Humans are intrinsically anti neo-liberal

Over the course of my academic career and even outside of that I have often been regaled with the claim (as if it is science) that capitalism is the ‘natural’ system for humans because our nature biases us to competitiveness and selfishness. So Marx’s famous epithet in his Critique of the Gotha program (1875) – “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” – was dismissed as being against our natural tendencies – a denial of basic human nature. It then followed that planned economies and economies where governments intervened strongly to ensure equitable distribution of opportunities and outcomes, was in some way contrived and would surely fail because our human nature would find ways to thwart such interference. This has been a compelling and dominant narrative over the last several decades as neo-liberal think tanks, biased media outlets, and politicians from both sides of politics (homogenised into a common economic mantra) reinforced it continuously in print, spoken word and policy. We shifted from living in societies where collective will and equity was deemed important organising principles to living in economies where every outcome was in the hands of the individual – including mass unemployment – and the concept of systemic failure that could be ameliorated by state intervention was rejected. State intervention was cast as the devil. It is no surprise that economic outcomes for a rising proportion of the population deteriorated as we shifted from society to economy – from collectivism to individualism. It turns out that the research into human nature, motivation, decision-making etc largely rejects the ‘competitive selfish individual’ narrative. We are intrinsically cooperative and care about equity. Our basic propensities appear to be collective and cooperative. Funny about that.

When you think about it, what I am writing about today should come as no surprise to anyone. But the entire edifice of neo-liberal economic policy is built on the notion that competition is a superior way of dealing with human interaction than collective (cooperative) strategies.

There have been many studies which demonstrate how ‘costly’ competition is in many applications. Think back to the early studies of the development of railways in the US to verify how long we have known this.

There is also a long established literature in behavioural psychology that demonstrates how bereft the way mainstream economics – the type that students are indoctrinated with in university courses in economics – depicts human motivation, choice, decision-making etc.

The one-dimensional human is assumed to be grasping, selfish and always rational, assumed requirements that are essential to establish the a priori results that depict the free market as the most superior form of economic organisation, are sadly missing in the real human race.

While people, in general, do not behave remotely like the Homo economicus (the classic self-seeking economics person), it seems that studying this body of economics does open the student to become morally bankrupt. After all, the IMF and other sociopathic organisations have to recruit from somewhere.

Research has clearly shown that economics students by their later undergraduate years become less cooperative with fellow students relative to students in other disciplines.

Psychologist Adam Grant wrote in his Op Ed (October 22, 2013) – Does Studying Economics Breed Greed? – that:

… studying economics pushes people further toward the selfish extreme. Along with directly learning about self-interest in the classroom, because selfish people are attracted to economics, students end up surrounded by people who believe in and act on the principle of self-interest. Extensive research shows that when people gather in groups, they develop even more extreme beliefs than where they started. Social psychologists call this group polarization. By spending time with like-minded people, economics students may become convinced that selfishness is widespread and rational―or at least that giving is rare and foolish.

The only issue in dispute is the direction of causality. Does studying economics change people or is it self-selection? Probably both if the credible research is to be believed.

In their 1993 article – Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation? – Economist Robert Frank and psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Dennis Regan summarised the extant literature and conducted a series of their own experiments to explore whether there are significant differences between “economists and noneconomists” in relation to whether they exhibit sociopathological tendencies.

They conclude that:

1. “that economists are more likely than others to free-ride”.

2. “economics training may inhibit cooperation …”

3. And, interestingly, that “the ultimate victims of noncooperative behavior may be the very people who practice it”.

4. And students in economics classses are more likely to lie when confronted with experiments about generosity – that is, claiming to be more generous than they were.

But at any rate, while economists might lean towards acting like the humans they assume, the rest of us (I hope to have escaped the economics curse (-:) act out our lives in a very different way.

One of the great casualties of this neo-liberal dark age that we are living through at present and which began in the 1980s (if not a little earlier) is that society has been subjugated to economy.

In the 1980s, we began to live in economies rather than societies or communities.

I have written about this previously. Please read my blog – How to discuss Modern Monetary Theory – for more discussion on this point.

Another way of saying that is the pursuit of collective will which was the glue that bound society together in the Post World War 2 period up to the mid-1970s succumbed to the conservative assault.

The conservatives relentlessly promoted the idea that humans are selfish and rational and experience outcomes that they choose based on all the information that is available to them.

So the distribution of individual outcomes is not the result of the pattern or distribution of circumstances and opportunities, but rather is the result of maximising choices taken by consenting and rational adults.

In that context, attempts by government to interfere with this pattern of outcomes was promoted as problematic.

Take the case of mass unemployment. If unemployment is the result of voluntary, maximising choice – as is the representation in the mainstream economics literature – then it is not a problem. It is the expression of freedom.

So to try to reduce unemployment impinges on this expression of freedom.

That is the mantra that the conservative think tanks, media outlets funded by these think tanks, and many economists have pushed since the 1980s at least.

The idea that a systematic failure to produce enough jobs ultimately constrained the ability of individuals, no matter how hard they might desire and search for work, to get work was denied and forgotten.

After all, if the individual is powerless in the face of systemic constraints then there is a case for government intervention to improve welfare – and that was a major insight of policy behaviour in the immediate Post War period of full employment.

Governments chose the unemployment rate because they could always use fiscal policy to generate employment either directly or indirectly by stimulating the non-government sector.

The period that collective will was subjugated to the individualistic conception of economy was also the period that unemployment persisted at high levels in most OECD countries. The two points are not unrelated. Unemployment, ultimately, arises because there is a lack of collective will.

It does not arise because real wages are too high or aggregate demand too low. These are only proximate causes, if causes at all.

That might surprise people who have read regularly on this blog that when there is mass unemployment you know at least one other thing – that the fiscal deficit is too small.

Doesn’t that imply that mass unemployment is a consequence of deficient aggregate spending (demand)?

When I have written that the only way cutting real wages might lead to a decline in unemployment is if it somehow reduces the saving desire in the private domestic sector and total spending thus increases, isn’t that also a statement to affirm that mass unemployment is a consequence of deficient aggregate spending?

The answer is yes, but the link between spending and job creation though direct is what I consider to be a proximate cause.

The question that is begged when we note that there is deficient aggregate spending, when we know the currency-issuing government can always use its fiscal capacity to maintain full employment, is why isn’t the government allowing its deficit to move to allow full employment.

Mass unemployment is always avoidable given the government can always buy the labour services of those who are idle.

So the underlying cause – the causa causans – the fundamental cause of mass unemployment in a monetary economy relates to why we would allow our government to abandon its responsibilities.

It is in that sense that I say that mass unemployment is the result of a collapse of collective will.

The collapse of collective will has been the principal casualty of the rise of neo-liberalism and the faux competition that has been the hallmark of this shift.

We pretend that competition is superior when, in fact, research shows that cooperation is the best way to organise complex decision making. And, cooperation is a defining characteristic of collective will.

The underlying reason that collective will has lapsed as a organising principle for society is that the reemerging free market ideology convinced us, wrongly, that government involvement in the economy imposes costs on us and we have thus supported governments who have significantly reduced their involvement in economic activity via spending and tax cuts and widespread deregulation and privatisation.

The only way we will return to full employment, with everyone sharing in the benefits, is if the public sector increases its role in the economy.

In his 1994 book, The Death of Economics, British economist Paul Ormerod argued that the Post-World War II period of strong GDP growth, relative balance of payments stability, and high investment rates could have occurred without the accompanying low unemployment.

He wrote:

The sole difference would have been that those in employment would have become even better off than they did, at the expense of the unemployed.

The higher tax rates and buoyant government sectors allowed the flux and uncertainty of aggregate demand to be shared.

While the bulk of the OECD has abandoned this method of sharing, some economies have maintained high levels of employment into the current period.

Ormerod suggests that Japan, Austria, Norway, and Switzerland, among others have (in their own ways):

… exhibited a high degree of shared social values, of what may be termed social cohesion, a characteristic of almost all societies in which unemployment has remained low for long periods of time … the countries which have continued to maintain low unemployment have maintained a sector of the economy which effectively functions as an employer of the last resort, which absorbs the shocks which occur from time to time, and more generally makes employment available to the less skilled, the less qualified.

Collective will is tied in with the concept societal trust that the government will pursue a common well-being rather than serve one particular group (especially itself!) over another, or, more importantly, all others.

While policy has shifted in the neo-liberal period to encourage us to behave more venally towards each other – a classic divide and conquer strategy to maintain the power of capital – it cannot be said to have delivered superior outcomes.

The point is that the assault on collective will – from Ayn Rand to Milton Friedman to Richard Dawkins and their neo-liberal acolytes in the economics professions – is not based on any scientific basis.

It was a strategic attack designed to undermine government intervention so as to tilt the playing field back towards capital after several decades of social democracy (based on collective will) had seen income inequalities drop and workers enjoy greater job security and working conditions.

Social democracy was too successful in its pursuit of general well-being and it had to be undermined. How better than to conclude that it was anti-human – in the sense that it was working against our human nature.

And by oppressing our human nature – our innovation and choice was subjugated and outcomes were thus diminished. It was a powerful narrative and, as we know, has penetrated deep into our ‘mass consumption-easy credit addled’ psyches.

The elites no longer needed religion to render the masses mute – supermarkets and liberal credit did the trick and returned a neat return to capital, something that religion could not do very effectively.

The only problem is that unfettered capitalism does not seem to be very closely aligned with our human nature.

Developments in evolutionary science and behavioural economics have demonstrated categorically that far from being selfish, rational beings humanity is marked by a propensity to cooperate and seek equity and fairness.

Ruy Teixeira’s Op Ed (March 12, 2013) – The Good News About Human Nature: Most People Aren’t Jerks – expresses it this way:

New thinking and research in evolutionary science showed that the “selfishness is all” camp was completely missing the mark on what makes humanity distinctive. It is not competition for individual reproductive success but rather cooperation for group reproductive success, facilitated by our capacities for symbolic thought (language) and transmission of learned information (culture), that has led to our success as a species.

In short, the key to understanding human nature is not the selfish gene, bur rather the “selfless gene”. The selfless gene allowed our ancestors to think and act as a group, thereby outcompeting other chimp-like species - literally leaving them in the dust. Moreover, our cooperative nature allowed us to build ever more complex ways of interacting with one another, which led to further evolution in the traits that facilitate cooperation (referred to as “gene-culture coevolution”). The end result of this dynamic was civilization and, eventually, the global interconnected society we live in today.

In other words, the pursuit of collective will is more aligned with our human nature than the neo-liberal competitive individualism.

Think about sport. It is a major aspect of our collective lives. Millions of people watch it, play it and obsess about it every week.

We talk about competition – one team outcompeted another! That competitiveness is the secret to good sporting outcomes.

But that perception is fraught. We organise and regulate sport to suppress competition or at least harness it so as to elevate equity to ensure it remains interesting and exciting.

The ‘free market’ doesn’t exist in sport.

Even in the so-called heartland of market competition – the US – the US sporting teams revenue share to ensure their is evenness. Draft systems, salary caps, constraints on engine specifications, sizes of golf clubs etc are all designed to keep the playing field level – or at least interesting.

Our basic propensities appear to be collective and cooperative.

Teixeira says:

We are defined by our sense of fairness, adherence to group norms, willingness to punish those who violate such norms, willingness to share, and willingness to work for the good of the group, along with the high-level cognitive and cultural traits that enable us to be that way. We are not a species of seven billion selfish individuals, uninterested in anything save our own welfare and willing to cheerfully break any rule and hurt any other individual to secure it. Indeed, we think of such people as sociopaths and if their tendencies actually dominated humanity we would still be back on the savannah with the rest of the chimp-like species.

So the former consensus view on human nature is just plain wrong. It’s not the case that societies must rely exclusively on self-interest or die. In fact, societies have only prospered by transcending self-interest and harnessing the group-oriented instincts that make us human.

Progressive political movements that do not work to promote and appeal to these basic instincts but rather go along with the ‘incentives’ ‘selfish’ type neo-liberal narrative are bound to wither on the vine – and the evidence for that is now very clear.

After several decades of trying to out-neo-liberal the neo-liberals, traditional progressive parties (say the French Socialists) are being wiped out. And for good reason.

I was thinking about this issue recently when I read the work of Sarah Brosnan, who is a US academic specialising in psychology, philosophy and neuroscience.

She “studies the mechanisms underlying cooperation, reciprocity, inequity, and other economic decisions in nonhuman primates from an evolutionary perspective.”

She studies monkeys and analyses the “decisions individuals make and how they make them, how their social or ecological environments affect their decisions and interactions, and under what circumstances they can alter their behaviors depending on these conditions.”

She has shown (in 2003) that Monkeys reject unequal pay – as part of a natural cooperative process.

Many other interesting results can be gleaned from her research into cooperation.

She has also analysed – The Evolution of Fairness – and concluded:

… the evolution of fairness involves two steps. In first order fairness, species evolve to respond negatively to inequity as a way for individuals to recognize the value of their cooperative partners, and therefore increase their payoffs from cooperation. In second order fairness, species evolve to recognize when they receive more than a cooperative partner, and act to ameliorate this inequity in order to maintain a beneficial cooperative relationship. Humans, with our advanced abilities at foresight and our ability to delay gratification for a long-term gain, then developed the full-blown sense of fairness that we see today.

Try fitting that into the neo-classical model of human behaviour.


What all this means is that not only is the mainstream economics debate conducted using deeply flawed – make that totally inapplicable assertions about how modern monetary systems operate – but also, the underpinning behavioural assumptions about the way humans behaviour in these monetary systems and society in general are flawed at the most elemental level.

In other words it is a crock of the proverbial!

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2017 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 49 Comments

  1. Acceding to the way bad economics uses the word “rational” wrongly cedes a very major point to the forces of darkness. Human beings ARE rational. The constricted, peculiar and ultimately unintelligible meaning of “rational” used by today’s bad economics in some wealthy modern countries would have been called “lunacy” during nearly all of human history, and in nearly all societies, and by nearly all philosophers.

  2. Very proactive essay. Raises additional questions. How far does the unselfish gene extend – the family, the clan, the tribe, or a wider community? What is the role of the State in fostering cooperation? Can this devolve into expropriation and loss of fundamental rights?

  3. I have been wondering, quite seriously given the quality of some debates, whether people who engage in mainstream economics are often autistic in some way.

    That would be an interesting finding for a supposedly social science.

  4. “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” is “will” included in “ability”?
    If a person does not want and has ability I do not think is correct to force it…
    Of course a person can have the ability to be a CEO of Tobacco company, however, the person is not willing to and his/her desire should be respected… and so on

  5. Bill, great piece as always and plenty to think about.

    As a fan of Richard Dawkins I was surprised to see his name alongside Rand and Friedman but understand why people associate that. In Dawkins defence he has said he regrets calling his book “the sefish gene” because of this link.

    Here’s an explanation of Dawkins views:
    Dawkins began writing the book in 1973, and resumed it in 1975 while on sabbatical. At the suggestion of Desmond Morris, the zoologist and author of The Naked Ape (Jonathan Cape, 1967), Dawkins showed some draft chapters to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, who strongly urged that the title be changed to “The Immortal Gene.” Today, Dawkins regrets not taking the advice. It might have short-circuited the endless arguments, so beloved of his critics and so redolent of the intentional stance (in which we tend to impute mental abilities to unconscious things, from thunderstorms to plants), about whether selfishness need be conscious. It might even have avoided the common misconception that Dawkins was advocating individual selfishness.

  6. Neil, interesting thought about autism especially as it’s now understood to be a spectrum rather than a yes/no diagnosis of autism these days in medicine. Would be very interesting to see a study into it. Regardless selfishness is definitely a trait that can be learned and reinforced especially all the economics students that are brainwashed!

  7. The same as Jason H above, I don’t understand the mention of R. Dawkins here.
    “The selfish gene” is about how evolution happens at the level of the gene, instead of the level of the organism. Nothing to do with human selfishness.

  8. I suspect that Dawkins et al (Dennet, Pinker) have perhaps unwittingly, influenced a sort of ‘feedbakc loop’ in thinking:

    All humans are competitive and self-interested survivalists.
    Capitalism is about the promotion of self-interest
    I am a human therefore I must act capitalistically.

    In the forward to the 30th anniversary edition of ‘The Selfish Gene’, Dawkins maintains, that at the time of the publication (1976) he was a Labour voter. however, I think Dawkins has done great harm and unwittingly chimed in with the neo-liberal zeitgeist. I’ve always found it strange that Evolutionary biologists never seem to critique the evolutionary function of their own discipline. I suspect it is because most of the things they are claiming are had-wired are probably cultural tendencies that get reinforced.

    Recently, I have been wondering whether the evolution of economics has its roots in the British class system. In other words that it was the product of a wealthy class in Britain with its particular form of public school education that produced certain ‘psychological types’ that were highly competitive and who then projected it on the whole population. So we end up with the mid-19th Century view of Utilitarianism that proclaimed ‘individuals striving for personal happiness produces the collective well-being.’ We then move from there onto humans as ‘self-interest maximizers’ and ‘rational agents.’

    People who comment on Wall Street of say daft things like Wall Street ‘is very Darwinistic’ , as if (given Darwinism is true) there can be degrees of it. For me that sort of gives the game away that it is a cultural phenomenon that is then desribed as ‘hard-wired’ so as to bolster itself by dodgy science.

    Darwinism was given a more ‘co-operative’ angle by the Russian evolutionary theorists and that seems to have been neglected.

    Anthropologists, more recently ( Brian Ferguson) are challenging a lot of the findings of anthropologists of the 70’s who tended to confirm kin preference behaviour in studies and even mathematesized it.

    Interesting to look into the relationship between economics and biological views of ourselves.

  9. Maybe the reason could be this applied to each of us:
    “Life is competitive and self-interested survivalists.
    Any-ism is about surviving
    I live therefore I act competitively according to “ism” that fits to me in the moment.”

    How to fix this? ☻

  10. Whether or not humans are intrinsically cooperative or selfish is not so much relevant since trying to extrapolate those values into a workable system both fails due to a fallacy of nature and a fallacy of composition.
    otherwise there would be very little standing in the way of libertarian utopia (anarchy), or communism on the other hand.
    Fact is, while humans are social animals they do exhibit some instincts which make cooperation sometimes difficult.
    i.e: A sense of egalitarianism often goes along with a deep distrust of authority.
    Libertarianism preys on these instincts (by pointing at anything claiming how authoritarian or anti-democratic something is) in an overzealous decentralization effort to dismantle any sort of social constructs, only to make way for ones which are very hostile to libertarian though altogether.

  11. I would also highly recommend Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2010). I would recommend his work in general. De Waal is one of the great primatologists of our time. What the neoliberal natural experiment shows is that humans exhibit a great deal of behavioral plasticity. There is no evidence whatsoever that such behavior is innate, or the consequence of, what is termed in social biology, “hard heredity”; if anything, the opposite is the case. Situations, environments, count. This has been known for some time. Such cooperation is shown quite clearly in the Bonobos. If cooperation is preferred by our closest ape relatives, how likely is it that we would fail to also be so wired, as it were?

  12. “Humans are intrinsically anti neo-liberal”

    Then why is the world the way it is?

    Why is it that societies that attempted to build co-operative systems failed and those that do exist only exist because of coercion?

  13. The most useful précis I’ve come across recently is that Classical Liberals see the self as property – hence their objection to government interference in their ‘property’ and support for free trade doctrines.

    Neo-liberals take that one step further and see the self as a business. Hence why they keep talking about ‘selling yourself’ and other such tropes.

    Both are individualistic viewpoints.

  14. It could be argued that collective behaviour has nothing to do with altuism.

    Collectivism is another way of ensuring survival of the greater number and hence the species. Is it learned or innate? Look at coral. Coral is bunch of individual organisms that are stuck together. Why do they form? I’m pretty sure they didn’t have to read Marx to tell them that their “society” is driven by dialectical social imperative.

  15. In southern Africa the term “Ubuntu” a widely held philosophy of sharing, is a trait we could use more of in our more selfish Western world. Children automatically share instead of competing. When my son was at school in Italy his class mates were much less competitive than he found them back here in Sydney. He hated it.

  16. Neil, I should like to see a good study on whether neoclassically inclined people are autistic or borderline autistic. From what I know, and i am by no means an expert, this hypothesis may not be corroborated.

  17. The self as property: an explanation, if one were needed, for individuals turning themselves into a “brand”.

  18. Dawkins is autistic albeit on the high-performing end of the spectrum. He destroys his Selfish Gene argument on page 2 of his book “The Selfish Gene” when he writes “If we were told that a man had lived a long and prosperous life in the world of Chicago gangsters, we would be entitled to make some guesses as to the sort of man he was. We would expect that he would have qualities such as toughness, a quick trigger finger, and the ability to attract loyal friends.”

  19. I applaud this article by Prof Bill Mitchell.

    I also refer to the works of US corporate law scholar, Professor Lynn Stout (Cornell University) and independent commentators such as Margaret Heffernan which also seem to be consistent with Dr Mitchell’s article. See Prof Lynn Stout’s article below titled ‘How Economists Turned Us Blind To Our Own Goodness’.

    *Noting Dr Mitchell’s article above, does anyone have any comments on the writings/views of the Australian Labor Party’s Dr Andrew Leigh MP (current Shadow Assistant Treasurer/Shadow Minister for ‘Competition and Productivity’ and a former Professor of Economics at the Australian National University)?

    Thank you for this blog/article.

  20. Schofield, I think Dawkins is wrong about this as with so much else in that book. A counterexample is Meyer Lansky. In the words of his film counterpart, he always made money for his partners.

  21. Neo-liberal$ are fully supportive of an individuals right to choose as long as the individual chooses the system the Neo-liberal$ are proposing.

    If the majority of people said they wanted to live in a communist society the Ne0-liberal$ would hardly be supporting a persons right to choose then.

  22. I have studied evolution at third level at university and can say that Dawkins is not really either neoliberal nor Collective in as much as pure science is concerned. He did studies on altruistic behaviour and discovered that many individuals cooperate in nature because it is a characteristic that works, basically. One huge example is parental behaviour. Any individuals in the distant past who did not look after their young in a totally selfless manner would have them die, so obviously this behaviour does not get passed down in the genes. Behaviour is considered as much an integral part of the phenotype as physical characteristics. If selfish behaviour kills, it does not last, of course, in terms of descendants, and the behaviour disappears with them.
    Evolution does work towards collective behaviour in this way. But it does not al
    ways follow through. If a shortage of resources ensues, competition for them will promote uglier behaviour during these times.
    Dawkins only describes what happens in nature, economics is learned behaviour based on this. Neoliberal economics may be based on fear and greed, but collectivism and finding ways to control our environment would be far better and cause less suffering.

  23. Sandra, to say that Dawkins only describes what happens in nature is not strictly correct. He interprets what he sees or thinks he sees, sometimes in an absurd way. His application of his selfish gene thesis, e.g., to what he calls the Hellfire meme, is execrable. His entire thesis is excessively reductionist in character. And he fails to distinguish between the target and the unit of evolution. The target of evolution is the gene, while the unit of evolution is the individual or the local population, depending on how you have set up your scenario.

    I would go further than you in regard to any assumed teleology of the evolutionary process. Evolution does not work toward anything. It is no more and no less than the adaptation of a local population over time to environmental conditions. While it could perhaps be argued that there may be directionality in the small, there is no directionality at all in the large.

  24. “While it could perhaps be argued that there may be directionality in the small, there is no directionality at all in the large.”

    It’s more nuanced than that. Evolving systems are accumulative in that they “store & hold” adaptive features. And that isn’t unique to biological systems.

    All this is subsumed in the observation that anything exposed to energy/resource gradient does just what we’ve observed so far. Whatever allows harvest of more energy eventually occurs & persists, by statistics alone.

    The observed directionality is the reverse of entropy.

    That applies to orthodox economics as well, of course, but only in a class-based outlook that ignores the whole history of social species.

    To me, the logic of orthodox macro economics is visible only once it’s seen as an extension of aristocracy. Orthodox macro-economists are rather like medieval courtiers & suckups, providing convenient methods to help “masters” to leverage “their” assets – human capital as well as other forms of capital. There’s a huge presumption involved.

    That flies in the face of the rubric that none of us is as smart as all of us. It’s ironic to consider orthodox macroeconomics as nothing more than the Midas story, lingering in the myths of Luddites 2800 years after the first recorded telling.

  25. “Then why is the world the way it is?”

    Perhaps it’s just due to ongoing population-related frictions.

    Humans worldwide took ~1million years to develop exquisite family, band & tribal cultural mechanisms. All examples of social species behavior.

    Our most recent 10K yrs of history is dominated by the collision of supra-tribal populations bumping into one another, not being to get out of one another’s way, and in the process violently overwhelming – but not yet replacing – tribal methodologies exquisitely adapted to prior contexts.

    In evolutionary terms, we have big organizational challenges to solve, similar to the transition from unicellular to massively-multicellular organisms. It may take quite awhile yet to work out methods for organizing on an unprecedented scale. There’s nothing in our history to go on, so we gotta do it from scratch, by trial and error.

    It’s amazing how many economists aren’t even familiar with the concept of return-on-coordination (aka, teamwork). Until most 10yr old kids are steeped in fairy tales about how supra-tribal populations tamed the dragon of tribal collisions … we’re gonna continue to have a mob of opinions on what to do next.

  26. “Recently, I have been wondering whether the evolution of economics has its roots in the British class system.”

    Couldn’t agree more, although for slightly expanded reasons.
    First, manipulating other for narrow gains is the hallmark of class competition.
    Second, fomenting aggression in forms of competition is one of the consequences of accepting the base format.

  27. Imagine what the world would be like if most of us actually began training our children to be the perfect Homo Economicus from birth.

  28. I have some issues with Teixeira’s (T’s) account of the relevance of biology to socio-cultural problems. And this is not because I am contending that biology has no relevance at all. It is because biological considerations are often misapplied in socio-cultural contexts. I should point out that T is a political scientist, not a biologist.
    First, I disagree that humans are “defined” by the set of traits he mentions, among them, willingness to share and willingness to work for the good of the group. Such behavior can be found in many types of any colony. Though not all ant colonies. There are other traits that are perhaps more universal than these. Certainly, these traits are characteristic of humans. In regard to social norms, we have to be careful here. It is not clear that animals “below” monkeys and apes, or even them, possess anything resembling our social norms. Certainly, it could be argued that they may possess something akin to informal norms of this sort. But they can’t have explicit norms, as they do not have language.
    It is good that he put the term, selfless gene, in quotes, because it is a fundamental error to think that there is a gene for any of the traits he mentions. Dawkins concentrates on genetics because he wishes to reduce Darwinian evolutionary theory to a version of genetic theory, along the lines of the reduction of the theory of heat to the theory of molecular kinematics. The conclusion one should come to after reading The Selfish Gene is that his proposed reduction fails. On gene-culture coevolution, a good, albeit not entirely successful, treatment of this is William Durham’s Coevolution. Durham’s lack of success is different from that of Dawkins, but in one respect their treatments coincide. They both base their accounts on individuals, whether genes or individuals, rather than on groups. They are both selectionists, but this is more reasonable for Dawkins than it is for Durham. It is unfortunate that T does not seem to be familiar with this work by Durham.
    On a slightly different note, I do not like T’s careless use of the term, psychopathy, of which sociopathy could be viewed as a special case. The traits he mentions in this context could be ascribed to people who are narcissistic or egomaniacal. To be a psychopath, one must exhibit several traits from a particular list, and for an adequate clinical diagnosis, be given the Hare Psychopathy CheckList (not a self-report test, because psychopaths lie). I am aware that T contends that people use this term informally for those exhibiting the traits in question, but I would have preferred him to qualify this in some way so that the reader would not be inadvertently misled. In saying this, I am not saying that neoliberalism does not reinforce psychopathic behavior. It does. But the traits T mentions are not the definitive traits associated with this disorder, among which are lack of empathy, no conscience, irresponsibility, inability to feel remorse, the remorseless manipulation of everyone.

  29. Sandra, I mistyped and just noticed it. The target of evolution is the individual or the population/group, while the unit of evolution is the gene. As you know, it is the range of genetic variation which is passed on to offspring that enables a population to evolve. The environment can only affect the genetic system through its carriers, the individuals or group of them. It seems to follow from this that genes and their individuals do not evolve.

  30. Sandra says: If a shortage of resources ensues, competition for them will promote uglier behaviour during these times.

    So this is what neoliberals do: they enforce artificial scarcity so “competition!” happens, because “competition = progress” to them (or “competition = wealth” to them). Unfortunately they ignore that competition in extreme can result in collapse of a system too due to distress and entropy issues.


    I would go further than you in regard to any assumed teleology of the evolutionary process. Evolution does not work toward anything.

    Exactly, it makes me uncomfortable ans suspicious when I see someone attaching volition to a natural phenomena. Nature does not “work towards” any thing, it has not teleology. Makes me wonder if the people saying those things truly understands the science or is projection religious believes into physical matter.

  31. Putting Richard Dawkins in the company of the likes of Rand and Friedman is stretching credibility.

    Dawkins is a biologist with an emphasis on the role of evolution. He has written several popular and useful books on this theme. It is legitimate in the scientific context to dispute his views and I’m sure Dawkins,as a scientist,would not object to this. However,I think he would object to his writings being misconstrued, deliberately or accidentally,to further some extraneous objective.

    Dawkins is also an atheist of the more up front variety and has written on this subject as well. “The God Delusion” is a good example which has upset the religious establishment.
    Dare I draw a parallel between religion and the current economic paradigm?

  32. >Henry says:
    >Monday, May 22, 2017 at 20:43
    >Then why is the world the way it is?

    Possibly because the ‘world’ being a very complex system can get stuck in certain states which reinforce itself until some set of constraints are changed. Neoliberal economics cascaded through the developed world through and set a whole bunch of political systems to change in ways that are very hard to change back again overnight. Plus it sits very well in conjunction with a few of the older systems that do humanity no good overall like the perpetual war/cold war/industrial military complex, rent seeking and return of high inequality for the wealthy to name only a few. All sits well together and reinforces each other.

    There is hope:

    For example a study of a Baboon (the most primitive of apes) population by primatologist Richard Wrangham showed that even the most violent, non-communal totalitarian leadership style communities can suddenly change of the right settings are implemented.

    Probably worth reflecting that humanity can do great things if the right buttons are pressed (eg: Job guarantee, full employment)
    Worth a listen or search for the original study:

  33. Even John Nash, toward the end of his life, admitted that the game theories that he created such as “Fuck You, Buddy”, which were used in the development of neoliberal thought were entirely wrong.

  34. All this focus on primate studies, anthropological studies, etc, is it really necessary?

    Look at the world around you as it is. Look at how you think and behave. Look at our leaders. It’s not rocket science.

    Assad (an Alawite) bombing the beejeezus out of Syrian Sunnis is an act of self preservation, not a post modern cultural statement.

  35. Podargus – Dawkin’s ‘God Delusion’ is only a ‘good example’ of how to set up straw men and then attack them. The notion that Dawkin’s is ‘scientist’ doesn’t entirely hold as he often makes dismissive remarks and arrogant assumptions about areas he know little about.

    For example, in the 30th anniversary edition of the Selfish Gene, he congratulates himself on the word ‘meme’ being in the Oxford English Dictionary despite the fact that his use of the virus analogy for the transmition of concepts and cultural ideas is extremely dodgy to say the least. he isn’t an anthropologist, knows nothing about the philosophy of language, nor is he a cultural historian yet he likes to present himself as a polymath and renaissance man.

  36. I always note with irony the impressive levels of teamwork and self-effacing deference to authority displayed by the project to convince us all that we are self-centred calculating individualists. By comparison, running the “collective will” project seems to be like herding cats.

  37. Right on, Simon. You are so right about Dawkins. One of my ecologist colleagues can’t stand either him or his ideas. We have both had personal dealings with him.

  38. Good piece! It’s one thing to be anti-neoliberal, but it’s also necessary to understand the interplay of real estate with the monetary regime. The increasing privatisation of economic rent/unearned income, arguably the public glue that originally established the Australian community, corresponds with the influence of Ayn Rand which culminated in the Reagan/Thatcher era. This privatisation of land rent has been capitalised into land prices, financialised by the banks. Where neoclassical economics textbooks claim land rent to be only 1% to 4% of the economy, in ‘The Taxable Capacity of Australian Land and Resources’ (Australian Tax Forum Volume 18 Number 1, 2003) former Australian Treasury tax expert, Dr Terry Dwyer, tabulated it extensively as “sufficient to allow total abolition of company and personal income tax”, giving the lie to those patently false claims. Although it’s arguable that the 0.1% have managed to feather their nests with our publicly-generated economic rent and deliver the Australian economy to a stagnant state (as more and more of us tried to join in, to create the greatest bubble in land prices we’ve experienced), it seems even heterodox economists manage to dismiss all this rent-seeking as the source of our impossible levels of private debt, and integral to the 0.1%-serving monetary ‘system’.

  39. It seems blindingly obvious to me that humans exhibit both competitive and cooperative

  40. You only need to step into your back alley, or local park, or watch the traffic on the main roads through yoru town/city, or observe your workplace, to see that the majority of people spend most of their time being utterly self-absorbed. When presented with social problems, most of them relate to them from a very personal angle, and quickly disregard issues that (they think) don’t affect them. Most people are averagely decent, but behave this way constantly. They use, exploit and discard other people regularly.

    No point having rosy views of humans. Society is currently in a race to see who can be the most rude.

  41. Roger Erickson wrote:

    “Whatever allows harvest of more energy eventually occurs & persists, by statistics alone.”

    That’s a good metaphor for capitalism.

  42. Self as property? Much as I hate to agree with people who think that way, there’s a deeper sense in which they’re kind of right.

    ‘Proper’ comes from the Latin ‘proprius’ meaning “one’s own, particular to itself”. From pro privo “for the individual, in particular,” from privus “one’s own, individual”.

    This is obviously related to individualism – the sense of the self as separate from others.

    It’s no different to declaring businesses to be ‘persons’ and give them rights equal to, and arguably above and beyond, the rights of ‘natural persons’.

    It’s all one line of thought going back centuries and more.

    The predominant social group believe in it, so of course it’s going to be promoted globally as ‘the best of the best’. When it’s made them rich, it’s easy for them to tell the people lower down ‘if you want some of this, copy me’.

    For an example of that, see the UK’s so-called Northern Powerhouse being told to copy London’s success, rather than accepting that we live in one country and each part has a role to play in its own right.

    It’s ironic that individualism has turned into a refusal to allow individualism…. we all must copy the ‘individuals’ at the top or suffer risks to our survival.

  43. Richard Dawkins has always come across as a nasty, self-centred individual, so his book title never seemed unfitting.

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