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.