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The Politics of the Zombie Apocalypse - 2023
Per Scott Alexander it's possible that the right optimizes for survival, while the left optimizes for thriving. If so would a society entirely optimized around thriving actually function?
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So high is my esteem for Alexander that I started at the beginning and read everything he’s ever written. While doing that I was struck by his post A Thrive/Survive Theory of The Political Spectrum; in it he puts forth his own theory of how to explain the right/left, conservative/liberal divide:
...rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.
As an example of the rightist/survival mindset Alexander offers the example of a zombie apocalypse. A zombie apocalypse is a great way to arrive at most of the things supported by the right/survive side of the political equation.
You would want lots of guns.
You would be very suspicious of outsiders.
You would become very religious. (If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are definitely no atheists in foxholes surrounded by zombies.) Extreme black and white thinking would dominate. (Zombies are not misunderstood, they’re evil.) The list goes on, but you get the idea.
For the leftist/thrive side of the spectrum he offers the example of a future technological utopia:
Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. The laws of Nature have been altered to make crime and violence physically impossible (although this technology occasionally suffers glitches). Infinitely loving nurture-bots take over any portions of child-rearing that the parents find boring. And all traumatic events can be wiped from people’s minds, restoring them to a state of bliss. Even death itself has disappeared.
As you can imagine, you would probably get the exact opposite of the previous scenario. Guns would be nearly non-existent. If you don’t have to compete for resources and violence has been eliminated, most of the current objections to immigrants would be gone. Also, based on current trends in the developed world, it seems unlikely that religion would have much of a foothold. Nurture bots would make marriage largely vestigial. And so on and so forth.
I find his theory very compelling. It makes as much sense as any of the theories I have come across. It definitely gets at something real. Given that, what are the implications? To me this is where it really gets interesting.
The first thing to consider: which view of the future is more likely to be accurate? Will the future bring a technological utopia or a zombie apocalypse? I lean towards the zombie apocalypse, though as I mentioned way back in my very first post I think we’re more likely to see a gradual catabolic collapse than a Mad Max or Walking Dead scenario. Given that we can’t predict the future, what’s more important is not to try and guess what will happen, but rather to choose the course where the penalty for being wrong is the smallest.
In other words if the world prepares for disaster and instead we end up with robotic factories that produce everything we could possibly need, then it doesn’t matter that we’re wrong. Yes, we wasted some time and resources preparing for disaster, but in light of the eventual abundance it was a small price to pay. But if the world pins its hopes on robotic factories and we end up with roving zombies, our lack of preparedness results in death and destruction. Which I’m pretty sure is worse than wasting time and money.
Of course one might immediately make the argument that by preparing for disaster we could slow down or actually prevent the technological utopia. This argument deserves careful consideration. Generally, planning for A makes it harder to accomplish B. This is especially true if B is the opposite of A. On its face the argument would appear to be compelling. But is that actually the way things are playing out?
If we want robotic factories then we need to spend resources inventing them. More generally, the best way to guarantee a technological utopia is to put as many resources as we can into innovation. So how are our resources allocated? According to this chart 41% of US GDP goes to the government, not the first place you think of when the word innovation comes to mind. But it’s still possible that some innovation might emerge, but our robotic factory budget is pretty small. A large amount of money goes to entitlement spending, the area leftists are most desirous to expand and the area least likely to produce innovation. Arguably entitlement spending brings short-term thriving, but it doesn’t do anything for the long-term thriving Alexander envisions. And if we consider the long-term effect of debt and deficit they arguably make the long term prospects worse.
Of course there’s still the remaining 59% of the economy. It’s certainly conceivable that leftists could be so much better at encouraging innovation in that area of the economy that it makes up for whatever distortions they bring to the percent of GDP consumed by the government. On this count I see evidence going both ways. I think the generally laissez-faire attitude of the rightists is much better for encouraging innovation. On the other hand the hub of modern innovation is San Francisco, a notoriously leftist city.I would again say that rightists are better at encouraging innovation than leftists. Best case scenario I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a wash. Also, as our affluence increases the percentage of GDP that goes to the government also increases, which takes us back to the first argument.
Remember we don’t need to show that the rightest/survive faction is better at innovation, just that their focus on survivaldoesn’t fatally injure the prospects of the technological utopia, an assertion for which I don’t see any compelling evidence.
Thus far we have the survive/rightist side of the aisle being great as a just-in-case measure. Additionally it doesn’t slow down the thrive/leftist side and may actually speed it up. In fact at this point you may think that Alexander obviously created the post as a defense of rightism, and many of the commenters on his blog felt the same way, but that was not the case. Here’s his response:
…this post was not intended to sell Reaction [rightism/survive]. If anything, it was about how it was adapted for conditions that no longer exist. If you’re in a stable society without zombies, optimizing your life for zombie defense is a waste of time; working towards not-immediately-survival-related but nice and beautiful and enjoyable things like the environment and equality and knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.
Does he have a point? Is the survive mindset a relic of the past which now just represents a waste of time and resources? Back in 2016, the post just before this one was about the opioid crisis. Since you probably don’t remember it, here's a thirty second summary. Some smart concerned people wanted poor countries to use opiates like morphine to ease the pain of the dying. They refused. Instead it was all the rich countries who started using opiates leading to the deaths of an additional 100,000 people, just in the US, from prescription opiate overdoses.
This is a great example of the thrive/survive dichotomy. In typical survive fashion the poor countries were not worried about easing the pain of people who were effectively already dead. Rather, they were far more concerned about addiction and overdosing among the young, healthy population. Whereas in typical thrive we-shouldn’t-have-to-worry-about-anything fashion, the rich world prescribed opiates like candy. In our post-scarcity world why should anyone have to worry about pain? But as it turned out despite living in what is arguably already a technological utopia (I mean have you seen this thing called the internet?!?) heroin is still really addictive. And using technology to switch a few molecules around, slap a time release coating on it, and call it oxycontin didn’t make as much of a difference as people hoped.
This should certainly not be taken as sufficient evidence to say that “survive” is superior, but it should at least serve as sufficient evidence to refute the idea that the conditions where the survive mindset is beneficial “no longer exist.”
So we have 100.000 people, at least, who wish the needle had been a little bit more on the survive end of the dial and a little bit less on the thrive side of the dial. With a number like that one starts to wonder why we even have people who are optimized for thrive. Well, just like everything, it goes back to evolution. Anytime you start putting forth an evolutionary explanation for things you’re in danger of constructing a just-so story. Though this particular theory does have some evidence behind it. Here Alexander and I are once again largely in agreement so I’ll pass it back to him:
Developmental psychology has gradually been moving towards a paradigm where our biology actively seeks out information about our environment and then toggles between different modes based on what it finds. Probably the most talked-about example of this paradigm is the thrifty phenotype idea, devised to explain the observation that children starved in the womb will grow up to become obese
Coincidently I came across another example of this just the other day. My research began when I stumbled on an article that indicated that Dawkins’ theory of the Selfish Gene had fallen out of favor and I wanted to know why. As it turns out this paradigm of phenotypic toggling was a big reason. The example given by this article dealing with the problems of the Selfish Gene concerned grasshoppers and locusts. What people didn’t realize until very recently is that grasshoppers and locusts are the same species, but grasshoppers turn into locusts when a switch is flipped by environmental cues. Continuing with Alexander:
It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and it’s job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”.
In other words humans switch to thrive when things are going well because it works better, and when things aren’t going well they switch to survive because that works better. Of course the immediate question is, what does it mean for something to “work better”. Since we’re talking about evolution, working better means reproductive success — i.e. having more offspring. The fact that the people most associated with the thrive side of things have the least children is something that seems like a big flashing neon sign, which makes me want to switch to a completely separate topic, but I’m going to resist it.
Also if we’re talking in terms of an evolutionary response, the thrive side of things has to have been a potential strategy for a long, long time. It’s not something that developed in the last hundred years, or even the last five hundred years. We’re talking about something that’s been around for probably tens of thousands of years. Thus, any theory about its benefits would have to encompass a pre-historical reason for the thrive switch to exist.
As I warned earlier. discussions like this are apt to look like just so stories, so if even the hint of ad hoc reasoning bothers you, skip the next five paragraphs.
Obviously one category of people who might benefit from the thrive switch would be whoever ends up being in the ruling class — whether they were chief or emperor. You might think that’s too small a category to deserve its own evolutionary switch, but I direct your attention to the fact that 1 in every 200 men are descendants of Genghis Khan, and the related finding that there were more mothers than fathers in the past indicating a tendency towards polygyny. Which would have been most common in the ruling class. What this implies is that even if something only comes into play infrequently, it could have a disproportionate evolutionary effect. Sure, you might only be on the top of the heap a short time, perhaps only a few generations, but a switch to take advantage of that could have enormous consequences for your genes.
This would explain both promiscuity and hedonism. It explains the enormous focus on jockeying for status and signaling games. But so far I haven’t departed that much from Alexander’s own interpretations. What if I told you it explains microaggressions?
The concept of microaggressions has been much discussed over the last few years.Most people view it as a new and disturbing trend. But microaggressions have been around forever, however up until now they were restricted to royalty. In dealing with royalty you have to be careful not to give the slightest hint of offense, to use exactly the right words when addressing them. Can anyone look at this chart explaining the proper form of address for royalty and tell me it’s not the most elaborate system ever for avoiding microaggressions? Is the rising focus microaggressions an unavoidable consequence of the increasing dominance of the thrive paradigm?
Okay, speculation and just-so-story time is over we’ll return to firmer ground.
Much of what we understand about the kind of evolutionary switching we’re discussing comes from game theory. And of course the classic example of game theory is prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated prisoner’s dilemma (repeating games between the same players) is often used as a proxy for group dynamics and evolution. In this case, one of the strategies that works best is a tit-for-tat plan, but game theory also tells us that occasionally, particularly in the short term, it can be advantageous to defect.
Could the thrive switch be just this? That when the rewards for defecting reach a certain level, the switch flips and the individual defects? The exact nature of the defection (and the abandoned co-operation) is not entirely clear to me, but we are still talking about a payoff coming from a switch in strategy. And you don’t have to be a hard core libertarian to think that the baron in his castle has a more predatory relationship with the peasant than the peasant has with another peasant.
I admit that I am once again speculating to a large degree. But this speculation proceeds from some reasonable assumptions.
Assumption one: the thrive switch works in conjunction with the survive switch. That there’s a reason grasshoppers aren’t locusts 100% of the time.
Assumption two: this symbiotic relationship has not gone away (see the previous point about opiates.)
Assumption three: There are unseen reasons for the historical equilibrium between the two modes. In other words, one could certainly imagine that the thrive strategy relies on having a certain level of background survive. Evolutionarily a society that’s 20% thrive and 80% survive works great, but a society in which those numbers are reversed, works horribly, or is in any case much more fragile than the society which is only 20% thrive.
How might we test this?
What would count as evidence for an imbalance between the strive and thrive portions of society?
What would count as evidence of the imbalance being dangerous?
A few things come to mind
-College: As Alexander says, if you're in thrive mode then pursuing “knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.” But there’s definitely a strong case to be made that we’ve reached a point where too many people go to college. Even if you agree with the general benefit of college and want it spread as widely as possible, you can still probably agree that too many people take on too much debt to get degrees in fields with very little economic benefit. If that’s not evidence of a thrive imbalance then I think you have to invalidate the entire construct.
-Debt: I’m reminded of an exchange in Anna Karenina when one of the main characters complains of being in debt. The nobles he’s with asks how much. He responds “twenty thousand roubles”, and they all laugh at him because it’s so small. One of the nobles is five million roubles in debt on a salary of twenty thousand a year. This to me encapsulates the idea that debt is something that was traditionally only available to the wealthy. But today we have a staggering amount of debt at all levels. I was just reading in The Economist that the unfunded pension liability in 20 OECD countries is $78 trillion dollars. That’s an amount that takes a minute to sink in, but for help $78 trillion is about the world’s GDP for an entire year. Now maybe Krugman and Yglesias and Keynes are all correct and government debt (even $78 trillion of it) is no big deal, but what about consumer debt, student debt, and corporate debt. Is it all “no big deal”?
-Virtue Signaling: I mentioned signaling games earlier, and you may still be unclear on what those actually are. Well as Alexander explains:
When people are no longer constrained by reality, they spend most of their energy in signaling games. This is why rich people build ever-bigger yachts and fret over the parties they throw and who got invited where. It’s why heirs and heiresses so often become patrons of the art, or donors to major charities. Once you’ve got enough money, the next thing you need is status, and signaling is the way to get it.
So the people of this final utopia will be obsessed with looking good. They will become moralists, and try to prove themselves more virtuous than their neighbors.
In a virtue signaling arms race it becomes harder and harder to establish that you are truly the most virtuous, and as a result virtue gets sliced into smaller and smaller parts. If three genders (male, female, and other) is virtuous, surely seven is more virtuous, thirty-one still more virtuous and fifty-one the most virtuous of all (until someone comes along with their list of sixty-three or, not to be outdone, seventy-one.) Is this evidence of a thrive/survive imbalance? It sure looks like one, and of course, this is also just one example. Is it evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? That I’m less sure about, I guess it depends on how far the arms race goes. I have a hard time imagining that we’ll eventually reach the point where murdering the transphobic is considered more virtuous than yelling at them, but honestly I never imagined we’d get as far as we have already.
Whether you accept these three points as evidence of a dangerous imbalance will largely depend on how closely your own biases and prejudices match mine. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that worthless college degrees, massive debt, and a virtue arms race are problems. I just may be the only one who has tried to tie them to a single cause.
I was not yet familiar with Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction when I wrote this, but it seems to tie well into this whole framework. But the biggest thing I missed is the way that thrive maps to individualism and survive maps to community.
In the past survival was all about being part of a community; being banished was nearly the same thing as being executed outright. On the other hand, individualism as we now practice it was almost unknown. The fact that it is now so dominant is the best evidence of thrive’s dominance. It remains to be seen if the pendulum has swung too far in that direction, but all of the available evidence suggests that things are dangerously unbalanced.
Since this post was written my general sense is that Silicon Valley and the tech sector is now coded as rightist. And San Francisco is widely regarded as a disaster.
In the time since I originally wrote this I think designating the right as the party of survival has become less true. But I was never advocating for a right leaning view, but always a view that prioritized survival.
Evolution has come up with a lot of strategies for increasing reproductive success which have been short-circuited by technology. The most notable example being the birth control pill.
We don’t talk about them as much anymore, so this paragraph is a little bit dated.