Saturday, November 10, 2007

Strong Reciprocity and the Darwinian Left

Can there be a "Darwinian left"?

In Darwinian Conservatism and elsewhere, I have argued that a "Darwinian left"--such as that proposed by Peter Singer--is incoherent, because a Darwinian understanding of human nature denies the left's utopian belief in human perfectibility.

But at a recent Liberty Fund conference on "The Evolution of Moral Sentiments," I was led to think through this issue once again. At the conference, we read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and a book collection of papers edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr--Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (MIT Press, 2005). The authors in the Gintis et al. book criticize the conception of Homo economicus--the assumption that most human beings most of the time act as rational egoists who maximize their selfish interests. While recognizing that human beings are naturally selfish, these authors insist that human beings are also naturally social beings. They contend that experimental research in game theory has falsified the predictions of the Homo economicus model, because while a substantial proportion of people (20-30%) do behave as rational egoists in these game theory experiments, a larger proportion act as "strong reciprocators," who cooperate as long as they think others are cooperating, and who punish cheaters who violate the norms of cooperation. This seems, then, to confirm Adam Smith's view of human nature as moved both by "moral sentiments" and by "material interests."

Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles were once well known as Marxist economics professors at the University of Massachusetts. They no longer identify themselves as Marxists, presumably because of the discouraging failure of Marxist utopias around the world. But one can still see some of the moral passion of Marxism in their writing and the writing of others in their book. The attack on Homo economicus and the insistence that human beings can learn to cooperate based on moral norms of communal sharing are familiar expressions of Marxist passion. Darwinian science seems to support this by showing how the moral sentiments arise by natural evolution, and particularly by genetic and cultural group selection. Here Gintis, Bowles, and others follow the lead of Peter Singer who has argued that a Darwinian conception of cooperation as rooted in evolved human nature could support leftist thinking.

In a paper on "Reciprocity in the Welfare State," Fong, Bowles, and Gintis argue that the modern welfare state is supported by the natural morality of reciprocity as long as people perceive that welfare recipients are deserving of aid and not undeserving free riders. The reforms of welfare programs in the 1990s show the disposition to design welfare programs that benefit the deserving poor while punishing the undeserving. Supporting prudent welfare state measures expresses a moral community of shared concern based on strong reciprocity.

At the conclusion of their paper, they quote from Friedrich Hayek: "the demand for a just distribution . . . is . . . an atavism, based on primordial emotions. And it is these widely prevalent feelings to which prophets and moral philosophers . . . appeal by their plans for the deliberate creation of a new type of society" (297). But while Fong, Bowles, and Gintis think it is good for us to evoke those "primordial emotions" of justice, Hayek warned against the pursuit of a "just society" as a threat to the "free society," because "social justice" would require a centrally planned allocation of resources based on merit that would destroy freedom. The proponents of the theory of strong reciprocity in the Gintis book seem to reject Hayek's position, because they seem to say that a free society requires norms of justice based on reciprocity.

But here is where Darwinian conservatives should insist on distinctions between different levels of social order. We need state coercion to enforce a constitutional framework of law within which civil society and free markets are possible. But to secure liberty we need to minimize state coercion. We might need a minimal welfare state to provide some security for individuals who might become unfairly deprived through no fault of their own. But generally we will rely on the spontaneous orders of civil society and free markets to secure our social and economic needs.

After all, even the proponents of strong reciprocity are not arguing for fully enforcing reciprocity through state coercion. Rather, they are arguing--as in Elinor Ostrom's chapter in the Gintis book--that we need "complex polycentric systems" that combine "public governance" (state coercion), "private markets," and "community governance." This is illustrated by Ostrom's account of how common pool resources can be best managed by local groups that spontaneously develop and enforce their own norms (as in irrigation systems managed by farmers themselves rather than bureaucratic experts).

Isn't this compatible with Hayek's position? We can enforce norms of reciprocal justice in social groups at the local level while leaving markets to function freely in coordinating exchange across the larger community. The state enforces a constitutional framework of law within which these local communal groups and impersonal free markets can work. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments assumes that the moral sentiments arise spontaneously in social life with minimal reliance on governmental coercion. So we could say that Hayek's "free society" needs the strong reciprocity of moral sentiments as sustaining the moral community that makes freedom possible, but this moral community would be understood as arising in civil society from the bottom up rather than being constructed from the top down by state coercion and central planning.

Hayek recognizes this point in The Constitution of Liberty (62)when he notes the importance of moral rules enforced as "conventions and customs of human intercourse": "Coercion . . . may sometimes be avoidable only because a high degree of voluntary conformity exists, which means that voluntary conformity may be a condition of a beneficial working of freedom. It is indeed a truth, which all the great apostles of freedom outside the rationalistic school have never tired of emphasizing, that freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs and that coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform voluntarily to certain principles."

The Darwinian explanation of how the natural moral sense arises from evolved human nature supports this conception of morality enforced by voluntary conformity. A good society will cultivate those conditions of free association in which the moral norms of cooperation can emerge spontaneously as conventions or customs of social life. In this way, a "free society" is also a "just society."

This reliance on morality as an unintended, emergent social order based on individuals learning to voluntarily conform their behavior to social norms goes against the leftist tradition of rationalist constructivism. If the left is willing to give up its utopian vision of perfecting human nature through top-down central planning and state coercion, then there might be something like a "Darwinian left." But as Peter Singer has conceded, this would be "a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved." In fact, it would look a lot like Darwinian conservatism.


Memetic Warrior said...

Fascinating conclussion. Could the progress in the knowledge of human nature by the darwinian sciences produce the "end of History" in the political sense?. Maybe.

Seth said...

I am happy that you report that the book was good enough to make you closely evaluate your perspectives, and accomodate what you agreed with in the book within what you believe.

I've read your blog before and you tend to be distracted by a cartoon The Left, as illustrated by its most cartoony figures. Your review gives me some hope that by neglecting ideological distractions and focusing on the research and the details of each policy problem, we might be able to make ideology irrelevant to policy.

Thanks for your review, I can't wait to read the book.