe was less diseasey than elsewhere and that is wrong. Europe got hit with everything. This is one of the reasons why contact with natives was so disastrous for them and not for the colonizers. The natives got infected and the colonizers had immunity.

  • ||

    If Cytotoxic said it's ture,then what we should do?I think one of the best, maybe the best tool to achieve your goals are the subliminal videos (http://cheapdvdboxsets.wordpress.com), because they implant images directly in your subconscious mind.

  • Skr||

    I think Jared Diamond might disagree. Not that it matters or anything.

  • jtuf||

    This article was interesting, Bailey. I've got a couple of random facts to add.

    Indigenous tribes in the Western Hemisphere used tobacco smoke to fumigate fields. I suspect that passing the peace pipe was a way to kill or repel insects when meeting with new people so that the insects cannot act as vectors for transmitting diseases from the strangers.

    The rise of democracy in England lead to better sanitation, because the masses living downstream were empowered enough to end the problems of open sewage running through their neighborhoods. Under autocracy, the king lives on top of the mountain and doesn't care about the filth flowing downstream to the masses at the bottom of the mountain.

  • Mike E||

    I am reminded of Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws thoughts on climate effecting culture and political systems. The roughest possible summary is people who live closer to the equator are lazy because it is so damn hot, and lazy people are more prone to having dictators.

  • ||

    I hope you're not summarizing this approvingly...because that's Eurochauvinist poppycock.

  • ||

    There's so many frayed edges hanging off this narrative that it's tough to know where to start a critique. But I'll try.

    Disease prevalence lessens the further one gets away from the equator. Thus, Thornhill and Fincher argue that it is not surprising that the development of democratic institutions began in high latitude Western Europe and North America.

    The US occupies roughly the same range of latitude as the Mediterranean countries, North Africa, and China...not the British Isles and Netherlands that you seem to be referring to. And democratic institutions assuredly did not develop in most of northern Europe, ie Scandanavia, the Baltics, and Russia. And of course, Britain and North America have been authoritarian shitholes for a far longer historical duration than they have been democracies...so if the latitude is the determining factor, something is terribly off with this attempt at an explanation.

    Thornhill and Fincher argue that the risk of infectious disease affects the willingness of elites to share power and resources, the general social acceptance of hierarchal authority, and the openness of innovation

    [...]

    Britons and American colonists had more available calories per capita which also boosted their ability to fight off disease.

    Occam's razor is going down the road, not across the street on this unwieldly explanation. It seems far more likely that greater availability of calories would produce a greater willingness to share resources directly rather than requiring a "heightened immune system" intermediary. Particularly in Europe and eastern North America, where there is a high proportion of arable land, it would be harder for the powers that be to control food supplies than in regions with small amounts of arable land owned by the rulers; that might explain the lower obeisance to hierarchy. Of course, this is all speculation -- just like Thornhill et al's explanation.

  • Otto||

    This looks to me to be an "argument from democracy." The basic view of the author(s) is that the people, or at least the culture of a society automatically determines the government. While this is certainly far more likely than in times past, it stands the highest chance of being contravened in precisely those societies where autocracy is most prevalent.

  • Res Publica Americana||

    An outbreak of dumbfuckery killed the Brits. Just look at them. This theory ain't as bad as it seems!

  • Wind Rider||

    Causation or correlation - well, good luck to the researchers with all that. The aspects that increases in agriculture and 'technology' (i.e. clean water) seems inextricably linked to the falling of disease rates, more so than the rise of particular political persuasions following or accompanying such an accomplishment. And if food and water availability is a strong driver for liberalization, how can the issue not revert back to pointing at those aspects, instead of one of it's byproducts?

    Pakistan is used as an example, chalking up their tribal clanish ways as an almost social sub-concious reaction to the potential of getting ill - however such an approach ignores other quite probably relevant factors. Difficulty of travel or transport due to terrain, the tendency of 'the other' to come over the hill into your area and steal your food and or your women, etc; plus the influence of religion on the attitudes of the people. Pakistan is also a fair counterpoint example - the place is not known as a breadbasket, by any means, and horrific flooding incidents aside, clean water isn't necessarily a universally available resource to them. Really clouds the issue if you consider that the introduction of modernized health care methodologies are possibly more responsible for increases in public health gains there - all of which tosses the entire thing back to a 'chicken and egg' conundrum.

    But hey, if it gets them a lot of grant money, golf clap.

  • Neu Mejican||

    The research doesn't seem to provide a strong enough theoretical mechanism for their hypothesis. Not that one could not be found. I guess, for example, that disparity in health between the well-off and the poor amplifies the elites ability to control the masses. Healthy peasants are more able to resist, are less dependent, yadda yadda.

  • ||

    This is more a chicken or egg question. Both less disease and increasing freedom in a society create increased wealth, which in turn increase liberalization of society and reduces disease.

  • setbit||

    I don't see that anybody has mentioned a far more sensible explanation for the correlation: that a cultural preference for personal and economic freedom results in an increase in prosperity and a decrease in disease.

    That model fits the data just as well -- better, in fact -- than the researchers' tenuous hypothesis that causation is the other way around.

  • ||

    Polymath and always interesting-how do you do it?

    When I'm President you are my FDA Chief, #1 Dr., CDC Big Kahuna, etc.

  • Shane||

    This theory only works if you ignore everything but Western Europe.

    China and Japan have had functional sewage systems, quarantine and disease management systems for almost 2000 uninterrupted years.

    Their disease burden was markedly lower than Europe for nearly all of that time, and yet they were and are socially intolerant and authoritarian.

  • eggmunkee||

    The usual third world targets of UN vaccination campaigns are wary of foreign doctors coming for a reason other than xenophobia, past experience of the shots aborting pregnancies, sterilizing and causing other diseases, whether this is always accidental as claimed or not.

  • nike basketball||

    is good

  • goallen||

    ty rights, etc. seem like a more accurate measure of freedom than democracy.

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