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Grant comments on Dunbar's Function - Less Wrong

27 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 December 2008 02:26AM

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Comment author: Grant 31 December 2008 06:03:38AM 4 points [-]

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band, because it's harder to talk to the tribal chief or (if that fails) leave unpleasant restrictions and start your own country. There is an opportunity for progress here.

I strongly disagree with this statement. A tribal tyrant likely has much greater effect on someone's personal life than a president or legislator. Its probably harder to start your own country today, but its not harder to leave your country (tribe) to join another. I'd bet its a lot easier, actually. In modern times, people are parts of many different hierarchies, each of which directly impacts their person life. If they don't like one hierarchy, then can leave it. A tribe of 50 is like a small high school; you can't avoid the bullies, and those on the bottom of the totem pole often just stay there. In the real world, freedom of association combined with modern technologies mean the oppressed can often simply avoid oppressors (or the poor can avoid associating with the rich, the dumb with the smart, etc).

I think you're stretch evolutionary psych a bit too far. Yes people spend a lot of time arguing about how to fix the world, as if they could, but doing so is a signal of intelligence, loyalty to certain groups (i.e., liberals over conservatives), and probably other things I'm not thinking of. If people actually argued politics because their stone-age minds told them it was important, they'd do so more seriously. Instead, political decision-making is a mockery of science and truth (e.g., Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan's critiques of democracies).

In other words, I think the greater freedom of association and better communication and transportation technologies have reduced negative hierarchical externalities. If people cared so much about relative income, they'd take the $100k over the $50k, and simply find new friends that weren't making more money than them. Of course, discussing money is impolite partially because it creates these externalities (though we do need to distinguish between stated preferences and revealed preferences; TGGP's link is excellent). So I don't see how our stone-age brains are all that handicapped here. We aren't living in tribal bands, where we need personal relationships for reliable trade. Losers in one hierarchy can simply leave it and join another (e.g., the school nerd playing WoW over varsity sports). Our institutions and technologies have evolved to deal with hierarchical issues.

This is getting rather off-topic, but there is an excellent EconTalk podcast where Russ Roberts blows some holes in inequality externality arguments (specifically how they can exist when most people don't know their neighbor's income with any sort of accuracy?).