Free Content: The Washington Post publishes economist Paul H. Rubin’s op-ed “Evolution, Immigration, and Trade” explaining why all us patriotic Neanderthals aren’t as intellectually evolved as him and his fellow transnationalist economists:
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 …
[O]ur 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. This zero-sum thinking leads us to see trade and immigration as conflict (“trade wars,” “immigrant invaders”) when trade and immigration actually produce cooperation and mutual benefit, the exact opposite of conflict.
In the Comments on EconLog, Mark Seecof unloads:
Mark Seecof writes: Rubin shows how desperately some economists wish to reinforce their ideological position by borrowing ideas from other disciplines. Sadly, Rubin shows that stealing a few buzzwords from another discipline isn’t the same as drawing real understanding from it.
Rubin wants to hitch his no-borders wagon to evolutionary psychology, but hasn’t read much of it–or he would have learnt that humans are capable (have evolved to be capable) of a variety of more or less selfish or cooperative behaviours. He would also have learnt that groups of humans scattered around the world are very different in capabilities, attitudes, and behaviours and that many of those differences are genetically mediated (that is, they cannot be altered much by economic education).
Rubin’s supposition that a world with little sociological or technical change must be one of zero-sum economics is false. All of recorded history abounds with examples to the contrary and anthropologists will testify to the eagerness with which many peoples have traded with outsiders–even in eras of “little change.”
Equally false is Rubin’s supposition that everyone is really the same, so people viewing others as members of (in- or out-groups) is arbitrary. Evolution depends on differences–it cannot act without them–so any economist who wishes to draw on evolutionary theory must acknowledge and account for real differences among people.
At the same time, evolutionary pressures (almost certainly) cause people to vary their amount of cooperation with their degree of kinship. Cooperative phenotypes act on socially-mediated pseudo-kinship as well as actual genetic kinship. It’s not hard to get people to cooperate, if you persuade them to treat each other as kin. In fact, that’s the point of the Golden Rule.
Look, Rubin’s own discipline can explain why many people want to restrict trade. Those who wish to restrict trade are those who expect, personally, to gain by such restrictions! Economists often call them “rent seekers” and they include producers and merchants more often than “common folk.” Does the term “Corn Laws” mean anything to you? Rubin’s op-ed falsely suggests that the prejudices of ordinary voters result in trade restrictions, but anyone who looks into the matter will discover that industrial interests drive lawmaking in this area. Virtually every restriction on trade in the USA is a triumph by rent-seeking incumbents in some industry.
We can theorize both “classical economic” and “evo-psych” reasons why people would like to restrict immigration.
For the first, people who will personally suffer from immigration (that is, to a first approximation, workers rather than employers) would like to restrict it. This is not irrational, because (Rubin’s purely ideological assertion to the contrary notwithstanding), economic gains from immigration are not evenly distributed. (Note that demands by particular industries to import cheap labor, regardless of externalities, may properly be regarded as a form of rent-seeking.)
As for the second, evo-psych predicts people would be wary of immigration, because most immigrants are not kin (note that this theory perfectly explains the special case of people favoring immigration from their own ancestral regions). Evo-psych predicts, on a very strong basis, that people would rather preserve the economic bounty where they are for their own kin.
Even an economist must agree that (a) immigrants themselves only move because they expect to be better off in their new homes than their old, and (b) once they arrive they will compete with natives for existing economic resources. To genes competing in evolution’s rat-race, there is no reason to help immigrants better themselves, and every reason to discourage local competition from immigrants.
It’s true that immigrants may help expand economic resources–in a society where greater availability of labor fuels economic expansion. However, the notion, oft-repeated by economists, that labor availability necessarily fuels industrial expansion is obviously false (if it were true, Bangladesh would be rich).
History shows that industrial economic growth depends on high-IQ labor, and is retarded where chiefly low-IQ labor is available no matter how cheaply. Since IQ is at least 60% heritable, only an ideologically-blinded economist would suppose that unlimited immigration by low-IQ people would certainly fuel economic expansion. In fact, there are strong economic reasons to think otherwise, because in the presence of many low-IQ people, society diverts the labor of many high-IQ people from industry to simply managing (or exploiting) the low-IQ crowds.
An economist who really wants to reconcile his discipline with evolutionary psychology should ask “why should people follow abstract theories rather than behave in the ways that promoted the survival of countless generations of their ancestors?” He should then return to Rubin’s notion of education, but educate people to discern rent-seeking proposals and oppose them.
As for immigration, once the economist clears his mind of the notion that all immigration is an unalloyed blessing, he can promote a rational policy of encouraging immigration only by people who would promote the industrial economy. Those people could/would be accepted as “kin” and so engage our evolved capacity for cooperation.
The one area of economics which has been pretty-much zero-sum from ancient times right up through today is competition for land.
Even if you slept through everything else I wrote you should agree that to the extent immigrants compete for land, they really are zero-sum competitors and a rational economic actor would seek to exclude them, the more vigorously as he cared more about land. In former times when many people depended directly on their own land for their own and their family’s subsistence, both “economic” and “evo-psych” reasons would teach them to oppose immigration.
Only those parts of our modern industrialized economy for which land is not a major factor of production can look upon immigration with complacency. You shouldn’t expect (reasonable, as opposed, say, to Marxist) “economic education” to persuade other people to irrationally favor immigrants entering a zero-sum competition for land. This is probably why people readily see non-kin immigrants as “invaders.” For all time, a bunch of non-kin moving into the area meant greater (zero-sum) competition for food, because food was directly proportional to land. So immigrants are invaders.
Today a bunch of immigrants means zero-sum competition for pleasant suburban homes. This is why rich people who want low-wage immigrants to serve them favor immigration and everyone else in America rationally opposes it.