Robin Hanson updates his forager vs. farmer schema

The post is interesting throughout, here are the closing paragraphs:

The left is more okay with people forming distinct subgroups, even as it thinks more in terms of treating everyone equally, even across very wide scopes, and including wide scopes in more divisive debates. The right wants to make redistribution more conditional, more wants to punish free riders, and wants norm violators to be more consistently punished. The left tends to presume large scale cooperation is feasible, while right tends to presume competition more. The left hopes for big gains from change while the right worries about change damaging things that now work.

Views tend to drift leftward as nations and the world gets richer. Left versus right isn’t very useful for prediction individual behavior outside of politics, even as it is the main parameter that robustly determines large scale political ciliations. People tend to think differently about politics on what they see as the largest scales; for example, there are whole separate fields of political science and political philosophy, which don’t overlap much with fields dealing with smaller scale politics, such as in clubs and firms.

I shouldn’t need to say it but I will anyway: it is obvious that a safe playful talky collective isn’t always the best way to deal with things. Its value varies with context. So sometimes those who are more reluctant to invoke it are right to be wary, while at other times those who are eager to apply it are right to push for it. It is not obvious, at least to me, whether on average the instincts of the left or the right are more helpful.

Do read the whole thing.


There may be other ways of categorizing worlds which lead to similar predictions to harsh vs safe, but are supported by different theories. One such would be based on Do I profit most by co-operating with my fellows to expand the pie, or by scheming with a small group of like-minded fellow to increase my slice at the expense of others?

If this effect is important, diversity, social welfare, and stability may be a trilemma: high levels of both diversity and social welfare increase the incentives for like-minded sub-groups to campaign to increase their share of social welfare at the cost of other sub-groups, using tactics based on "he who can destroy a thing, controls a thing," thus threatening stability.

If you are looking for an evolutionary training ground for the two strategies, note that siblings have incentives to fight over the share of their parent's resources that each receives, but as adults failure to co-operate will be harshly penalized by circumstances in many cases - some sort of switch between the two behaviors would be useful.

"Do I profit most by co-operating with my fellows to expand the pie, or by scheming with a small group of like-minded fellow to increase my slice at the expense of others?"

This itself makes a limiting assumption, that everyone's end is pure self-interest, and within that, self-interest is defined quite narrowly as "profit". This is a common error in political theorising, I think. In fact, quite a lot of political behavior is not out of self-interest. And when it is, self-interest is not always defined as economic gain.

'In fact, quite a lot of political behavior is not out of self-interest.'

Not according to the sort of people who consider themselves adherents of public choice economics, much less the sort of people that consider 'virtue signalling' to be a term that applies to those that oppose them.

Yeah. However, signalling clearly doesn't cover all "selfless" behavior. People demonstrably do stuff where there is no signalling benefit because nobody knows about it. For example, (anonymous) voting.

I don't see the reference to virtue signaling here, but I agree that it is an obnoxious way to make an insulting statement about behavior you don't like or understand. It should be retired.

I think the thing is if you're going to base policy on an assumption about human nature, it's safer to assume people are going to behave selfishly, than to assume they are altrusitic. Public officials are human beings like the rest of us - they aren't particularly less self-interested or more altrusitic than anyone else. If you want to devise a political system, you have to assume that they are self interested and develop institutions that constrain the ambitions of self-interested people. That's the point that public choice theory makes. Majority rule alone is not a sufficient check on the self-interest of politicans.

I do not believe it is necessary to assume that everyone's end is pure self-interest. For the purpose of considering the possibility that small groups will arise, intent on enriching themselves at the expense of others if this is practicable, it is necessary only to assume small groups of such people do not exist.

Oops - I mean assume that they do exist

I agree, but usually when people don't behave self-interestedly, they tend to not have very much at stake. Not very many people are willing to sacrifice their direct and immediate economic interests for the sake of a higher principle. Most of them will rationalize their way to a position which advances their self-interest.

I'd say it is more about shall I cooperate with everyone at once via a talky collective. There can be many scales and forums of cooperation, so those who expect poor results via a talk collective may well cooperate in other ways (such as via markets). So conservatives aren't all selfish bastards who refuse ever to cooperate with anyone.

I'd have to say I agree. I don't know either. Interesting tho.

'It is not obvious, at least to me, whether on average the instincts of the left or the right are more helpful.'

So, Hegel was right about that whole thesis/antithesis thing? Though Hanson seems to be unclear on what the new proposition would be.

Uncertainty can't be simply allowed to stand. It must be converted into a new certain proposition.

This is one of the big problems with our political discourse.

Actually, it was a bit of joke, as after Hegel comes Marx so to speak - and we can all pretty much agree that Marx as a political theorist was a disaster.

Nonetheless, someone whose basic conclusion is the equivalent of a shrug probably needs to spend at least a couple more minutes on that conclusion.

For example, even something trite, along the lines of '“He who is not a républicain at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.”

"someone whose basic conclusion is the equivalent of a shrug probably needs to spend at least a couple more minutes on that conclusion."

This is exactly the sort of thinking that I find problematic.

Being uncertain of something does not necessarily imply you haven't thought about it. A lot of stuff is beyond the limits of our knowledge. A lot of stuff is hard to understand due to complexity. Not being able to admit the limits of one's knowledge is a significant failing.

A clever but obviously wrong one-sentence distillation is a bajillion times worse than honestly admitting uncertainty. Of this I am sure.

'This is exactly the sort of thinking that I find problematic.'

As you wish. I find someone unable to actually end with something that makes me think it worth my time to read what they wrote is problematic.

In all fairness, this is more about writing style, not that something can be too complex to sum up in a line or two. For example, saying that one cannot pick between two alternatives would seem to be admission that the very idea of duality, and needing to choose between two sides, is possibly problematic, and one could end such an essay by saying the world can not be simply reduced to such artificial boundaries. Or even attempt to argue that such simplistic definitions are part of the problem, and we need to avoid making them. Which would likely be exactly the point you are making - which still shows more thought than that of the author, who ended with something along the lines of 'right and left as I defined them exist, and I cannot decide which is better.'

I thought the 20th century battle between socialism and capitalism pretty much settled the question of which instincts were more helpful, at least at largest scales. The issue, for those that don't remember or never learned, is that at large scales "talky collectives" are insufficient to transmit/share all the localized and dispersed information necessary for decision making (Hayekian fatal conceit). That's why scale matters and why left vs. right doesn't predict individual behavior outside of politics. At small scales, such as within a family or group of friends, information can be shared through means other than price signals.

As for why there is a leftward drift, public choice concepts like concentrated interests and regulatory capture seem more convincing than nations getting richer or safer.

Also, in addition to Hayekian fatal conceit, Bastiat's seen vs. unseen matters at large scale. At small scales, much can be seen. At large scales, however, the unseen dominates.

Not, because capitalism, at the centre-right, and the welfare state, at the centre-left, are themselves a bit of middle-of-roads between "pure left" (who, if we look to the way Hanson put the things, should be more anarco-communism than USSR-style communism, who was very "conservative" in many things) and "pure right" (pre-1789 Old Order, with big local autonomy for municipalities, local lords and professional guilds, and an absolute king deciding the few things that are decided at the central level, without any big "talky collective")

This. American success has been not just a compromise, but a successful cooperation between public and private spheres.

Look at life cycle. Essentially everyone goes to public schools .. and then they go get a job.

Neither of those statements are true.

Sure it is. Pick any quantitative measure of private and public activity, and it will show a split, a balance in every successful market driven democracy.

So, the soziale Marktwirtschaft, which actually seems to be a pretty successful merging of both capitalism and the welfare state, left or right?

Successful market democracies may have different names for it, but they are generally happy when people go to public school and then to get a job.

Actually, I was responding to Miguel Madeira.

And in Germany, private schools pretty much do not exist at all - basically everyone goes to a public school, as realistically, there is no alternative. As for home schooling, Germans have an excessively hard time imagining that anyone home schooled would ever get a job, as one's education in Germany is generally seen through the lens of being gainfully employed, and that requires being able to actually prove you are educated in a way that an employer would accept.

Channelling Tyler from previous comments: Everyone is ok with conditional redistribution with a ceiling at the state level. Forget charity, nobody thinks Ethiopians should be given European things by right. Historic theft may be an exception, but one rarely acted upon once a couple of decades have passed.

On large- versus small-scale co-existence: The USA has been the wealthiest and most powerful country for over 100 years. The USA is under-considered when thinking about the scales of successful states. It's not just hegemonic effects causing wealth and power because it's also easy to imagine sub-segments of the USA that would have been successful in isolation, and local competition is often cited as the reason for European prosperity, anyway. Your boring average small poor state is also under-considered. Freaks of success are over-considered, you know the countries I mean, all the rich ones that begin with the letter S.

Small countries' national politics often look more like clubs or firms than G8 democracies. If you can exert national power with ten thousand voters, it's conceivable that you will interact with many of them and be held to account in a way that wasn't possible in larger countries before social media shaming. I also get the impression that in Germany/USA, politicians don't generally know each other before gaining office, whereas in UK/France, the most successful politicians are channeled through such a small funnel of educational institutions before election that they are familiar with each other, and perhaps act more clubby.

Perhaps "burn it all down" and "the resentment election" are a bit dead on the vine by now, but how did that relate to:

"The left hopes for big gains from change while the right worries about change damaging things that now work."

It seems to me that it was "no change" folk becoming extremely frustrated that "no change" wasn't working, but at the same time they were not ready to accept conventional "progressive" change as an alternative.

.. hints yesterday that bipartisanship might make a comeback. That would be one way out.

Yes, that quote immediately jumped out as glaringly outdated.

'No change' is most likely not optimal, but proven. Change for the sake of change is very likely worse than no change. Problem is that we tried progressive change for 8 years and it was pretty bad. They don't seem to get the adage 'when in a hole, stop digging.'

The only thing wrong with those 8 years was the right's sense of tribal injury. Injury compounded by an economic recovery that was never supposed to happen, hyper-inflation that never came, etc.

They boxed themselves in. The Republicans became a Party that never governed and was proud of it. Now, we see the extreme comedy of Republicans blaming Ryan because "he can't do a deal."

Dudes. Plans come before deals.

The Republicans could not pass a healthcare bill because they do not have a unified healthcare plan.

The Republicans can't pass a Tax bill because they do not have a unified tax plan.

The Republicans can't pass an immigration bill because they do not have a unified immigration plan.

No wonder Pelosi is back in. Whatever you think of her (and "progressives") she can get things done. She can do plans.

I forgot. Add "infrastructure" to that list of things without a plan, that then never became a bill.

I'm with you on Republicans and plans, but it has been only 8 months. Regarding Pelosi, thanks for the verification on what I said about digging holes.

I thought it was a joke this morning, but now confirmed. Pelosi suggested a tweet, and Trump tweeted it.

Welcome to a brave new world:

BTW, don't worry that Trump is fully flipping to the Democrats. That is a failing move was well (for now).

Trump's only path to legislation, and maybe even reelection, is bipartisanship.

Trump-Pelosi might just get stuff done, including stuff on the populist wish-list. Why not an infrastructure bill, directly funded, rather than as tax credit mumbo jumbo?

At this point in 1981 Ronald Reagan already had his tax cuts passed by a Congress where the House was still controlled by Democrats. And he had embarked on his defense build up as well. Despite the fact the GOP had been out of power in Congress for years they were ready to go on day one back then. This year, not so much.

Put differently, Republicans should try harder to lose elections. They are happier just complaining. Helpless injury is their shtick.

Either that, or learn to plan.

"Republicans should try harder to lose elections"

They would need to. Have Democrats ever lost so many elections than in the past 8 years? No, they have not. Maybe this shows people prefer no change to bad change.

Approval ratings will help you here. They will tell you what people really like and want.

With "end DACA" running at 15% you have to wonder if Trump was just hanging Sessions and the GOP out to dry.

In rides Pelosi, and 76% approval, to halt deportations.

When did we try "progressive change" for eight years? The last such stretch was fifty years ago when the Democrats held both the White House and both houses of Congress for an eight year period. Carter, who was never very progressive, lasted a mere four years. Clinton and Obama both had Congresses where a very non-progressive GOP controlled one or both houses for most of their presidencies.
I'd also object to the "pretty bad" if that's intended to be a epithet for the years 2009-2017. Certainly it started out pretty bad (See: Great Recession) but things gradually got better, even if it wasn't Shangri-La.

Is it possible to overcome bias? Indeed, is it a good thing to overcome bias? Jonathan Haidt lays out what he calls the "moral values" that form the basis of our political choices in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind. Moral values? Why would anyone wish to overcome "moral values"? Are "moral values" the Sirens' song? What if everyone were set free of bias (whether derived from moral values or otherwise) and responded to stimuli opportunistically. Would it promote prosperity or chaos? What if, hypothetically, someone in a leadership position, such as president, were free of bias and responded to issues opportunistically.

Hey look, when you redefine words to mean Not What They Actually Mean, you can come to some pretty counter-intuitive, ground-breaking conclusions!

"Views tend to drift leftward as nations and the world gets richer." And what we are witnessing from the right is basically a temper tantrum about that trajectory.

I see this as a marriage. Beware extreme positions and expect to compromise. There are people with good intentions in both camps. Strength comes from a diversity of perspectives as well as experiences.

They drift left because the richer you are, the lazier you get. There is conflict between people who are fine with just enough to get along and those who produce a surplus. I'm leaving out those who truly need protection like the old and disabled.

You prove the progressives' second law, projection. There is no temper tantrum on the right, just compare the wall street occupiers vs the tea party folks. People are just tired of 'society' taking more than it's fair share. People by default own what they earn. Taxes are paid for the common good and as a social safety net, but when the receivers of this redistribution start to believe it's their right to receive it, producers will get tired of being taking advantage of and getting spit in the eye for their trouble.

Re: There is no temper tantrum on the right, just compare the wall street occupiers vs the tea party folks.

Huh> Both struck me as running the gamut between whiny and b!tchy.

Occupiers left damage and garbage in their wake.

Tea Party left the parks, which they had permits to use, cleaner than they found it. Your memory is failing you.

I would always hate a big talky collective where consensus is the goal no matter what the problem to be solved. I am definitely of the persuasion that useful things can only be done by individuals not by committees, and it is very difficult to predict ahead of time who has the good ideas or whose actions are in fact helpful. Healthy societies allow freedom of ideas and activity, even when in opposition to those in power or the "consensus".

My direct experience with decision by committee makes me agree with this wholeheartedly. Barring a few isolated examples, they are a disaster. Furthermore, numerous committees are not in fact committees, but a cover for a few people or one person to matriculate a decision while also creating the illusion of consensus. The illusion of consensus and fairness is extremely important under our current political and economic models.

You left out the actual closing paragraph:

"I’ve noted before that if one frames left attitudes as better when the world is safe, while right attitudes as better when world is harsh, the longer is the timescale on which you evaluate outcomes, the harsher is the world."

Interesting article. Good. Gets at an obvious truth in a way- there are different kinds of people, with different useful skill sets, outlooks and temperaments, and they don't agree a lot and bump heads and it's messy and sorting this shit out without blowing each other up is part of the deal with making human civilization work. Reminds me of some of the stuff Jordan Peterson has been saying.

>the left thinks more in terms of treating everyone equally

As shown by the fact that lefty-ruled cities are the clearest examples we have of economic inequality.

Thanks for the laugh. I didn't realize Robin Hanson was a college sophomore.

Right. Those cities got inequality the old fashioned way. With rich people.

I am old enough to remember when that was the inequality conservatives loved.

What if both "forager" and "farmer" types are outdated modes of behavior in a modern industrial society?
We've moved almost two stages past the time when the "farmer" type made sense. The talky collective works when you have a stable farming community, like colonial America. But when we got to the industrial revolution and capitalism, the talky collective couldn't scale upwards, and we wound up with systems like Stalinist Russia. And then if we fall back on the forager type, that works even less well, as that gives us systems like Nazi Germany and ISIS - kill all the outsiders and circle the wagons. And here we are in the midst of another technological revolution that extends our sphere of human contact globally, and we haven't figured out industrial capitalism.

I think at least the farmer culture provides a pathway to something else - you allow for the formation of more distinct subgroups and then you allow those distinct subgroups to solve their own problems at a smaller scale. This is essentially the same concept as federalism, but not necessarily based on geographic territory. (There's a discrepancy here because you say the left tends to like distinct subgroups, but they always seem to be trying to concentrate more power in the federal government - one big talky collective rather than hierarchical circles of smaller collectives. ) But maybe federalism can allow the farmer mode to scale up and become something more suited to organizing society in industrial capitalism.

But then what happens next? now we have to add the internet into the mix and everyones talky collective collides with everyone else's. How do you make a federalist system of distinct subgroups work when they're all butting in on each other's internal conversations?

The way I remember it, we whooped the Nazis and the Commies.

The odd cycle of the twenty-teens is to feel like losers anyway, and discard the tools of success.

Trump as complainer in chief.

It is a lovely theory, but has very little explanatory power over the American right today, or probably most political movements anywhere.

"Redistribution more conditonal" != 'Get the government out of heathcare but protect my medicaid'
"wants norm violators to be more consistently punished" != Arpaio pardon or acceptance of Trump's "Locker room talk"

I seeing a lot of traditional members of the right wing coallition bending over backwards to make this seem like just a normal American political process. It isn't. Full stop.

And from a larger context, political movements have almost never been two-sided. Having a serious political thinker try and boil things down to 'right and left' is a fad that should end already. We have complex models with millions of moving parts in the world now. Let's hope political theory can get to one with, I don't know, maybe 8 dimensions.

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