Friedman vs. Doherty: Help Me Take a Side
By Bryan Caplan
Our brains have many specific adaptations
tuned for the hunter-gatherer environment in which we evolved, which in
some ways differs wildly from the modern world. Consider the prevalence
of obesity: we eat according to outdated instincts, feasting before a
famine that never comes, rather than adapting to our new world of
Similarly, many people have an intuitive “folk economics”
which includes a number of biases such as the anti-foreign and
make-work biases… While economically literate libertarians delightedly skewer
those who argue mistakenly from folk economics, we constantly engage in
what I shall call folk activism.
In early human tribes, there were few enough people in each social
structure such that anyone could change policy. If you didn’t like how
the buffalo meat got divvied up, you could propose an alternative,
build a coalition around it, and actually make it happen. Success
required the agreement of tens of allies — yet those same instincts now
drive our actions when success requires the agreement of tens of
millions. When we read in the evening paper that we’re footing the bill
for another bailout, we react by complaining to our friends, suggesting
alternatives, and trying to build coalitions for reform. This primal
behavior is as good a guide for how to effectively reform modern
political systems as our instinctive taste for sugar and fat is for how
to eat nutritiously.
Yet I find Brian Doherty’s reply extremely compelling, too!
Patri may be right to rely on a sort of pop-evolutionary biology
explanation for why people like trying to use verbal and written
reasoning to convince the people around them or the world at large to
turn more libertarian…
But I think a more likely explanation can be found in that old
favorite social science of the libertarian: economics. It’s simply a lot less effort,
a lot lower personal cost, to pursue the path of folk activism. For
decades many libertarians have upbraided others to start putting their
money where their mouth is, to start building real libertarian
institutions, even to start actively meeting the social needs that most
people think we need a government for, to show-not-tell the world that
this unbridled individual liberty thing can really work. And for
decades most libertarians have found writing, talking, and thinking a
more congenial path, one whose costs seemed easier to manage.
So who’s right? Is all the chatter an evolutionary hangover – or a low-cost way to enjoyably pass the time?