One Acceptable Truth or a Million Fantasies

Humans are soft, slow, and (to the best of my knowledge) make for fairly nutritious meals. Brains for tool-making, and the opposable thumbs for using them, are significant evolutionary adaptations, but it is our capacity to act collectively that placed us at the top of the food chain.

By the end of a standard undergraduate economics curriculum, one couldn’t be blamed for coming to the conclusion that the failures of collective action are the greatest obstacle to mankind – Oh what we could have accomplished if only we had ever found a way to just cooperate. Alas, all those externalities, Prisoners’ Dilemmas, free riders, easy riders, market failures, government failures, they just stopped us at every turn

I’m not doubting the pedagogical value of teaching any of these obstacles, I teach them myself, but I do believe that sometimes we spend insufficient time reminding students that humans have been doing nothing but solving collective action problems, with great success, for thousands of years. Every national government, book club, homeowners association, and sorority have managed to produce public goods. So has, of course, every military coup and angry mob (if only, sometimes, for fleeting moments), but collective action is collective action, regardless of how we may feel about the outcome.

More often than not the most interesting question to me isn’t can a collective action problem be solved, but rather i) how has it already been solved and ii) how is that solution going to be threatened or hijacked? When I look to the current political landscape and the only mildly-exaggerated state of political and social polarization, I see not just rivalrous ideologies, but alternative strategies for engendering and ensuring cooperation. On the left, I observe greater recent emphasis on purity – there is a narrow band of acceptable truth and any deviation from that, be it however accidental or benign in intent, can lead to significant punishments, including purges colloquially referred to as cancellations. On the right, I see required public professing of incorrect, often seemingly absurd, beliefs. I might talk about purity tests and purges on the left another times. What I’m interested in at the moment are the public untruths of current right wing identities (broadly conceived) and how they fit into the sacrifice and stigma theory, or club theory, of religion.**

I’ve written a lot about sacrifice and stigma theory. It has without a doubt become the hammer than has left me forever searching for nails. Originally put forth by Laurence Iannaccone in 1992, it is nothing short of brilliant to my mind. A tool for solving collective problems so profound that when it shows up we barely notice it, and where it shows up tends to be the most powerful clubs shaping our societies: the religious, martial, and extremist political groups that bend the arc of history.

Groups produce what we call “club goods” i.e. public goods only accessible to members of the group. What Iannaccone demonstrated was that a group could actually increase their production of club goods by burdening its members with completely unproductive costs. Why do religious groups require clothing, behavior, or language that could stigmatize their members in broader society? Why are members required to sacrifice their resources at the literal or figurative altar of the group? Because if you impair members’ private productivity, or if the fruits of that private production are skimmed away, they will invest more of their resources into the group. If all group members face these same altered incentives, guess what, you’ve solved the collective action problem!

When I see educated women and men declaring the earth is 5,000 years old, that evolution isn’t real, that climate change is a hoax, or that Donald Trump is a brilliant human being, what I see is public profession of beliefs that might limit social or even occupational opportunities and, in turn, further commit them to a specific subset of affiliations. In the constellation of beliefs that might end up as political shibboleths, of course, there stand to be some more costly than others. In fact, there might even be beliefs that impose negative externalities on others, such antipathy towards vaccines or mask-wearing during a pandemic. Excessive burden might hurt the group, of course – remember, club membership must to be a net gain to persist. In a polarized society, however, vitriol created in rival factions by the externality-generating belief could actually intensify the commitment of group members. The liberals hate real-Americans like me so much now, they’d never accept me as anything but a dumb redneck, so the rational thing to do is double down on my commitment to the only group that will have me. Beliefs that reduce private productivity, increase group productivity, and create long-run antipathy in rival groups can serve to create something incredibly valuable to the group: a captured membership. If there is one thing that is evolutionarily hard-wired into human beings it is the knowledge that isolation is death. A member so stigmatized by past public behavior that rival groups would never accept them stands to be very committed to the group going forward.

The vulnerability of sacrifice and stigma born of public adherence to false beliefs, however, is the capacity of leaders to incept preferred false beliefs into the dogma. This is one way that minority groups can become scapegoated, the carbon costs of fossil fuels denied, quack remedies pedaled, or the reliability of electoral institutions undermined. Religious texts exist (mostly) unedited for long periods of time for a very important reason: core rules of behavior, methods of tithing, and sets of beliefs must be inoculated against opportunistic actors who would hijack the club goods they produce.

Sacrifice and stigma through club-specific false beliefs is a dangerous strategy for political parties for the simple reason that without the constraints of fact or scripture, leaders will feel the pull of their own preferences. Far more dangerous however, is the megalomaniacal conman that any political party institutionally designed to demand cognitive dissonance of its members will eventually attract. Political parties need to solve collective action problems, yes, but they also need immune systems. One might point to social norms, both within and outside the group, as key means of protection. Recent years, however, would seem to suggest that norms are not sufficiently robust in the long run. The US court system has held up well, and has in many ways served as the nations constitutional immune system. Perhaps the major political parties should consider updating and reinforcing their own constitutions, and put in place mechanisms to protect themselves from the next inevitable invasion.

American political parties need to update and upgrade their immune systems.

Inspiring research:

Iannaccone, Laurence R. “Sacrifice and stigma: Reducing free-riding in cults, communes, and other collectives.” Journal of political economy 100.2 (1992): 271-291.

Aimone, Jason A., Laurence R. Iannaccone, Michael D. Makowsky, and Jared Rubin. “Endogenous group formation via unproductive costs.” Review of Economic Studies 80, no. 4 (2013): 1215-1236.

**Note: this is not to suggest that left-wing identity affiliations don’t utilize sacrifice and stigma mechanisms. There is no shortage of what I suspect are completely ineffective, but highly visible, ostensibly pro-environment behaviors that are demanded. But the “headline” mechanisms of herding left-of-center identities under the progressive banner look more like threats of exile than sacrifice and stigma.