Women and Drug Legalization

At the risk of reviving the libertarian misogyny bogeyman, I’ll quote an interesting post from Laura Greenback on why women are on average more opposed to the legalization of marijuana:

What could it be? Why would women shy away from this cause? Do men use marijuana more? Do women just hide it better?

When I asked my girlfriends about it, a college roommate suggested that the feminist attitude that got us where we are today works against us when it comes to issues like marijuana policy. We feel the pressure to be seen as strong workers and perfect mothers, so we shy away from getting behind something our coworkers and PTA members might see as “out there.” (…)

Of course, it’s harder for those of us who are role models for children. I’m a mentor of a teenage girl. When I started at MPP, I worried about being a bad influence. But whenever I worry, I think about how empowered she was when I took her to a self-defense class, or how much fun we had riding roller coasters at Six Flags.

When it came up, we talked about how she is too young to try marijuana because her brain is still developing. I told her that medical marijuana helps sick people, and that I am working to keep good people out of jail.

It’s a tougher call for mothers. My own sister told me her husband didn’t want their kids around me at first. But they chilled out, and the kids still call me Aunt Laura and beg me to help them make mini-documentaries on their flip cam.

I think that’s exactly right: women are more likely than men to signal social solidarity through their policy preferences. My guess is that this can be explained with evolutionary theory, but, whatever the reason, it seems to hold empirically.  If women are more communitarian, libertarians would do well to focus on the communitarian aspects of libertarianism. Women aren’t anti-libertarian in any substantive sense; but libertarianism has an understandable but undeserved reputation for antisocial abstract individualism.

Evolution, Entertainment, and the Socialist Calculation Debate

Eric Crampton is justly worried that the God-Game genre, typified by SimCity and Civilization, fills people with technocratic hubris, giving rise to the fatal conceit that a benevolent planner can actively improve the lives of citizens through direct intervention. He quotes a review of the new game Dawn of Discovery which complains that the complexity of running an entire society doesn’t make for interesting gameplay:

Naturally, as your population grows, so too does the amount of each good that the population consumes, but there’s no clear way to determine just how many tons of a particular good your residents require. This makes it needlessly difficult to anticipate upcoming shortages, and it’s easy to get frustrated when you find yourself in the midst of a dairy crisis or similar shortage that could have been avoided with clearer information regarding supply and demand.

As Eric points out, any planner in the real world would face even more serious problems. The sheer complexity of social and economic life makes large-scale planning impossible:

If you as central planner don’t build things like airports, ports, libraries, universities, temples or a colosseum, they just don’t get built. If your workers don’t build farms and mines, no entrepreneur steps in to do it. In SimCity, or at least the version I played more than a decade ago now, you have to specify rigid zoning and can’t just let the city evolve. Unfortunately, any realistic game that requires the central planner to make all of these decisions will require that we encounter the calculation problem; it’s neat to see the game reviewer complaining about it. Of course, the gaming would be a bit more boring for the player if he could just set some basic laws, a low tax rate, and try to stay on good terms with the other civilizations out there: the game is designed to maximize fun for the player, not to maximize utility for the simulated persons within the game. The more that games disguise the inefficiencies caused by the “economic planning” approach, the less will today’s players appreciate Hayek.

I think that’s dead right, and also applies to any form of entertainment with a macro-social setting. We enjoy playing games with relatively simple cause-and-effect dynamics because our minds evolved to deal with simple cause-and-effect situations. Most of the challenges we faced in our ancestral environment, and continue to face in our everyday lives today, involve overcoming a particular problem without much need to be concerned about unintended consequences.

A society at large, though, doesn’t work this way, but is instead a complex system in which results emerge from the interaction of many individuals pursuing their disparate goals. Any attempt to improve outcomes through top-down intervention is just as likely to make matters worse. There is conflict between our folk economics and reality and, when we want to be entertained, folk economics always wins: nobody wants to play a game in which the only winning move is not to play, or read a book with no protagonist.

The availability heuristic means that consuming stories of active characters changing the macrostructure of the world singlehandedly through sheer grit and determination is likely to bias our perceptions of reality. The ease of imagining some situation, for example, seems to affect its perceived likelihood. Since entertainment does our imagining for us, it will likely bias our models of the world.

While many fictional biases are likely to affect our everyday lives (by making us afraid of terrorists, for example), technocratic hubris and the “Great Man” theory of history probably don’t matter most of the time. Where they could plausibly have an effect is in the political realm, biasing both voter preferences towards statism and giving policymakers too much faith in their own technocratic abilities. Unfortunately, politics provides no incentives for the correction of our biases.

Moral Panic and the Availability Heuristic

It is now conventional wisdom that many of our problems are the result of living in an environment very different from the one in which we evolved. A food-scarce environment favoured gorging ourselves on energy-dense food, life in small tribes favoured suspicion of outsiders and an environment in which threats were predominantly physical favoured a ‘fight or flight’ response to stress. These behavioural dispositions tailored to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) have deleterious consequences for people in the environments which they now live, at least in the western world. Obesity, racism, violence, and the physical symptoms of stress seem at least in part a result of our adaptation to the EEA.

Our anachronistic behaviour harms us not only in our day-to-day activities, but also insofar as our stone-age minds determine our political preferences. Just as we have an intuitive folk physics and folk psychology, we also have a folk economics which enables us to do folk policy analysis. One political phenomenon I think maladaptive heuristics can illuminate is the prevalence of moral panics.

Tversky and Kahneman taught us that humans make use of various cognitive shortcuts when making decisions. One of these is the availability heuristic – the tendency to judge the frequency of a phenomenon by how easily it can be brought to mind. This obviously depends on how often we have experienced or heard about something, and also on its salience and ease of imagination. Further, it seems that our estimates of probability and specifically risk are shaped by emotional rather than simply cognitive factors. It is largely our visceral response which determines our evaluation of different risks.

A likely factor in explaining the availability heuristic is our evolution in an environment of small groups. In such an environment, the availability of first- or second-hand accounts of an event would have been a fairly reliable guide to its true probability, since people would personally experience, or at least know those who do, almost everything which happens in the knowable world. Making a statistical study of the number of deaths from spider bites in the past year would do little to improve the estimate gained from casual reflection using the availability heuristic, and would take much more effort. The heuristic would not be perfect even in the small-group EEA, but would nevertheless be preferable to precise calculation when cognitive resources and time are taken into account.

The world we live in today is very different from the EEA. Not only do we deal with many more people in our daily lives, but also get information through the mass media and see fictional events on television. This wildly different environment makes the availability heuristic a much less reliable guide to assessing risk. When we watch the news on television, the information we are presented with is not a balanced sample of everything that happened that day. We are interested in hearing about major and unusual events, rather than routine drudgery. We thus see aircraft crashing more often than cars, people dying of exotic contagious diseases more often than of heart disease and dogs on surfboards more often than dogs not on surfboards. Using the availability heuristic in this environment biases our estimates of the frequency of these events.

Situations which are easy to imagine come more easily to mind and are thus deemed more likely. For example, in an experiment in which people were asked to imagine spending a three week period suffering from a disease, those who were given easily imaginable symptoms such as muscle-aches and low energy thought themselves much more likely to catch the disease than those who were given difficult to imagine symptoms such as an inflamed liver. Fiction, especially if we see events played out in front of us on television, makes the events more available by effectively doing the work of imagination for us, we are likely to attach a higher probability to events we often encounter in fictional worlds. No rational person would treat fictional events as statistical data about the real world, but that’s what we are unconsciously doing with the availability heuristic.

The way this plays out with moral panics is pretty straightforward. A particularly salient event will focus people upon a particular issue. Media coverage of the issue will then increase to satisfy the public’s newfound curiosity. The increased availability of examples of the phenomenon will upwardly bias our estimates of its probability, and we will see a growing problem where in fact there isn’t one. It’s not hard to find examples which fit this pattern: concerns over particular types of crime at various times; the ‘spate of dog attacks’ New Zealand had a few years ago; and, most destructively, the sudden increase in the risk of terrorism following 9/11.

I think people would react irrationally to these sorts of risks under any set of political institutions, but the sort of democratic totalism we have in western countries today seems particularly apt to produce moral panics through the availability heuristic. Not only does collective choice remove the feedback we require to learn from our mistakes, it also encourages the politicization of issues which can lead to group polarization. Human decision-making is never perfect, but political decision-making is pretty much always worse. This is why I buy the positive basis of behavioural economics, but reject just about all of the purported policy consequences.

An Evolutionary Theory of Overprotective Parents

Salon has an interview (hat tip: Unqualified Offerings) with Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, a new book arguing that parents should give their kids more freedom to do things on their own. I completely agree with this idea (though I’m not a parent, and wouldn’t bet against my opinion changing if I were to have kids). From my own experience and talking to others, it seems like there’s been a huge shift in parental attitudes in recent years. This demands an explanation. The change has to be at least partly cultural, with child-abduction and paedophilia apparently becoming more salient since I was a kid. I think part of it can also be explained by simple evolutionary theory and economics.

The human mind evolved in an environment of dire poverty and extreme danger compared to that we live in today. The difference between the Pleistocene and modern society can explain many of the political problems we face today. I think one important factor is the difference in the budget constraint we face for certain goods now compared to then. It’s now the conventional wisdom that people overeat and get today because it was once adaptive to eat as much as possible, and so we have a strong motivation to seek food. People didn’t overeat because they did not have access to that much food. The marginal evolutionary benefit of food decreases as we consume more of it, and eventually becomes negative. In the environment of adaptation, though, the peak of the food-fitness funtion was never relevant, and so evolution did not take it into account. Taking a good thing to excess was not specifically programmed out, since scarcity had already taken care of it.

I think there’s something similar going on with overprotective parents. My guess that the relationship between the evolutionary fitness (as well as personal lifetime wellbeing) of a child and the degree to which it is protected by its parents is, like that fitness-food function, positive and decreasing at first, but negative above some threshold. In the environment of adaptation, there were many dangers and protecting kids all the time would have been extremely costly. This could have meant that the peak of the fitness-protection function was similarly never reached, and evolution programmed us to simply protect our children whenever the costs are not overwhelmingly high. Since the world is now a much safer place, and it’s much cheaper (relative to our incomes) to keep an eye on our children with cellphones, GPS, nannies, and fortified backyards, we satiate ourselves with child-protection to a degree which ends up harming our children rather than helping them.

I’m not quite sure whether this explanation works. I don’t think it can explain the huge difference in parental behaviour between between now and twenty years ago, when child protection was almost as cheap as it is today. Wild evolutionary speculation, however, is its own reward.