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Turnbull vs evolution

Conservative antipathy to Malcolm Turnbull isn’t an economic question, it’s an evolutionary one

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

Economists offer one way to understand the world. Evolutionary psychologists offer another. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they don’t. Let’s consider what these two worldviews have to tell us about the Liberal Party’s recent regicide.

Economists see people as rational maximisers. Offer me something that improves my position, by however little, and the ‘rational man’ takes it. This framework is powerful. It explains a lot about human life and society.It ties in closely with utilitarian worldviews. But it does not explain everything.

Evolutionary psychologists instead look to see what sort of traits were/are adaptive. Given that humans have spent the vast preponderance of their history as hunter gatherers, barely eking out a living, what sort of dispositions or traits gave those who possessed them an evolutionary advantage? Under the struggle to survive, what got hard wired into us?

Well, people who had genes that inclined them to be complete pushovers – to be nice to others who cheated them, stole from them, abused them – did not do well. These genes died out. But people who were hard-wired with a tit-for-tat outlook, who treated newcomers nicely and gave them the benefit of the doubt, but when cheated or abused then sought retribution, well those sort of genes are very, very adaptive. Be nice, be generous, but don’t be a pushover is the message.


And it plays out just this way in experiments. Here’s a famous one. Take two people who have agreed to be subjects in an experiment but don’t know what’s coming. Sit them both down and then give one of them, say, $1,000. That first person can give any amount of that money he chooses to the other person, sitting across the table. The second person then has only one task. She can say ‘yes’ or she can say ‘no’. The former means they both keep their cuts. The latter means no one gets anything.

Imagine Person 2 has been offered $10 out of the thousand. On the economists’ worldview she should take it. Her utility is going up. It’s a free ten bucks. But virtually no one does. Almost all of us say ‘no’ (along with ‘screw you’ under our breaths). For economic rationalists that amounts to an irrational response.

But it makes perfect sense when seen in evolutionary terms. We are hard-wired not to be mugs, push-overs, patsies. Better to blow the whole thing up by forsaking that lopsided offer. Better to signal to everyone out there with whom you will have future dealings that you can’t make insulting offers like that to me buddy boy. And you know what? Person 1 knows that will be the case. Few people make such insulting offers. (They hire actors to do it.) Now keep that all in mind and think again about the recent events in the Liberal Party. A new regime has taken over. And right away there are myriad calls for everyone to get on board with the new team. Turnbull asks for it. The Australian newspaper (which had Nikki Sava run anti-Abbott pieces for eons) pleads for it in not one but two lead editorials. The calls to support Malcolm come from all the many Brutuses now in charge.

But why are we Abbott supporters now supposed to help Turnbull? They tell us it’s because he’s better than Shorten. That’s the reason, full stop. You might have had a thousand metaphorical dollars before (okay, Abbott screwed up a bunch so make that $400 before) but we’re still offering you ten bucks. You should take it. Malcolm is better than Bill. That’s the new line aiming to woo the disgruntled base. And it is undeniably true that Malcolm is better than Bill. But it misses the point that was hinted at above. Is Turnbull enough better than Shorten to make one swallow hard and play nice? And that is an open question. But you decide against a backdrop where if the other guys know that you’ll always roll over and play nice as long as their guy is just a tiny bit better than Labor’s guy, then you and your guys are mugs. You’ll be taken advantage of. It’s better sometimes to blow the whole thing up and – let’s be honest – lose to the other team. Why? Because you’ll have sent a message that loyalty and ‘no white anting’ and giving us support when things are a bit tough are the price they have to pay, not just that you have to pay. Reciprocity baby. Signal-sending, my friend. If they want it now, where was it before? It’s hard-wired into us didn’t you know?

Of course you can’t decide this in a vacuum. How much better is Turnbull than the Labor person? If Labor had a Jeremy Corbyn leader then I suspect a lot more people, and I include myself here, would be prepared to get on the Turnbull train (you know, that one he took when Bronwyn Bishop was under pressure, the one he then tweeted about – solely, you understand, to keep us informed of his travel plans). My point is that the offer is always a comparative one. Turnbull v. Corbyn is an offer of a lot more than ten dollars. But Turnbull v. Shorten? Take away all constraints on the two men imposed by their parties and I reckon you’d be hard-pressed to slide a piece of paper between their views.

Yes, I know that Turnbull has made clear he’s keeping all the Abbott policies – all those formerly suspect policies that are now good ones, like same-sex plebiscites and boat turnbacks. So that’s more than ten bucks surely? Maybe. But were he to win the next election hands up everyone out there who would be prepared to trust Malcolm as far as you can throw him? Me neither. We will then be in a world where a man with preponderantly Labor values is running the Libs. Sure, we’ll have won the election and some MPs will have kept their seats (and pensions). But is that enough of a good long-term outcome? Frankly, and despite the bleatings from so many people who had been attacking Abbott regularly and now want party discipline and ‘good little boys and girls’, the question is a tough one. Some will decide one way. Some the other. But we’re not hard-wired to forget. Or forgive. You reap what you sow.

Here’s what would win me personally over to Mr. Turnbull and massively inflate the ten buck offering. Bring back the pre-election promise to repeal most (or better yet all) of the ghastly 18C. Do that and I’m all yours big guy. Show us your famous negotiating skills. Let us see you work the hostile ABC. This would win over tons of the Liberal base who at present detest you. Take it from me.

Oh, and free speech is the most liberal policy going – not a conservative one. It is John Stuart Mill through and through. Opponents (who include your beloved ABC, and the chattering classes) do not exhibit liberalism by opposing the repeal. No, they show just how illiberal they are. That’s my advice to Herr Turnbull if he wants to transmogrify ten bucks into hundreds. But don’t hold your breath.


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