Sammy on Liberal Guilt, Cactus on Conservative Free-Riding

This post is made up of two essays. The first is one sent to me by Sammy on Liberal guilt and whether it arose through evolution. The second one is mine, and it also explores human behavior as a function of evolution.

Here’s Sammy’s piece…

Is Liberal Guilt an instinct rooted in human evolution.?

Preface: This essay does not address anyone on this blog personally. It is not even meant to be pejorative. It is just meant to explore an element of political behavior.

I’ve been perplexed by the phenomenon of Liberal Guilt, as a major impediment to the conservative agenda. I would define Liberal Guilt as the expression, genuine or feigned, of remorse at having greater material success than others, and expressing this regret by promoting more redistributionist policies.

The most common manifestation of Liberal Guilt is the various posturing of ultra-rich entertainers such as Bono, Streisand, etc, etc. It was prominent in the debate over reparations for slavery. And recently Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have made headlines criticizing the capitalist system that created their great wealth.

One possibility is that having satisfied their own material needs, people become more generous or altruistic. However, the historical behavior of wealthy dictators, or those with large private armies, has not been noted for magnanimity.

I believe much of human behavior has roots in millions of years of evolution and natural selection, while “civilization” is only 5,000 years old (give or take 5,000 years). Over those millions of years, those humans with the best self-preservation instincts tended to be naturally selected over those who did not. A famous example is how modern standards of beauty have roots in natural selection.

Now imagine a prehistoric human society in a world not at all tamed. Through some combination of luck, talent, persistence (see Bell Curve) individual or small groups of prehistoric humans managed to accumulate larger amounts of survival elements. The successful pre-civilized early human has 3 behavior options:

1) Hide the surplus, which involves to an extent withdrawing from the group.
2) Flaunt the surplus (see Hilton, Paris).
3) Express contrition or repentance, and perhaps offer to share a portion.

In an era of brute force, option 3 seems to offer the best chance for survival, and so that is one of the behavioral instincts that has been passed on to us.

We now live in a society of not so much brute force, but with a strong collective government that can to an extent confiscate wealth. So when a wealthier human says Tax the rich and give to the poor it could actually be his instincts saying Leave my stuff alone.

Cactus here. The essay above was written by Sammy. It got me thinking back to a point in my life when I had to immerse myself in the world of population ecology. (Why? Its a long story maybe I’ll cover in another post some time.) Anyway, I still now and then like to read up on ecological and evolutionary models, though I can’t pretend to know all that much.

Still, I do know that many prey species band together into herds or flocks or schools. At any given time, some individuals at the edge of the herd or flock or school are serving sentry duty. This increases the survivability of all the individuals in the herd, but it decreases the time each specific individual, while serving as sentry, can spend foraging, resting, or mating. Sometimes “sentry” duty is even more extreme – adult males in a herd of buffalo will try to face down or even charge lions and other predators to protect the rest of the herd.

Now, if an individual cheats by not spending as much time scanning the horizon or fighting off lions, the probability that someone in the herd is going to get eaten goes up a lot, but the probability that the shirker will be the one to get eaten is pretty slim. So there is an incentive to cheat. I remember seeing a study (sorry, I can’t find it) that showed that the percentage of cheaters in a herd is remarkably stable over time. If it goes above some percentage, of course, the herd doesn’t survive – there is no benefit to being in a herd for the non-cheaters, and the herd breaks apart.

It turns out there is cheating among predator groups as well. Bringing down a wildebeest is risky business – there are always individuals in a herd of lions that somehow don’t quite ever manage to be there while the fight is on, but show up for the final kill or meal time. And being a cheater has benefits even among bacteria.

The point… in any species, there will always be some individuals that cooperate, and there will always be the free riders and creators of negative externalities. The free riders and creators of negative externalities do not feel any loyalty to the group and act in their own best interests alone. They make no qualms about the fact that their behavior is damaging to other individuals in the herd – in fact, they celebrate it, and claim it makes the herd as a whole better off. They also proclaim themselves rugged individualists, who resent the collective behavior of the herd… but they could never survive without it.