TCS Daily

Tribal Warfare

By John Baden - July 25, 2003 12:00 AM

I like to help reduce communication barriers that isolate and alienate people. This task is especially compelling when individuals share core values. However, the exchange of ideas across ideological camps is difficult and rare. The debate over benefits and costs of modernization and markets exemplifies this problem.

Why don't all nations adopt institutions of the most affluent countries -- exchange by markets not coercion, secure property rights, free trade, liberty, and the rule of law? After all, these are common to all successful nations. Why do many intellectuals resist acceptance of what seems obvious? Do they see an alternative path to human progress?

Few economists understand why some smart folks oppose the market process. Yet they recognize that some well-intentioned individuals deny the validity and utility of basic economic concepts such as opportunity costs and trade-offs, features inherent to life.

Montana State University economist Rick Stroup, co-author of a leading economics text, Economics: Private and Public Choice, is fond of quoting: "When addressing these questions, none is so useful, nor so rare, as a good sociologist who understands economics."

Standard economic theory is insufficient to explain why people reject obvious wealth-creating policies. Understanding cultural norms and institutions is also required. That's the value of the sociologists Stroup admires.

Prof. Daniel Chirot, Director of International Studies at the University of Washington, is just such an individual. Born in France, raised in the U.S., and educated at Harvard and Columbia, Dan has lived in and studied a dozen societies on four continents. He combines the logic of economics with deep cultural, historical, and institutional knowledge.

How does he explain why it is taking so long for the obvious success of the democratic-capitalist model to proliferate all over the world? And why do so many continue to oppose it, even in societies where so many benefit?

Chirot explained that economic cycles create alternating periods of prosperity and decline. All new cycles create new winners and losers. In the long run, most people benefit from the progress that accompanies each cycle. In the short run however, the losers are desperate to halt their decline and seek protection. It is the losers of the world, whole societies or individuals lacking skills rewarded by progress, who bitterly resist those policies economists favor.

Many of the intellectuals who attack free markets are particularly concerned with the fate of the losers. From Karl Marx to Ralph Nader, the dislike of markets strikes the same chord. If economists deny entirely the legitimacy of such appeals, they are willfully blind to the real short-term miseries caused by progress.

The complaints against modernization are powerful. The complainers deny the value of sound economic theory. Laws of supply and demand become irrelevant, the mutual benefits of trade ignored, and they reject solid and compelling empirical data on substantial improvements in human and environmental health.

Economists wanting to improve the global economy should explain to opinion leaders how and why only some institutions generate progress. Those concerned for the poor should scrutinize the results of closed economies. Among other calamities, closed economies (and closed minds) fuel the growing revolt of the Islamic world. Anti-capitalist, anti-free trade ideologies condemn the downtrodden.

Part of the difficulty in defending modernization and markets stems from a pervasive social force we call "tribalism" based on ideologies. When people discuss cultural or political issues they speak almost exclusively to kindred souls, folks in their own "tribe." Members of factions talk with one another and read material sympathetic to and supportive of their views. Alternative positions come predigested, incomplete, and badly skewed by omission, if not deliberate distortion. Camps become isolated and alienated from one another.

This is especially true in the environmental arena. For example, loggers speak with fellow loggers and other commodity producers, contributors to the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund meet and consort with like-minded Greens. Having worked in anthropology before economics, I believe productive cross-cultural communication is possible. Let's try.

TCS Daily Archives