One of the fascinating discussions at the Mont Pelerin Society conference has been about the role of evolutionary psychology and its role in shaping public thinking about economic issues. Paul Rubin of Emory University spoke on this issue at the conference and, coincidentally, also had a column about the topic last week in the Wall Street Journal. As seen in the excerpt below, he discusses Hayek’s insight about our “biological constitution” and then proceeds to discuss the unfortunate tendency of many people to think that the economy is a fixed pie. This point resonates with me. If asked to identify one common characteristic of the leftists I know, my response would be that they incorrectly think one person must become poor for another person to become rich. Even when I show them data proving that this is false, their brains are hard-wired to think that total wealth is limited and that redistribution is the only way to improve the living standards of the less fortunate.
While Hayek is perhaps best known for his 1944 critique of government economic planning, “The Road to Serfdom,” he also was a pioneer in realizing that the evolutionary history of the human species was a factor for understanding current political and economic beliefs. In “The Fatal Conceit” (1988), Hayek wrote that “man’s instincts . . . were not made for the kinds of surroundings, and for the numbers, in which he now lives. They were adapted to life in the small roving bands or troops in which the human race and its immediate ancestors evolved during the few million years while the biological constitution of homo sapiens was being formed.” His insight anticipated the modern field of study called evolutionary psychology, which explains current belief systems as being based in part on our evolutionary history. …humans tend towards zero-sum thinking. That is, we do not intuitively understand the possibilities of economic growth or the benefits of trade in achieving it. Our ancestors lived in a static world with little intertribal trade and virtually no technological advance. That is the world our minds understand. This doesn’t mean that we can’t grasp the crucial concept that trade benefits both parties to a transaction—but it does mean that we must learn it. Positive-sum thinking doesn’t come naturally. By analogy, we learn to speak with no teaching, but we must be taught to read. Understanding the mutual benefits of exchange is like reading, not speech.