How I Learned to be the Adult – And Why I Often Forget – 2 –

May 10 update: Instapundit links to another discussion of Rubin by Will Wilkinson in The Economist.

May 9 post:

When I started my little business, I despaired when a large chain opened down the street two weeks before we did. What I should have recognized was that large chains & naïfs could see our college town needed copy shops. We survived – for quite a while. Tired and worn out, both from a pregnancy in my forties and a series of rather stupid business moves on my part, I sold out years later to a locally run company. We were doing several times the amount of business we had that first year – and, while some such shops had come and gone during thirteen years, several survived, making varying but real profits.

I was wrong, but I was working from the gut. Paul Rubin’s “Evolution, Update: Immigration and Trade” points to why I felt as I did and why I was wrong. Just as it is probably not always wise to do what both villains & heroes do in adventure dramas – head for the high ground – we retain instincts that once helped us survive.

Rubin observes:

Our primitive ancestors lived in a world that was essentially static; there was little societal or technological change from one generation to the next. This meant that our ancestors lived in a world that was zero sum — if a particular gain happened to one group of humans, it came at the expense of another.

Of course, it remains true in some circumstances – in those closest to us. If I eat an extra brownie (as I am wont to do) there is one less for others. And this makes it easy for those like Lou Dobbs (and to a lesser degree O’Reilly) to pander to those feelings. Rubin speaks of the xenophobia it engenders, but xenophobia is likely to occur when others’ xenophobia leads them to want us dead.

However, it also leads those who want to ease hunger in Africa to berate American overindulgence rather than encouraging policies that actually work. This is, of course, the approach many a charity & church & demagogue takes – the heretofore unknown wealth of modern life comes at the expense of those poorer. I suspect more ascetic choices might be good for us (e.g., the brownie). And that we should help others is equally obvious. But that help is probably best expressed in encouraging practices that lead to property rights and better roads – not gut level approaches. Roads bring food, deliver crops to market. Good roads break tribal bonds and encourage rule of law. They encourage transparency and therefore lowered levels of corruption, they require good engineering. And, ultimately, a system that emphasizes property rights involving both land & goods will lead to more people fed.

Because it isn’t our gut instinct, we need to constantly relearn the lessons of America from 1620-1622 and remember with our heads the burst of settlement following the railroads. Of course, roads also require the rule of law to protect food supplies from marauding bandits & tribal looting by other tribes. (The Seven Samurai depicts a world which we can little imagine although we still “feel” today.) That practices which once helped a tribe survive can now destroy it is a lesson that may take a long time to hit our guts.

Rubin also observes how the “real” – via Fox or CNN but also those human interest stories from the msm – leads us to think the most unlikely of events is likely to happen to us. Of course, we are not necessarily victims of our guts – we can use our heads and understand our instincts. And if sometimes heading for the high ground works (certainly Fannin would have been better not stuck in the middle of a flat plain at Goliad), sometimes it’s an instinct for survival in other places and other times. Or, as Rubin observes,

As products of evolution, humans cannot help but be born with certain biases. But we are not condemned to this evolutionary programming; we can identify the biases and recognize when they lead us astray in the modern world.

Recognizing our instincts, understanding their wisdom but also rejecting them when they aren’t wise is the work & gift of civilization, of self-consciousness, of maturity. But, while rapes are a pretty efficient way of spreading genes, we know it is an inappropriate response to a nubile young woman not only because it is bad for that particular woman but bad for mankind, because it is wrong in many ways.

From Arts & Letters, which often reflects Dutton’s affection for the insights of such evolutionary approaches.

2 thoughts on “How I Learned to be the Adult – And Why I Often Forget – 2 –”

  1. About the practices of charities and churches – it is now almost impossible for me to donate money to help the lowly and downtrodden in countries X, Y and Z. I am a tender 45 years old, but that has been a long enough observation period for me to conclude that “feeding the poor” has just ensured additional generations of poor requiring feeding. Is it really moral to stabilize such adverse gov’ts and cultures so that they continue generating “victims”? Until I find a charity that vigorously espouses some productive changes in local cultures (like rule of law, protect property rights, equality before the law etc.) I’m just going to have to be a greedy, plundering, self-indulgent american….

  2. Rubin’s just dumb. Illegal immigrants compete with others for the scarcest of resources. Land. Safe houses in safe suburbia.

    And if you believe Wade’s evidence in Before the Dawn the prehistoric environment was constantly changing. Hunter/gatherers engaged in constant, non-stop warfare aimed at wiping out the other neighboring tribe. If civilized nations in the 20th century had the casualty rates of hunter/gatherers there would have been 2 billion dead. Warfare may not have been industrial, but it was constant, with no letup. THAT is hardly a static environment. When any moment a raider from the other tribe could wipe you out.

    Most people are fairly good at sussing out odds. They know they won’t win at Vegas but it’s fun. That the safest place to live is in the suburbs not the city. And so on.

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