Human Nature

“My Nation First!” is No Better than “Me First!”

Blatant selfishness is toxic, regardless of the scale that it occurs.

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By David Sloan Wilson

Imagine that you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. A new person arrives who makes it absolutely clear that he places his own interest ahead of all others. He begins every conversation with “Me first!”

How would you and everyone else in the town react toward such a person? In the first place, you would be astonished that he exists at all. Normal people might entertain such thoughts privately, but they wouldn’t be stupid enough to boast about it. In the second place, you would quickly start avoiding the person, warning others, taking an active role in thwarting his selfish goals, or perhaps even run him out of town. You wouldn’t have to think hard about doing these things. You would do them spontaneously and so would most of the other townspeople. Together, you would contain and expel such a blatantly selfish person in the same way that the immune system contains and expels disease organisms.

Yet, how many politicians have you heard who boast about putting their nation first? Donald Trump has become the Republican presidential candidate on that boast and every other nation has his counterpart. Some of us are repelled by such blatant expressions of national selfishness, but others cheer—and vote.

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What is the difference between the blatant expression of individual selfishness and the blatant expression of national selfishness? If we focus on the consequences of blatant selfishness, then the answer is “no difference”. Left unchecked, a disease organism disrupts the host organism, often killing both in the process. Left unchecked, a “Me First!” person would disrupt the town and everyone behaving that way would result in total chaos. Left unchecked, a “My Nation First!” politician would…

You get the point. Blatant selfishness is toxic, regardless of the scale that it occurs. In a sense, the point is so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be pointed out. Why, then, is national selfishness at full volume while individual selfishness is on mute? Two major reasons can be identified.

The first is a narrative that makes blatant selfishness appear good for everyone. This has always been implicit in the economic concept of laissez faire and Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, but Smith used that metaphor sparingly and was fully aware of the dangers of blatant selfishness at all scales. It is only during the last half century that “Greed is Good” has been seriously proposed and put into action as sound economic and national policy, with predictable results.

The second is the lack of a coordinated response to national selfishness. The reason that our bodies are so good at keeping cancer cells and disease organisms at bay is because of our immune systems, which are the product of billions of years of evolution. The reason that blatant selfishness is kept at bay in a small human group such as a town is because of a psychological analog of the immune system that is a product of millions of years of evolution. If either one of these is compromised, then selfishness spreads like a cancer (and cancer is nothing other than cellular selfishness) despite its harmful consequences. There is no global analog to the immune system and the psychological response to selfishness that takes place spontaneously in small human groups. Hence the rampant growth of cancerous “My Nation first!” ideologies.

This might seem like a prognosis of despair, as if nothing can be done. But something can be done on both counts. The “Greed is Good” narrative can be replaced and an analog of the immune system can be emplaced at a global scale.

Few outsiders realize the scope of the crisis that is taking place within the economic profession at this moment of history. The mathematical edifice that seemed to give economics such authority over other branches of the social sciences has collapsed. The main competing school of thought, behavioral economics, has done little more than compile a long list of results that appear anomalous and paradoxical against the background of the orthodox school of thought. Some economists have concluded that there will be no replacement for the “Big Theory” aspirations of the orthodox school. The Age of Big Theory is dead and all we can do is play with data using any perspective we like.

But the Age of Big Theory is not dead, as we can see by stepping outside the encapsulated world of economics. Two Big Theories are alive and well. The first is Complex Systems Theory, which explains the dynamics of complex systems of all sorts. The second is Evolutionary Theory, which explains the dynamics of living systems of all sorts. Granted, neither of these are systems of self-contained equations with theorems and corollaries that orthodox economics tried to be, inspired by 19th century Newtonian physics. That kind of Big Theory doesn’t even exist in physics any more. Nevertheless, Complex Systems Theory and Evolutionary Theory have a coherence that the post-apocalyptic world of economics currently lacks.

An edited volume titled “Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics”, published by MIT Press and based on a 2015 conference that I helped to organize with the economist Alan Kirman and Germany’s Ernst Strungmann Forum, begins the task of rethinking economics in terms of the two Big Theories that have already proven themselves in other domains. It is only a start, but some conclusions are so elementary that they are unlikely to be wrong. One of these is that the narrow pursuit of self-interest does not robustly benefit the common good at any scale. “My nation first!” is as cancerous for planetary welfare as “Me first!” is for a small town and actual cancers are for our bodies. If that wasn’t obvious to you before, then it can be now based on the most authoritative bodies of theory that are out there.

The only way to solve the problems of modern existence is to formulate policies with the welfare of the whole planet in mind. “Our World First!” should be the slogan of the enlightened politician and electorate. We should recoil from the “My Nation first!” politician in the same way that we recoil from the “Me first!” individual.

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Putting “Our World First!” into action might seem like an impossible goal, but consider: All of the nations that command our allegiance today are only a few centuries old. Ten thousand years ago, there were no large polities of any kind, only tribes of a few thousand people. Part of the new synthesis for economics is to tell the story of human cultural evolution in a way that is seamlessly connected to the story of human genetic evolution and the genetic evolution of other biological entities that function well as corporate units, such as multicellular organisms and social insect colonies.

When human cultural change is understood as evolution in warp drive, then 10,000 years is enough to produce large-scale social entities that do have something analogous to the immune system and our psychological response to selfishness in small groups, which is why they function as corporate units as well as they do. In principle, there is no reason why the scale of social organization can’t be elevated still higher. If “My Nation First!” is possible, then “Our World First!” is also possible. All of us can begin by reacting to a “My Nation First!” politician in the same way that we react to a “Me first!” person in a small town. In addition, we must work hard and fast to rethink economics in terms of the two Big Theories that have already proven themselves in other domains. Time will not wait.

2016 July 30

David Sloan Wilson is president of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. His most recent book is Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others? (Yale/Templeton 2015).

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  • l777l

    “Imagine that you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. A new person arrives who makes it absolutely clear that he places [the twon’s] interst ahead of all others. He begins every conversation with “[this town first!]””

    People in the town would complain. Complain about him not caring more about his family.

    • l777l

      The article is one unsupported leap. What makes the “Religion of Humanity” (J.S. Mill), the dissolution of borders, seem plausible? Do people care more about their nation than about their family? Do people care about faceless others? To some degree. To a drastically more limited degree than they care about their immediate relationships. (There’s no need to deploy Dunbar’s number.) The notion of the establishment of one circle of care, of a single sphere of justice is ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous, it’s a poor narrative. Fairy tales and legends are more believable and inspiring. (Hardly surprising that these take the “dark” side of human nature seriously, and as eternal.) We’re not a “eusocial” species. Your account doesn’t even work in terms of group selection, because it blatantly ignores group conflict as evolutionary pressure. You have dealt with religion before (Cathedral). It mirrors human nature, conflict and cooperation. What are you doing here? This is either written for idiots, or inspiring gospel gotten out of hand.

      • Sherman Ackerson

        I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I believe David Sloan Wilson has never done military service and probably prefers chess and singles tennis over baseball or football.

  • David Whitlock

    This is correct. To care about your family is to care about every human.

    Of course those who are selfish will be unable to appreciate that this is correct.

    We are one human species. All humans are only descended from common ancestors. If you go far enough into the future, either all humans alive will be descended from you, or you will have no living descendants.

    Allowing the selfish to “win” by fetishizing short term competition is to denigrate all other aspects of humanity to zero.

    If being nice, good, fair, compassionate, honest, generous can’t be a successful strategy, then evolution can’t select for it and humans expressing those traits eventually won’t exist in the social community, and eventually those traits won’t be present in the human gene pool.

    • l777l

      Correct? What do you base that on? Genetic relatedness contradicts you. Utilitarianism doesn’t support you. Autonomy limits your view to yourself, protecting others’ systems of value (negative liberty). The last paragraph is a kind of fatalistic natural fallacy. Whatever happens will happen and is good. (A caricature of natural law.)

      • David Whitlock

        No, all humans are related.

        That is what it means to be a member of a species. You are related to all other members of your species. If you were not related, then reproduction with them would be impossible because there isn’t enough commonality in physiology for genes to work together to instantiate a viable organism.

        The last paragraph is about human choices in this generation affecting human evolution. How can it not? If being “selfish” leads to “success”, then being selfish is being selected for and eventually that is what all humans will be like, if humans survive long enough. I think it is likely that humans cannot survive everyone being as selfish as Trump or Gekko.

        The most important resource necessary for reproduction is fertile mates of your own generation to reproduce with. The second most important resource for successful reproduction is fertile mates for your offspring, then fertile mates for their offspring, and so on, in perpetuity.

        Configuring society such that fertile mates of sufficient genetic similarity/diversity are available in perpetuity has a “cost” (in terms of forgone reproduction in this generation). If a single individual monopolizes all opposite gender fertile mates, then the gene pool becomes less diverse and future generations bear the “cost” of that impoverished gene pool.

        • Sherman Ackerson

          Dave, since we’re family could you lend me $200?

          • John M Legge

            Professor Wilson pays his taxes and if you need $200 you have a claim against those taxes through social security and other community support measures. You are attempting to trivialise the argument.

          • Sherman Ackerson

            No, I was trying to reinforce Hamilton’s rule Rb>c While you thought I was being trivial, I was making a very valid scientific point. Apparently you didn’t get it. Now , I ask again, can you lend me money, or do we need to be family?

          • John M Legge

            I don’t always lend my family money.
            You need $200 from me to preserve your health or life or that of a member of your family, and
            All your more convenient sources of credit (banks, credit cards, family) are exhausted,
            then I will consider it.
            When I have $200 surplus to my requirements I donate it to Medecin sans Frontieres, so I would have to consider your need more urgent than the problems MSF are addressing.

          • Sherman Ackerson

            John, John, John. Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand that I’m not REALLY wanting to borrow money. I’m trying to get you to understand that our relationships with people are not equal and that Hamilton’s concept of kin selection and genetic relatedness are very important in our decisions. The tribe is at the core of our survival and America First is affirmation of our tribe. I’m sure that you’re a very socially conscious person and all, and that’s great, but loosen up a little. In brotherly love….

          • John M Legge

            I think that it was Haldane who anticipated Hamilton: I will lay down my life for one brother, or two cousins, or a million Indians…”
            Since neither my life nor yours is currently at stake, and to the best of my knowledge and belief no member of my family is subject to a life-threatening risk that my money could avert, I can use my intellect and emotion to assert my common humanity with the poor bastards who MSF is trying to help.
            If you and I were lions wandering in the veldt, I would know that you wanted to displace me from my pride, kill my cubs, and inseminate my lionesses. You would know the same about me. If one of us had a brother to join our enterprise and the other didn’t, the one with the brother would probably win. Hamilton nicely summarises our behaviour and motivation.
            Since we are not (or, at lest, I am not) feral beast(s) concerned to survive until tomorrow we can use our human intellect to realise that kin and clan based competition will, unless we check it, make the planet inhospitable to humans. That, I believe, is the point that Sloan Wilson was attempting to make.

        • Helmut_Schmidt69

          You have no understanding of genetics or how behavior is biological in origin. You don’t even grasp basic social science, or have spent much time with people outside your isolated group of Western European whites.

          Everyone else in the world places high priority on their immediate family and extended family, ultimately culminating in nationalism. The reality is nearly anywhere you go in the world, people will think you are insane.

          • David Whitlock

            People do favor kin over non-kin, but that is purely a learned behavior. It is not innate. Humans cannot recognize kin from non-kin except by learning.

            Infants are incapable of identifying adults of different ethnicity. Infants are unable to be bigots. Bigotry is only learned.

    • Helmut_Schmidt69

      There is not a single piece of scientific evidence that remotely supports what you state. The best we have some people of northwestern European descent hold your views, but every other people places a high level of preference on their kin. This is the human condition.

      Deal with it.

      • David Whitlock

        Kinship cannot be observed and unambiguously determined except by genetic testing. Kinship is learned. Favoring of kin and disfavoring of non-kin cannot be innate. It must be learned because newborns cannot identify adults at birth.

        It is only after childhood that humans can identify with a specific ethnicity and instantiate xenophobia. Infants will bond to whoever takes care of them.

        This is just like ants. Ants learn the home nest smell when they hatch. This is how some ant species can enslave ants of different species. Steal the eggs, and hatch them in a foreign nest, and the slave ants bond to that nest as if it was their native nest.

        Humans are the same. There is no genetic imprinting that mediates nationalism, it is tribal identity as learned in childhood. Favoring of kin over non-kin is a learned social trait, not an evolved instinct.

        • Helmut_Schmidt69

          It’s been 13 years since the human genome was discovered. We have well over a century of twin studies. You are not familiar with topic, and are likely just repeating nonsense fed to you in the 1960s.

          There are vast studies out there that demonstrate how kinship preference is genetic in origin.

          In fact, if you understood genetics, you would know that there are *NO* learned behaviors. All behavior is at least partly genetic, and most is mostly genetic.

          This should be obvious. The Soviet Union committed unspeakable crimes, intensive propaganda, forced education, genocide, all manner “education” to help people unlearn.

          You’re living in a fantasy world, and you are perpetuating a lie. You will not be able to find a single scientific journal publishing anything that supports what you suggest, unless it was published before the human genome was decoded.

          • David Whitlock

            I do understand genetics. You are imputing magical powers to genes. All genes can do is direct the development of the phenotype in an environment. Everything that is “important” is too important to be specified solely by genetics. Anything that needs to be modulated by the environment can’t be solely specified by genetics.

            How do genes specify the target of the adult-recognizing pattern recognition neural networks so that infants “know” who to bond to? The pattern recognition neural networks are not specified at birth, they develop over time, via neuronal remodeling via exposure to examples. That is why ethnic faces one is not exposed to all look “the same”, but faces of your own ethnicity are easy to differentiate. The face recognition neuroanatomy tunes itself to the faces it is exposed to during development. That plasticity is lost at a certain age, so faces of an ethnicity one was not exposed are difficult to differentiate.

            Facial recognition neuroanatomy is too important to be set by genes. It has to have an environmental component so that infants can recognize the people the infant grew up with, and learn to read their body language.

            Infants cannot recognize adults at birth. Infants bond to whoever cares for them. Infants who are not cared for die. Virtually 100% of the time, the mother who cares for and nurses an infant is the mother who birthed that infant and who provided half that infants genome.

            If infants cannot recognize adults at birth, how is an infant supposed to figure out who to bond to? Who to not bond to? If this “bonding” is all genetic, how can close family members become mortal enemies while strangers can live in peace?

            Instantiating a first language is too important to be set by the genome. It has to match the language of the people the infant is growing up with. It can’t be set by the genome, and it isn’t set by the genome.

            Any infant can learn any language as a first language without an accent. The capacity for language is a human trait, mediated by genetics. The specifics of the language learned as a first language is purely developmental. Children don’t even need to be exposed to a language to develop one. A sufficient cohort of children will develop a new first language de novo. A language that never existed before can’t be coded in the genome.

  • Trevor Rose

    I’m way ahead of you guys >>

  • saijanai

    This is a nuance that Bernie Sanders’ critics (and many of his followers) miss:

    Bernie never said to simply do away with international trade agreements like the TPP. Instead, he wanted them renegotiated with the needs of workers in mind. While he was speaking about American workers, it seems obvious to me that any such renegotiation would need to involve workers in the other countries as well.

    This universality is missing from at least some of Clinton’s new proposals. Universal free education, like universal healthcare, should not be means-based. While the wealthy may end up paying more via taxes to support the services, the services should be available to everyone, regardless of income (if Donald Trump or Bill Clinton wanted their daughters to attend a free public university, they should have gotten the same benefits as everyone else, period).

  • I tend to agree with the author’s conclusion that privileging the welfare of people in one’s own nation exclusively is difficult to justify. But not for the reasons that Wilson cites, which are stretch biological analogies past the point where they elucidate. i777i is correct to analogize this to privileging the welfare of one’s family over those of other families in the town. Few begrudge those whose earnings go primarily to support their own family rather than maintaining a subsistence existence for one’s family and donating the remainder to charity. They key is a measure of proportionality and respecting the rights of others. So to for the politicians the privilege the welfare of their own nation.

    One more note. Phrases like “It is only during the last half century that “Greed is Good” has been seriously proposed and put into action as sound economic and national policy” are silly and only make the piece less persuasive. I know of no politician that has proposed “Greed is Good” as “economic and national policy.” In contrast, in the last half century you have seen immense expansions of civil rights laws and welfare states.

  • Helmut_Schmidt69

    For those who understand Keynes’ Bancor, the first UN conference in 1944, and seminal works like Prospect for America, it has long been clear that the goal of global governance has always been a high degree of decentralization, with the exception of monetary policy and “human rights”.

    I wasn’t sure where this site stood, but now it is indeed clear. Neoliberalism, of course, has been destructive. But, it has created the environment necessary for the world to accept a new reformed United Nations.

    Now it is clear. This site is indeed utterly globalist, and pointless to read or support.

  • I think we can see from this article that the US university system is in seriously bad shape. Professor Wilson is a communist who is hiding behind equality. We’re all equal so there is no me first or my nation first.

    In a system where we are all equal, how does one get ahead? He cheats. Those that get behind are victims. Countries that have gotten ahead must be punished. Countries that have fallen behind must be rewarded.

    These ideas will not make a better world. They incentivize bad behavior, and punish good behavior. These ideas will destroy the world.

    • John M Legge

      A good sign of a troll is a pseudonym. Ignorance is another. You display both.

  • “‘My nation first!’ is as cancerous for planetary welfare as ‘Me first!'”

    Utter nonsense. So you think Brexit, for example, was a bad idea?

    Stick to economics, Wilson.

    • fahrender

      The Brexit was midwifed with snake oil and sophistry. Cameron added haste to the mixture. Subsequent considered opinion has indicated that the Brexit may never actually be realized. Bad idea? Is the Pope Argentinian?

      • “Sophistry”?

        Says the guy without a single source to back his claims…

        • fahrender

          …….to the guy who doesn’t bother to pay attention and wants me to do his “research” for him.

        • Fool2242

          Where are your sources Gui-yuam? Are you actually aware of how severly you have been socialised and indoctrinated into the system?
          You offer no cognizant argument or explanations as to why you disagree with the fantastic, enligtning article above.
          If you had been following the Brexit debate you would know that Fahrender is correct 🙂
          Myght be time to have a cold hard look at yourself Gui-yoam!

  • How many people can you meet? How many papers can you read? How many decisions can you make? Not many, as compared to those being done by billions of other people. The assumption that Wilson is making is that we can meet and know and love endless millions of people, and we can read any number of papers and books about endless numbers of vital political issues, and that we can plow throw our towering in-boxes of decisions in nothing flat.
    Of course all of this is ridiculous. We can do no such thing. We are extremely limited, we humans. We must budget our time accordingly. No, we cannot love humanity as ourselves, or as we love our family. And yes, we do favor our own nation, because we live there all of the time or most of the time. We experience it, and not all the other nations.
    Greed is not the question. Practicality is. As Tocqueville pointed out, Americans are exceedingly practical. Instead of actions based on the assumption of the deep selfish or the saintly unselfish motives posited by political philosophers, Americans engaged in something they called self-interest rightly understood. When we help others, we rightly assume that what we do will also help ourselves. And we rightly assume that others are doing the same for the very same reasons. We rightly assume that we do not live in the zero-sum society posited by socialists.
    Practicality is a powerful evolutionary tool and outcome. I hope writers fro Evonomics start examining it in some future essays.

    • Aritz

      I beleive in the Debordist situation which states that society has significance, given
      that Derrida’s analysis of neostructuralist capitalist theory is valid. The
      characteristic theme of the works of Pynchon is not desituationism, but

      It could be said that Debordist situation suggests that the purpose of the
      observer is social comment. Foucault uses the term ‘textual construction’ to
      denote the difference between class and reality. Do you not agree?

      • My take on philosophers such as Derrida is that they are trying to deal with the fact that every single one of us does in fact build mental models of reality within our own minds. Every single thing we observe or experience must filter through our minds. We absolutely cannot touch “outer reality” directly. Having said that, our minds (I believe) are the result of a very long winnowing evolutionary process, and must then have developed in response to very real situations. In short, our perceptions of reality, even though they are mental models, are reasonably good extrapolations of real reality. I believe these philosophers have failed to mesh these two apparently contradictory analyses: We cannot know anything for certain, but we must know at least enough if we are to survive.
        When we try to model really, really complex things, like modern economics and societies made up of millions of our fellow human beings, we can only model them according to our extremely limited experiences (see my note above), and so we, if we are to even have a slim chance of getting things right, must take our own individual human limitations seriously. We would do so by permitting, even encouraging, each other to learn what we can and do what we are capable of and engage in exchange of all kinds with one another. By doing so, large societies and economies actually are capable of maximizing their effectiveness, not be depending on some wise person at the center to run the show.
        I believe those on what Americans call the political Left do NOT take these limitations seriously at all. They seem to believe that some class of political philosophers or politicians or economists or whoever can manage our lives far better than we can. They fail to recognize that all of these folks, no matter how highly educated, no matter how expert they are in their fields, suffer from precisely the same limitations of brains, energy, experience, and time that the rest of us suffer from, and cannot in any sense be depended upon for the kind of effective management of the rest of us that those Leftists assume they are capable of.
        In a time of accelerating tech, our individual human limitations become more obvious, and the need to decentralize decision-making processes become even more obvious, at least to me.
        I do not know if Derrida and his fellow philosophers have ever seriously thought through such issues or wrote about them, but if they did, please let me know. Thanks.

  • Sherman Ackerson

    To understand this article, you must understand David Sloan Wilson. David, along with E.O. Wilson are in a special class of evolutionary biologist who promote the notion of “group selection,” meaning that they believe that groups of people are the units of selection by nature. Most biologist, however, believe that nature selects individuals, not groups, since nature can only select individuals (genes) not groups. Anyway, because within group competition, selfish individuals will dominate, he has a natural dislike of selfish behavior (so do I). However, “America First” to me is NOT selfish; in fact America First is altruistic. It says I care about my neighbors and fellow Americans and want them to do well. If we were selected by group as Wilson claims, then we need to care about that group.

    • John M Legge

      Sloan Wilson is a perfectly orthodox evolutionary biologist. He realises that humans (like elephants, but unlike most other mammals) can’t give birth successfully on their own. We are also, like all other mammals, at serious genetic risk from in-breeding with its tendency to concentrate recessive genes.

      This means that a successful human group will support its nursing mothers and infant children and when selecting sexual partners will go outside the immediate kin group. This behaviour will be driven by individual selection at the basic biological level; but members of groups in which this individual selection does not lead to cooperative group behaviour will fail to have descendants.

      Groups in which cooperation is more effective will have more descendants than other groups, not because of more births but because more infants will survive to maturity.
      For Sloan Wilson to describe group selection does not mean that he doesn’t understand genetics: it just means that he doesn’t need to start every discussion with a description of the DNA molecule.

  • Luis Gutierrez

    Trump is the personification of patriarchy. As long as human institutions (both secular an religious) perpetuate the patriarchal culture of domination/subordination, things will keep going from bad to worse, and expecting that any political or technological tweaking will resolve the issues is wishful thinking.

  • That’s what nations are FOR — they’re constructs meant to serve the interest of their particular publics. They aren’t human beings endowed with (one hopes) conscience. If our governments won’t stand up for us, nothing will, as has sadly been the case lately.

    All this damn One-World-ism is a construct designed to put transnational predators at the top of the food chain everywhere, forever. If we lose national sovereignty, mere individuals will be slaves without recourse to the transaction that created states in the first place: the social contract, remember?

  • Nathan Biddle

    From each man according to his ability and to each man according to his need! That concept would stop all selfishness, everyone would work to care for the good of those around them and the system would be nearly perfect.
    Has that concept ever been implemented with successful results in any country?….If so, please let me know, it must be a paradise in those types of civilizations where everyone only thinks of helping others, never putting themselves first.

  • Dick Burkhart

    Right on! Complexity and Evolutionary Theory work together and provide a solid basis for high performing, real work economics. And these will be sustainable too if you add Limits-to-Growth theory.

  • chris goodwin

    I come late to the discussion. BUT, I can swiftly cut through the [email protected], and put this thesis to rest. Professor Wilson say: “My Nation First! is no better than Me First!” (modified punctuation, sorry) This is quite true. He could equally have said, “My Nation First! is no worse than “Me First!” The two statements are morally very similar, with only differences in the emphasis placed on responsibility, for one’s own economy of for the political economy. But in both cases, self interest and altruism are not contradictory, but complementary. If I happen to want to help a pregnant old boy scout across the street, that is my selfish interest in getting a minor part in a good joke: any help received by said boy scout is possibly the result of my altruism, but I was being selfish all along. Selfish activity can, and frequently does, help others. See Adam Smith’s Butcher, his Baker and his Vintner – all selfish (unscrupulous, greedy, grasping, filthy capitalistic exploitative swine, I’ll be bound – actually that last is only put in to please the stoooopid [email protected]@dy marxists who like to hear that kind of thing: rational people will recall that Smith did not abuse his suppliers.)

    So, Professor Wilson, you can sound off all you like on matters Anthropological, Biological, Envionmental and Socially Judicial – such being your forte – but kindly refrain from making economic howlers. If this is to be a contribution to “The Next Evolution of Economics,” it bodes very ill for future economic development: not that the latest thing in Political Economy is all that impressive, anyway.

  • Has Wilson learned anything from the comments here? When will he place his well-earned understanding of biological evolution (unplanned, non-centralized, emergence of useful characteristics in organisms) in the service of understanding cultural evolution (unplanned, non-centralized, emergence of ideas, technologies, organizations)? His evolutionary concepts and his economic concepts do not mesh at all in my mind.

  • Evolution, differential survival of variants in different contexts, can produce extremely complex outcomes.

    Many different factors about the context of evolution are important.

    If evolution was all about the individual, we couldn’t exist, because each of us individuals is the result of a vast colony of cells operating cooperatively (some 100 trillion cells in each of us).
    Each of those cells may share the same basic genome, but how it gets expressed in different contexts leads to differences as great as liver cells, brain cells, skin cells, immune cells, etc (aspects of a modern economy anyone?).
    Within the context of the body, cells do not compete for nutrients, they exist in an environment where all their basic needs are met (not so common in modern economies).

    As soon as there is sexual mixing of genetic material, populations can have characteristics very similar to individuals, and selection can and does happen at multiple levels simultaneously, and at every level is sensitive to the contexts (including boundaries and pressures) present at that level.

    Looked at purely in a strategic sense, one can categorise the different sorts of strategies present into two broad sets – competitive and cooperative.
    Which set is most successful depends very much on the context present.

    In contexts where there are sufficient resources for all, cooperative strategic systems will always deliver greater benefits than competitive systems, provided that there are sufficient secondary strategies present to detect and remove cheating strategies – as pure cooperation is always vulnerable to being overwhelmed by cheats (think immune systems to fight caner and invading organisms). Cooperation is stable only when a sufficient set of attendant strategies are present. This can be observed in many levels of biology and culture – if one takes the time to look.

    So the idea of individual selfishness can be a successful strategy if the context is one that does not have sufficient resources for all.
    Market based economic systems, in and of their own internal sets of incentives, impose competitive environments on most people. From the large systems perspective, this is a high risk strategy for all.

    If markets are used as a tool, within a higher strategic framework that is fundamentally cooperative, and ensures that all individuals have sufficient resources to do whatever they responsibly choose (where responsibility has many levels of both social and ecological contexts), then we can deliver outcomes that work for all that are far safer and more productive than any possible competitive system.
    The logic of Games Theory and its further abstractions is clear on that.

    Technology has the power to produce more with less faster than our population has been doubling, and can continue to do that for a while yet, and we are approaching the limits of what can be done within the energy budgets of this planet, and what most would consider reasonable degrees of freedom and resources.

    Fully automated systems have the potential to use sunlight and mass from off planet to create orbiting habitats that could provide vast amounts of surface area, energy and resources for any groups that wish to continue high rates of reproduction, and even then, physical limits imposed by the speed of light are only a couple of millennia away, so the absolute need to limit reproduction cannot be escaped for long.

    Coming back to David’s topic of this essay more directly, he is essentially correct in a sense. And that sense is that exclusively short term self interest at any level is counter to long term self interest at all levels – that is logic 101.

    Of course we all need to ensure our own survival at all levels, and the most effective way to do that is to act cooperatively towards all others if there is a context of sufficient resources for all.

    And such cooperation cannot be naive cooperation, we must start with a large set of strategies to detect cheating and remove any benefit and bring the transgressor back to cooperation at the highest level (as per Ostrom et al).

    And we also need to devote significant resources to exploring new sets of strategies for detecting cheating – thus reinforcing the old adage, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

    And yes, we all have our competitive natures, and we can all find healthy contexts for the expression of those natures, be it on the golf course, the rugby field, at the bridge club, or where-ever.

    And the numbers and the logic are clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that if any of us want a reasonable probability of living a very long time, then we must be within a context that at the highest levels is cooperative, delivers relative abundance to all, and has as its highest value set individual life and individual liberty (both of those within responsible social and ecological contexts).

    Markets, for all their complexity, are fundamentally predicated on scarcity, and in and of their own incentive structures tend to deliver relative scarcity to the majority – that cannot be stable. We need attendant strategies to counter that. Some sort of universal basic income seems to me to be probably the most effective transition strategy, given the many different levels of systems present in our modern financial economy.

  • Mark Sloan

    David, I really like “Our World First!” as a response to “My Nation First!”

    “My Nation First!” is worse than just counterproductively making us worse off. On a finite earth, “My Nation First!” will kill us all.

  • BetterFailling

    I’m afraid the opposite of altruism is egocentrism, not ‘reasonable’ selfishness.