You Hate the State, But Do You Hate Politics? How Self Deception and Coalitions Affect Society
By Shanu Athiparambath - March 14, 2018

Our ancestors weren’t nice people. They kept slaves, looked forward to wars and sent people to concentration camps. It is easy to dismiss them as moral retards, but that would be setting the bar way too low. Slavery is bad, war is violence, and sending people to concentration camps isn’t very nice. Blacks, Jews, and foreigners are not ambiguous classes of people, and violence is unambiguously wrong.

It takes no particular sophistication to see how cruel our ancestors were. But it takes remarkable insight to see such cruelty hidden in plain sight today.

Libertarians are fairly good at seeing cruelty others miss. We see taxation as theft, war as murder and citizenship as slavery. We aren’t naïve enough to think everything will be fine if we have a good president at the helm.

But we make a huge, comparable mistake. We assume the market is a great restraining force against fraud and deception. Now it is true that certain forms of deception are checked by the market. But this is not true of many other forms of deception. There is a real sense in which the market values the ability to deceive. Libertarians are blind to this, at their own peril.

Politics in Business

When I dropped out of college and started working, I couldn’t help seeing that deception is the norm, even in private organizations. There was so much that could have been done so much better, but wasn’t being done because of political reasons. In my experience, organizations reward prudent predation. What is going on?

Economist Robin Hanson answers such puzzles more satisfactorily than anybody else. In any large organization, there are coalitions which compete for limited resources. Coalition politics is vicious, and a major reason why firms are inefficient.

But human nature being what it is, it is impossible to do away with coalition politics. The most firms can do to achieve coordination is to allow powerful coalitions to take over, attract the best allies, and shift policy in their favor.

This explains many related puzzles too. As Hanson points out, employees who telecommute are at a political disadvantage because they’re not very useful to strong coalitions. So, they’re paid less. Not surprisingly, telecommuting hasn’t caught on, despite the huge potential savings in office space, housing costs, fuel and commute times. But this is something you won’t find in a textbook on urban economics.

There’s more to cities and firms than it meets the eye.

Self-deception is at the root of many such puzzles.

We are viciously political, and this is the biggest moral issue of our times. The state is just a manifestation of this tendency.

Why do so many economists and libertarians miss this? We judge everybody based on certain assumptions about human nature. These assumptions are so terribly wrong.

So we make wrong judgments about everybody, including ourselves. We judge others charitably, in order to judge our own motives more charitably. We don’t see our own motives too clearly because that makes it easier to manipulate others.

I think economists and libertarians miss this because they are strategically blind to many human motives. We are not likely to look for something if we don’t suspect that it exists.

We are strategically blind to our own motives because we are political.

This is the central idea of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s recently published book, The Elephant in the Brain. Human behavior is driven by multiple motives. Some of these are unconscious, but elephant-sized motivesDrawing on the work of Robert Trivers, Christopher Boehm, Thomas Schelling, Frans de Waal and others, they look into the deep conflict between what we say and what we do.
Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University, has been blogging about cognitive biases for over a decade, at Overcoming Bias. He is a rare social scientist who thinks about morality as though it really matters. Kevin Simler, his millennial co-author, is known for his long, deep essays on everything from advertising to cognitive biases on his blog, Melting Asphalt.

Why is it so important to understand what our minds are up to?

We know good policies change the world. We take pride in holding accurate political beliefs. But all this is easy. True virtue isn’t so easyIt’s really hard to do the right thing at home, at the workplace, and in other human groups.

We rant against Obamacare and Trumpcare. But if a hospital fires a nurse for reporting doctors who don’t wash their hands, are her colleagues likely to campaign in her favor? The fact is we’re more capable of changing the institutions we work for than Obamacare or Trumpcare. But to do this, we really need to understand why we do what we do.

Some implications of the thesis of The Elephant in the Brain, may change the way we look at social sciences and help us see how to really leave others alone.

The Elephant in the Brain

Think about this. Democracy is the most popular form of government. Most intellectuals are admirers of democracy. But workplace politics has a bad press. There is near-unanimous agreement that workplace politics is a terrible thing.

Yet, democratic politics is scrutinized in detail. There is a large body of literature analyzing how democracy makes the world less efficient. Economics is defined in many ways, as a way of understanding human behavior, as an inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, and as the science of production, distribution, and consumption of wealth.

But by any meaningful definition, it’s hard to ignore the many ways in which office insanity lowers productivity, making everybody worse off. So why do economists give undue importance to the state?

Marxists and progressives claim workers are exploited. Libertarians and economists respond saying they’re paid the value of their marginal product, explaining how cooperation makes everybody better off. This is true so far as it goes. But is that all there is to this?

It’s true that human beings cooperate, specialize, and trade their produce. But as Robin and Kevin point out, humans also connive, form alliances and compete for positions and resources they don’t always deserve. People bring to the workplace not just their skills, drive, and discipline, but also their faults and foibles.

This is very much a zero-sum game. There are net winners and net losers. If anti-capitalists are honestly looking for atrocities to put down, why don’t they bring this up? If libertarians truly hate politics, why doesn’t this bother them? What if libertarianism isn’t about liberty?

Privilege is a thorny topic. A common assumption is that you’re privileged if you’re white, male, heterosexual or wealthy. Even if these attributes make life easier, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s at the expense of others.

But this is not true of all human attributes. The Elephant in the Brain argues that self-deception allows us to pose as selfless while being selfish. The ability to deceive yourselves to deceive others is a skill that allows people to benefit at the expense of othersIf anything warrants the exhortation, “Check your privilege”, it is this.

As philosopher David Livingstone Smith notes:

The power to deceive is our main weapon in the struggle for social survival. Like it or not, without it, we are sheep in the company of wolves. Similarly, the power to read intentions from nonverbal expressions is our best safeguard against victimization by others. Without it, we are at their mercy.

Why aren’t social justice warriors outraged about this?

Such privilege is probably heritable. Assortative mating of tall men and beautiful women leads to an extrinsic correlation between height and attractiveness. Similarly, assortative mating of intelligent men and beautiful women leads to an extrinsic correlation between intelligence and attractiveness. In turn, this leads to a second-order extrinsic correlation between height and intelligence.

So isn’t it likely that intelligent people are also more politically skilled? What does that imply? 

Twin adoption studies depict the world as fairer than it is.

Ambiguous for a Reason

Ambiguity, the authors point out, is employed to hide our intentions from others.

Across the world, women are coming out with stories of how eminentoes touched them on their shoulders many decades ago. But as Kingsley R. Browne, a pioneer in the study of sexual harassment points out, a lot of “hostile environment” allegations are a result of miscommunication.

The nature of courtship and the need for continued association at the workplace encourage ambiguity. Ambiguity is bound to be there because of norms encouraging sexual modesty, and the fact that our ancestors were mating for millions of years before they started speaking.

But if ambiguity is often used to get away with something, as The Elephant in the Brain argues, it’s not clear why men should be causalities of this game. Why aren’t there hashtag campaigns against ambiguity? Both men and women benefit from ambiguity. But men and women who fail at using ambiguity to their advantage are likely to be at the losing end of this game. Are sexual harassment laws intended to punish such men?

Now, why would the need for continued association at workplace encourage ambiguity?

Ambiguity allows employees to effectively engage in, and coordinate unethical behavior. I think this is the most underrated reason why employers prefer employees with college degrees. College doesn’t teach many useful skills. As economist Bryan Caplan argues in his excellent book, The Case Against Education, employers prefer college graduates because they are more likely to be intelligent, conscientious, and willing to conform to expectations.

The Elephant in the Brain agrees with Caplan that signaling is the main reason why college pays. Of course, there are many legitimate reasons why employers expect employees to conform to expectations. But I think the real reason why it is so expensive to hire nonconformists is that they are more likely to be a political liability to coalitions which pursue illicit agendas.

Schooling teaches and reinforces conformity, group identification, and dependence on the group. Coalitions value these traits. As Satoshi Kanazawa and Alan S. Miller point out in Order by Accident, in Japan, students are expected to work extremely hard in school. They must do what they are told—or pay a huge price throughout their lives. The Japanese society is highly conformist, and represents an extreme case.

But the difference is just a matter of degree. In Japan, it’s really hard to get a good job without going to a good college. Similarly, it’s really hard to get a job once you’re fired. Lifetime employment is a lot more common. Highly skilled employees are more dependent on their employers. Violent crime is rare, but white collar crime is a lot more common. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Japan doesn’t perform as well as individualistic countries with a lot more crime. Japanese employees are significantly more likely to admit they are willing to follow questionable orders.

These are not unrelated facts. Japan is not an outlier here. Westerners are usually appalled by the corruption in India, but violent crimes are very rare. The schooling system in India is about as oppressive. Indian employers are more credentialist. These are all features of conformist cultures.

Schooling, in varying degrees of oppression, is intended to initiate children into a world where group ties, loyalty and “reciprocal exchange” are the norm. Schooling is also part of social control, which keeps violent crimes low and white collar crimes high. But it’s not just “white collar crimes” that are higher in conformist cultures. Crimes rooted in self-deception are also much higher. Self-deception pays more in cultures in which disagreeableness is punished severely and swiftly.

Employers value credentials so much, partly because firms are deviant subcultures. This also explains why firing aversion is real. Employers will never tell you one of the biggest reasons why they hate to fire. Their employees know too much—way too much.

The elephant in our brains seem big indeed, and this matters. Libertarians say they want people to leave each other alone. But to really leave others alone, we need to be acutely conscious of our motives. We need to see ourselves and others more clearly. To set man free from man, we ought to overcome our biases. 

You don’t have to play by the rules of the corrupt politicians, manipulative media, and brainwashed peers.

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  • jacob

    A breath of fresh air, this piece. Recognizing the nature of the beast, politics is less disappointing and more comprehensible. Humans are hard wired to deceive. It takes hard work to overcome this instinct. One’s greatest enemy stares at you in the mirror.

    • Don Duncan

      Instincts cannot be changed or “overcome”. But they, e.g., deception, are not good or bad in themselves. It’s how they are used. Lying in self-defense is a good thing. Lying to protect your property is rational. And everybody does it, consciously and unconsciously.

      What’s hard for some is consciously identifing actions with motive and reconciling any conflicts. The internal damage can be longtime and destroy self-esteem.

      • Ambiguity rules our lives

        As the Koran points out, lying to infidels is not only condoned, but virtuous. So lying is a virtue, depending on which end of the rope you’re on?

        • Randy

          Well, yes it is, in Islam, because Islam is NOT a real religion. Islam is an extremely violent political movement, which is trying in vain to disguise itself as a religion in order to gain an unearned and unjustified higher level of acceptance and status in societies. What REAL god would ever condone or encourage the murder of His or Her creations?? That is insanity at the worst level imaginable, for me anyway. Muslims are not typically smart enough to see even the simplest of truths which are right before their eyes. They can only operate on knee jerk reactions, not logical thought processes. That is why until the Westerners came along, they had not advanced in any sciences since Islam was invented by a murderous, child molesting psychopath. Islam stifles production of new ideas and progress. They became a stagnant society. Just look at the facts of Arab life for the proof.
          No bona fide religion would ever condone the atrocities that Islam promotes among its insane adherents, let alone promote them. From what I have observed, no one with an IQ above about 115 takes Islam seriously, unless they are an anti-social personality who gets thrills in hurting others for no reason. This is why there are no “moderate’ Muslims. A radical Muslim is one who wants to cut your head off for the smallest of reasons, and the “moderate” ones are willing to help or at best look the other way when it is done. None of them will dare to speak up against the acts of atrocity for fear of themselves coming under the blade as well.


        • Don Duncan

          All religions and the worldwide political paradigm are irrational. They are based on superstitions. Superstitous belief is faith based authoritarianism, not open to question. This does not mean that every “commanment” is wrong. One can start from a false premise and reach a true conclusion or an untrue conclusion. Starting from a valid premise, following logic, only truth can be reached.

      • Roger

        And right there is the problem,”Lying in self-defense is a good thing”. Morally bankrupt is the whole world. Lying is wrong you know it in your heart. There is no relativism here there are absolutes either we live by them on not. When one sees the evil within cannot be fixed and desires a remedy we then start to seek. There is only one way out for the lawbreaker, that lawbreaker must accept the pardon and change his ways according to the Law giver.

        • The victim of an aggressor has no moral obligation to tell truth to his/her aggressor. By the act of aggression, the aggressor has put himself outside of morality.

        • Don Duncan

          Roger, obviously you have chosen to follow “the Law giver” in morally. I choose my moral code by reason and logic. I do not blindly accept someone else’s morality. I embrace my life and take responsibility for my actions. I do not try to justify them by reference to a divine authority figure or any other authority. I am my own authority, however flawed, and I accept the consequences for my actions. Mistakes we make do not make us evil, but are guides to do better, to rethink our principles, our deepist beliefs.

          The superstitious equation of mistakes as a permanent flaw in our nature is irrational. It is a self-deprecating mistake. Ask youself this: If I make mistakes because I am incapable of doing otherwise with respect to morality, how can I chose an outside authority to follow and know that choice is not a mistake? A superstitious person, a person who rejects thinking for himself can’t avoid the consequenses of his choice by claiming he has found a perfect morality. By what standard did he choose? Feelings? Relief from the burden of thinking? One may avoid feeling guilty by following divine will but at what cost? Lives have been cut short or worse, lived in ignorance because of refusal to think for oneself. Rejection of your inate ability to think for yourself is rejection of what makes you human. It is anti-life as a human.

  • This is a rambling review of a book that seems heavily oriented toward Determinism.

  • Don Duncan

    If India and Japan are both collectivist, why does one produce more wealth? Is it the economic policies/laws? Would an individualist move from India to Japan for economic benefit? Can a conflict between civil and economic laws last or will one side eventually change the other?

  • Bruce C.

    Interesting piece but unfortunately diverse feedback isn’t welcome here.

    Get creative and see for yourselves.

  • Myron Goodrum

    The deception here is the professor’s views on politics, democracy and government when it comes to a “free market”.

  • Samarami

    I’d like to give this “professor” an assignment: rewrite this essay (and, presumably the book s/he is self-reviewing), and remove all use of collectivist pronouns “we”, “our” and “ourselves”. That would be a start, and a prodigious project..
    One might be capable of making this into a viable philosophy by understanding the nature of a true “free market” — not hindered by parasites hiding under the mantle of that brainless abstraction called “government”. Of course that’s virtually impossible, since none of us has seen complete, total anarchy. True freedom.
    In a totally free marketplace huge organizations would be very difficult to accomplish. We know them due to “incorporations”, regulations, et al. This calls for central political “authority”.
    Thus the inefficiency of office politics.
    I think it was Henry Ford who lamented that once any organization or business grows beyond the point where the owner (or “chief executive officer”) is not personally acquainted with the “lowest” worker or janitor, the organization begins to lose efficiency — and competitiveness. Middle management becomes the scourge of productivity. Sam

  • Roger

    The problem is Adam disobeyed and we are now all born speaking lies. We create our own deity and worship it in turn hating God. There is a way there, is a truth there is a life risen from the grave, He is a good place to start. He will open your eyes if you want to know or you may decide because He can fix all and you cannot you then hate Him even more, So whats it gonna be?