Friday, February 10, 2012

Familial favoritism & Nationalism

Bryan Caplan wrote an interesting article about nationalism and familial favoritism.
"There is one obvious difference between nationalism and familial favoritism. Familial favoritism is a deep and ineradicable part of the human psyche, thanks to many millions of years of evolution. Nationalism - and expansive tribal identities more generally - pretends to be equally fundamental, but it's largely cheap talk. People happily give tons of free stuff to their children. But you need coercion to make people surrender more than a pittance to their "fellow citizens." To ask people to stop favoring their own children goes utterly against human nature. To ask people to stop favoring their countrymen is a modest, eminently do-able request."
Signalling, say letting leaders off might be a production of years of evolutionary psychology, but does it mean it is desirable? No ought from is. Bryan Caplan's statement (emphasis mine) is just stating the facts not answering the moral question. Going against leaders or talking too much truth might go against human nature but that's a poor justification when a lot of it can be wasteful signalling.

I would like to ask Caplan whether he would get rid of family favoritism, if he only could? Does he see it as pointless? In fact, we all are selfish, we generally at least care about (the utility of) ourselves a lot over others. Then we care a bit less about those that we care, and so on. The real issue is where to draw the line. It is going to be a line in the water. If turtles or sharks had only cared about others, they wouldn't have lived hundreds of millions of years. If we would have to compete with smart A.I., and in the end we would die due to extinction, is that efficient? Should be if humans are equal to these machines. Almost nobody thinks their children or very closed ones are equal to everyone else. Sure we can say that, but our actions talk otherwise. Human action may be corrupt but it is very real.

My take on nationalism is that is things are just not that simple. Generally nationalism leads to inefficiency, moral paradoxes and horrible conflicts. I find it kind of silly, hypocritical and dangerous. But then again a lot of other human action falls under that category. I'm not convinced it is completely wrong.

I think Robin Hanson put it up best here (Are Nations Tribes?). My answer would be that some are. There're some countries like Japan, Finland etc. with highly genetically and culturally similar population. Since I'm from Finland, I've got a lot of hands-on experience with nationalism, especially with conscription. I think it serves some good ends but it has a high cost. Generally it increases trust within society (or rather, diversity decreases it), decreases transaction costs and makes it possible to solve some coordination problems that might be very hard to solve under a different system. Nordic welfare states are unique to some extent, and have some benefits that are unreachable on other systems, but I think welfare state mostly work as a closed system. The question of benefits and cons of welfare states are too numerous to issue here but I think there's more at stake than it seems prima facie.

I'm not going to give into simple efficiency analysis that it is possible to tell which moral ends are easily  calculable, something of which I talked about here. Now I admit, especially on that issue I'm far from a specialist but I wanted to chime in my thoughts.

To elaborate a bit more, I think a lot of Finns like our country. Sure there're lots of problems like in any society, but I think in comparison to many other countries, they're small. This is just anecdotal evidence but I think many expatriates miss lots of things from Finland, and not just for cultural reasons. I have lived abroad so I at least have some experience to say this. What they probably don't miss is cold winters and high taxes. Generally I'd imagine a lot of other Swedes, Norwegians etc. fall under this category because our cultures are highly similar even though we speak different languages. To give another example, I like interacting the most with people from welfare states (Scandinavia, Canada). There's higher level of trust, and lots of shared values. It makes a lot less conflicts and disagreements. Generally I find just less "craziness" abroad both institutions and people. This all could be an observation error and I'd have to find better scientific evidence to say this more accurately.

To give even a better example. Think of the Amish people who are kind of a tribe. They have their rules, and they favor each other. They maintain a very closed, and individually limited system. Would Bryan advocate demolishing their social system? Someone might complain that its voluntary, yes nominally, but they do punish deserters with high social cost. And punishment, whether monetary or jail is just a cost. I think they should be left alone. I see knowledge more local that is maybe apparent, and I don't think this kind of issue is nearly as clear-cut as it seems. This is why I probably have  a lot of sympathy for Tyler Cowen's way to doing more holistic comparisons than atomic ones, and I'd love to hear his thoughts on this.