The Atavism of Bernie Sanders

The Atavism of Bernie Sanders

In speech after speech, the indomitable Bernie Sanders has stumped a new revolution, one that will act against the oligarchic powers ruling America. The crowds he attracts attest to the emotional appeal of his rhetoric of democratic socialism, and his success in the Democratic primary has followed that appeal. Just last week, he swept Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii taking a prodigious share of the vote — with 73, 82, and 70 percent, respectively.

Bernie Sanders has proclaimed that democratic socialism isn't un-American. He says that it is in us all. And in that he is correct: The desire for an egalitarian and unified society is an element of human nature. Such desires are part of our genetic inheritance. A yearning for democratic socialism is a legacy of the band societies that our distant ancestors lived in. Those social instincts were an essential part of the success of the hominid line.

With those instincts, our ancestors were able to traverse the evolutionary minefield of selfishness and competing interests through speech and participatory, consensus-based decisionmaking. Egalitarian decisionmaking complemented the other traits defining the hominid line, including linguistic talent and hypercognition, to make Homo sapiens a master of social interaction. Many animals exploit cooperation for survival, but Homo sapiens are astounding in their ability to do so creatively. In their shared struggle for existence, our ancestors worked socially together in their egalitarian bands. Until the dawn of civilization, just 10,000 years ago, those simple societies were the context of all human interaction. Our genes have not changed very much since the start of civilization. At root, we are still band-man.

With the emergence of vastly complex commercial societies, cooperation began to take on a new form and meaning. Abstract rules, rather than instinctual impulses, came to guide how cooperation worked. The principles of property and voluntary agreement were extended to a widening array of things and activities. With the invention of such abstract rules came the invention of the autonomous individual.

Today, in the context of family and friends, people still rely on primordial social instincts. But those natural proclivities have taken an ever more secondary role in governing cooperation within the whole of society. In "The Fatal Conceit" and other writings, Friedrich Hayek argued that the desire for policies like those favored by Sanders is an atavistic reassertion of people's primal social instincts. Hayek suggested that there was a conflict between the instincts biologically evolved in bands and the abstract rules culturally evolved in civilization. Yet the yearnings for solidarity and centricity remain a lingering part of human nature. When they are not treated with caution, those yearnings can be turned into misguided policies.

What Daniel Klein calls "the people's romance" remains a hazard of modern politics. It is the yearning for solidarity; it is the yearning for sentiment, action, and experience that encompasses "the people." It makes us uneasy with the abstract rules that individuate and detach our social experiences. In an experimental setting, Klein and collaborators have shown our demand for encompassing experience and sentiment.

Over millions of years our minds evolved to read emotional cues and to forms narratives of intention, but not to see unintended consequences. Our minds are adapted for emotional intelligence, not cost-benefit analysis. The people's romance is a systemic bias that we have to be mindful of. As Paleolithic animals in modernity, we have to be wary of temptations to appraise a policy by the emotional impact of what we see rather than by the consequences of what we don't see. What we see, above all, is what we imagine to be intended by the central players. Intention is salient.

The immense success of Sanders demonstrates that the people's romance still holds great sway. Sanders has made a career from exploiting it to the fullest. There can be no doubt that he has defied expectations this campaign season; he is a hero among discontented American progressives. In their hero's ideology, these devotees see a new moment for America to come together and to heal the nation after all of the harm done by greed and recklessness. Exploiting the people's romance, Sanders' brand of progressive politics has captivated souls across the nation.

In a speech on democratic socialism, Sanders proclaimed that "we need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation." Much like how our ancestors would cooperate as a society against a communally perceived threats, Sanders urges Americans to unite, to reinvigorate their democracy, and to defeat a ruling class that has rigged the system in their favor. As long as we have a national conversation about, say, the state of the middle class, the American people can change the nation for the better, or at least so the rhetoric goes.

Sanders is certainly right about the change part, but not about such change being for the better. To improve our society, we must appreciate that, just like our species, it too is largely the product of spontaneous forces. Democratic socialism represents an unwillingness to accept the realities of living in a complex society. Consciously organizing society through democratic consensus would require far more knowledge than even the most expert officials could ever acquire. To demand a deliberate organization of society would be to forgo the evolutionary processes that cope with the limitations of human knowledge.

The ancestral band consisted of 50 or so souls. In such a simple society, all members can deliberate to make group decisions about how their society's resources are used. In such a simple society, each is an equal, even if the alpha male is a first among equals. Anybody can kill anybody. We no longer live in such a society today.

Instead, we live in a nation of around 320 million souls, and it, in turn, is embedded within an international division of labor of billions of souls. Society's complexity has grown enormously since the first anatomically modern humans walked the Earth, and the means by which our societies operate have changed just as dramatically. Rather than consensus and direct cooperation, modern society is based on abstract rules. Those rules may not gratify all of our primeval instincts. They are nevertheless essential to the preservation of our civilization.

A specter is still haunting commercial society. That specter is not socialism, but the people's romance. Bernie Sanders is now at the forefront of exploiting that bias in our emotions inherited from our distant ancestors. Our modern civilization cannot be expected to satisfy the primordial urges that spring from those instincts. Unlike the bands of our ancestors, it is the product of learned rules. If the people's romance were to triumph in politics, the operation of those abstract rules would be correspondingly subverted, and our lives impoverished.

By "atavism," I mean ancient tendencies that ill suit present conditions. Bernie Sanders is selling atavisms.

Harrison Searles is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship and a doctoral student in economics at George Mason University, writing a dissertation on the conjecture that David Hume and Adam Smith were discreet proto Darwinians.

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