Sunday, May 13, 2007

Evolution and Protectionism

In the Washington Post, the Cato Institute's Paul Rubin argues that popular support for protectionism and opposition to immigration is rooted in evolutionary psychology:
Our primitive ancestors lived in a world that was essentially static; there was little societal or technological change from one generation to the next. This meant that our ancestors lived in a world that was zero sum -- if a particular gain happened to one group of humans, it came at the expense of another.

This is the world our minds evolved to understand. To this day, we often see the gain of some people and assume it has come at the expense of others. Economists have argued for more than two centuries that voluntary trade, whether domestic or international, is positive sum: it benefits both parties, or else the exchange wouldn't occur. Economists have also long argued that the economics of immigration -- immigrants coming here to exchange their labor for money that they then exchange for the products of other people's labor -- is positive sum. Yet our evolutionary intuition is that, because foreign workers gain from trade and immigrant workers gain from joining the U.S. economy, native-born workers must lose.

At the Economist's Free Exchange Blog, Will Wilkinson has some questions:

Evolutionary psychology helps illuminate why we have a tendency to in-group/out-group thinking, and why we are unlikely to grasp the nature of an ever-growing surplus from cooperation. But, as far as I can tell, it does little to help us understand why we draw the in-group/out-group boundaries where we do. Trade and immigration, as political issues, embody nationalist assumptions -- people and goods going over political boundaries. But the modern nation state is a new idea: there were no nation states in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. And the modern nation state is vastly larger than the cooperative coalitions for which we are likely evolutionarily adapted. There is something distinctly unnatural about nation-level coalitions. The interesting question to me is how it is that we have come to see the co-members of our nation states as members of the relevant in-group. Iowans don't get testy when Minnestotans move in, but Texans get cranky about Mexicans? Why is that? People in Delaware don't fret a lot about their jobs being outsourced to South Dakota. Why not?


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