The Research Interests of Academic Economists: Part II

In a recent post in The Beacon, I discussed the research interests of academic economists as indicated by articles presented at the American Economic Association annual meeting and published in the American Economic Review. This post focuses on the American Economic Association distinguished lecture, presented at the Association’s annual meeting and published in that same issue of the American Economic Review.

The lecture is titled “On the Dynamics of Human Behavior: The Past, Present, and Future of Culture, Conflict, and Cooperation,” and was presented by Harvard economics professor Nathan Nunn. As I discuss it, keep in mind that these are the ideas the American Economic Association has chosen to promote to its members.

Professor Nunn develops a model in which potential conflict arises because people adopt their views on values, culture, and public policy from two different sources. People learn what has worked in the past and adopt those values as appropriate for the future. Those people are traditionalists, to use Professor Nunn’s terminology. But tradition generates persistence, and as things change, new ways of doing things are more appropriate in response to new conditions. This creates a mismatch of values, beliefs, and culture between traditionalists and those who seek change in response to a changing world.

I think that is a fair summary of Professor Nunn’s 23-page article that explains the idea. Where does Professor Nunn take this idea? Let me quote from the very end of his article.

Understandably, governments, international organizations, leadership positions, and those in academia are dominated by individuals with cultural backgrounds that have been successful in the past; namely, people with individualistic traits and WEIRD psychology. However, the logic of mismatch suggests that the beneficial traits of the future will be different from those of the past and that the successes [sic] values, and beliefs and behaviors of the future may be very different than those that were successful in the past.

WEIRD is an acronym Professor Nunn uses. The letters stand for western, educated, individualistic, rich, and democratic. Because Professor Nunn concludes that successful values, beliefs, and behaviors in the future “may be very different” from the WEIRD ones. It is worth examining what Professor Nunn is proposing we give up as we move forward. While considering what Professor Nunn suggests we leave behind, nowhere in his article does he suggest what would take the place of WEIRD psychology. Here’s what he “may” think we should leave behind.

Western: In a world that values cultural diversity, western values, western culture, and western civilization itself are often questioned. But in a real sense, much of what has been considered western has already been left behind. In music, fashion, food, and in culture more generally, we live in a global community. Sure, a big element of “western” remains, but I see little resistance to embracing the attractive features of all cultures.

Educated: This is somewhat surprising, coming from a Harvard professor. Education has been a successful component of improving just about every aspect of human existence, generally accepted as beneficial. It’s true that if we move beyond western values, organizations like the Taliban question the value of education, especially for women. I conjecture that is not what Professor Nunn has in mind, but I cannot imagine what he has in mind to displace education.

Individualistic: This is a scary one, partly because I can see several ways in which contemporary culture is already leaving the value of individualism behind. The obvious alternative to individualism is collectivism—the principle upon which the Soviet Union and other socialist dictatorships were built on in the twentieth century. So, I’m inclined to say that we’ve already tried to move beyond individualism, and it didn’t work. The quotation from Professor Nunn’s article seems especially hostile to individualism. He attacks it twice, once by mentioning it specifically and again when he includes it in WEIRD psychology.

In the twenty-first century, individualism is disappearing because people are increasingly viewed as members of groups rather than as individuals, as I noted in my previous Beacon post. Individual autonomy, which is the key to success in a free society, is being compromised. The ultimate antithesis of individualism points toward everyone working for the group rather than working for themselves. In practice, that means everyone is the servant of the state.

Individualism and freedom go hand-in-hand. To give up one is to give up the other. Is that what Professor Nunn is proposing?

Rich: Most of human history has been the search for sufficient calories for people to sustain their lives. The bounties of capitalism have transformed a world that was mostly stuck in poverty into one that has improved the material well-being of everyone. It’s easy to take our material well-being for granted. What is the alternative to rich? Poor? I doubt that Professor Nunn is proposing that future success will be based on poverty rather than wealth.

Sure, money is not everything. But the provision of people with material comforts enables them to accomplish other things. And while most people in western countries are well-taken care of in that regard, many do suffer from income insecurity. They may have a car and a nice place to live, but live paycheck to paycheck. Rich people have a reserve of wealth so that if unforeseen problems arise, they have the ability to deal with them. That’s what “rich” brings to people. Should we want to move beyond this value?

Democratic: Again, I am searching for the alternative. Is it autocratic? While Professor Nunn suggests moving beyond democratic values, most people see the merit in them.

The quotation above starts by saying that people in leadership positions “are dominated by individuals with cultural backgrounds that have been successful in the past,” but that “traits of the future will be different from those of the past.” This implies that we could benefit by replacing those leaders who have proven track records of success with individuals who have no past successes. I don’t know whether Professor Nunn would agree with my interpretation of his message, but I’m quoting him to show that that’s what he said.

The primary problem with this article, which is common in the social sciences, is that the article develops a plausible model of institutional development and uses it to draw conclusions that do not follow from the model.

Yes, when conditions change, traditional ways of doing things, which worked well in the past, may not work as well in the future. But it does not follow that we should move beyond the western, educated, individualistic, rich, and democratic values and behaviors that have brought past success. Rather, those are the very values and beliefs that enable societies to address changing conditions.

Progress and innovation have been primary elements of western culture, and facilitate the introduction of new ideas to address new problems. Similarly, individualism is a mechanism that facilitates change. Individuals make their own decentralized decisions, and others imitate those behaviors and activities that reveal themselves as successful. Education facilitates the development of new ideas to address new challenges.

Sure, new ways of doing things may be appropriate when conditions change. But the western values and individualism that Professor Nunn questions are very responsive to changing conditions. The social sciences, including economics, have become increasingly hostile to the ideas of freedom, individualism, and personal responsibility, and this article is an example.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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