Friday, May 13, 2011

Our Bias Against the Foreign; Our Bias Against Spontaneous Orders

Robin Hanson asks why restaurants are held to a higher standards of food preparation than individuals. It is an interesting question. He then points out that we seem to prefer:

•Individuals over firms
•Non-money over money exchange.
•Natural over artificial chemicals
•Old over new practices
•Human over machine control
•Locals over foreigners
•Non- over for-profit organizations


Here's my answer:

All of the things people show bias against are “foreign” in nature. Perhaps a test of one’s true cosmopolitanism is the degree to which one accepts all of these foreign elements. The only seeming outlier is non-profit over for-profit, but if we consider that we evolved to believe the world was a zero-sum game, so positive-sum games are also “foreign” to us. Thus, zero-sum non-profits that engage in mere transfers vs. positive-sum creation of profit value are preferred.

I will also note that we also prefer organizations of any sort -- whether nonprofits, firms, or governments -- over spontaneous social orders. Since we evolved to live in hierarchical organizations -- tribes, which are really larger versions of chimpanzee troops -- we feel more at home in such organizations. Which is why people consistently show preferences for organizational structure over spontaneous order structure (as we see in their votes for regulations by an organization like the government, even though the evidence is strong that it weakens the spontaneous economic order).

It is an uphill battle to fight against our bias against the foreign, but it is most certainly worth it. The virtue of cosmopolitanism needs to be extended. To do that we need to understand that these biases have their roots in that extended xenophobia. Too often people just exchange one kind of anti-foreign bias for another. You can, after all, separate right from left simply by noting their biases from the above list:

The left prefer individuals over firms, government organization over spontaneous order, non-money over money, natural over artificial, new over old, human over machine, non-profit over for-profit, and no directional bias regarding foreigners over locals.

The right prefer firms over individuals, government organization over spontaneous order, money over non-money, no bias on natural and artificial, old over new, no bias in human and machine, for-profit over non-profit, and locals over foreigners.

Most libertarians show no bias over any of these things.

Naturally, things change over time. The left listed above is the postmodern left; the traditional progressivist left, which was more collectivist in nature, downplayed the individual, preferred the artificial, and preferred machines. There are elements within the postmodern left that prefer the foreign over the local.

It seems that the degree to which we have these biases, or which side we are biased against, is related to our world views. To the degree that the "unnatural" or "foreign" side is associated with cosmopolitanism and civilization, we can see a connection between ideology and acceptance/rejection of civilization. Where does the libertarian fit into this? Those who do in fact accept both sides equally are comfortable with both aspects of their human nature. The low number of such libertarians is telling about who we humans truly are.
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