Political ideologies as optimization strategies

By Razib Khan | June 19, 2012 10:36 pm

Chris Mooney’s latest book has got me thinking about the nature of political ideology. One of the major insights from works such as The Origin and Evolution of Cultures is that human societies can adapt and map themselves upon the environment with a few simple heuristics. A primary dynamic by which group behaviors propagate and enforce themselves is the do-what-my-neighbor-does rule-of-thumb. Obviously this is not always optimal. Sometimes it is needful to think for oneself. But thinking for oneself is cognitively expensive. Doing what everyone else does is cheap. Figuring out what you want to do for yourself is time consuming, and requires deliberation. There are analogies here between “hard & fast” reflexive cognition, and “slow & deliberate” reflective cognition.


A rough behavioral ecological truism is that the returns on tracking the environment, rather than simply doing what you and everyone else has always done, is contingent upon the rate of change in the environment. In a world of stasis there’s no game in tracking the environment, and bringing out the lumbering by versatile guns of rational cognition and general intelligence. In contrast, in a world with a moderate amount of change the “old ways” can become a hindrance, and thinking smarter & harder can yield some major gains in fitness. But what about a very rapidly changing world? Here the logic can become perverse: in a very protean environment it is often best to just stick with what you know, instead of trying to adapt. That’s because adaptation is expensive, and often a total disaster if the environment switches again.

From this I predict that liberalism will tend to flourish in societies with continuous moderate levels of change. Societies characterized by stasis on the other hand will tend toward conservatism as the optimal adaptive strategy. Finally, societies riven by revolution and flux may actually be relatively illiberal, with social mores hidebound. I think this is roughly born out. Russia and China and many of the ex-Communist nations are actually relatively socially conservative today, and often look back to older moral-philosophical systems (the exceptions, such as the Czech Republic, were liberal to begin with). But one aspect of the model here which I think needs further exploration is that the strategy itself is liable to impact the rate of change of the environment, and therefore generate a positive feedback loop. Liberals drive moderate cultural and political change. Conservatives resist it. The main “wild card” occurs in the case of revolutions, which can have unintended consequences as societies seek a new equilibrium.


Comments (5)

  1. I actually looked at the origin of political ideology in detail, with at least with respect to fertility rates and the impact of territorial expansion. See here:

    Lberalism, HBD, Population, and Solutions for the Future | JayMan’s Blog

    The level of inbreeding likely has an impact on social conservativism (as with the case of Russia and China). Modern day Western liberals do seem to originate from areas where there has been some gradual change (say, between the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Industrial Era), but there does seem to a stronger relationship between recent territorial expansion and conservativism. I’m not sure how much stability is a factor, though I’d guess stability for one generation to the next is important for pioneers.

  2. zach

    More than cognitive costs, the physical dangers of not identifying with a protective group – by affiliating with the group’s brand – is very expensive.

  3. J

    A thought-provoking post, thank you.

    ” But what about a very rapidly changing world? Here the logic can become perverse: in a very protean environment it is often best to just stick with what you know, instead of trying to adapt. ”

    This makes sense, are there any good examples from biology?

    Recent history in the Middle East also seem to validate your thesis.

    I think in the United States we may be approaching the breaking points of the positive liberal feedback loop, as the change pushed by liberal activists becomes more and more decoupled from what everyone else has culturally digested (however perhaps only my own biases are talking here). The question is will their be a soft landing, with liberalism merely becoming significantly less ambitious, or is there a chance for cultural “revolution” and subsequent snap back to something more in line with historical norms.

  4. Tom Bri

    #3 You bring up a point I am interested in. If Razib is right about the effects of rate of change, at what point do we go too far with liberal change and have a reaction? Middle class whites in the US have already gone a long way towards abandoning our liberal party, other than those groups such as teachers who are directly in the pay of government and so benefit personally from liberal policies. The other interest groups will also probably stick with it as long as the money from above keeps flowing.

  5. Karl Zimmerman

    I’m not sure I see how disposition towards change has anything to do with U.S. politics.

    The foundations of modern-day U.S. policy were founded by the New Deal/Great Society. Democrats, within the U.S. context – argue as policy conservatives – they want to retain as much of the status quo as possible, or make changes very gradual. Only the very far left (in active politics anyway) argues for any further expansion of the welfare state.

    In contrast, the Republicans have been the ones, at least in the area of economics, setting the agenda and pushing change since at least 1980 (I’d argue they actually succeeded in taking the national zeitgeist even before, in the mid 1970s). Virtually every move in terms of economic/fiscal policy has been a move to their new vision, and away from the traditional conception of American society.

    In addition, for the most part social change, which has drifted the U.S. in a leftward fashion, has not been driven by politicians, but by social movements and the media. Elected Democrats only make statements in support of new socially progressive ideas when a clear majority accept them.

    Thus he Democrats are moderate conservatives in the Burkean sense, who seek to gradually change economic and social policy to reflect evolving social and economic norms. While I’m not sure that the Republicans could be called policy liberals (except perhaps classical liberals, in some cases on economics), they call for much greater changes in American society (some backwards looking, some ideas never actually tested), making them less conservative and more similar to radicals.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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