26.11.06

EVOLUTIONARILY STABLE STRATEGIES? Transgress the norms at your own risk, argues Arnold Kling.

Suppose that in prehistoric times, men were polygamous. Men became highly competitive, and their instincts with respect to one another became envious and hostile. However, groups that adopted monogamy were able to dampen the male fear of not having a mate, and this resulted in societies with sufficiently high trust levels to develop institutions that supported economic progress. If you set a monogamous society and a polygamous society side by side, ultimately the monogamous society would achieve larger scale and greater economic development.

Now, what I am suggesting is that if we were to legalize polygamy, eventually the process could run in reverse. The ability of males to trust one another could decline, and men might revert to a set of beliefs that make it impossible for markets and other co-operative institutions to persist.

By the same token, destroy existing modes of oppression at your own risk.

Iraq was held back by Iraqis' beliefs that trust only extends to a narrow tribe, tribes compete for power on the basis of guns and violence, and government employment is a means to steal from the public rather than serve the public.

The first position (that the United States messed up the occupatoin) would be based on the view that institutional changes could have tipped Iraqis' beliefs. Had we established order quickly, for example, we could have caused Iraqis to expect that peaceful economic competition would supplant violent tribal competition. I can see this in theory, but I remain highly skeptical in practice. I think it's a far-fetched hope to try to build a pyramid from the middle.

More at Free Exchange.
If one believes that a liberal economy (very broadly defined) and a liberal democratic political system are superior to the alternatives—as does this newspaper, and most of the well-meaning people trying to fight poverty and oppression around the world—then it is very hard to find language to talk about the role of culture in impeding political and economic development.
It is also very hard to cast off the old strictures and hope for rules that emerged out of centuries of trial and error to win widespread acceptance. "Fatal conceit" does not apply solely to Ivy League braintrusters.

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