David Sloan Wilson on Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan

David Sloan Wilson is an interesting biologist.  He is most known as a strong advocate of group selection and favors employing evolution to understand human behavior.

Wilson has a piece up where he seeks to explore the reasons why Paul Ryan, who he terms a religious fundamentalist, was attracted to Ayn Rand’s atheistic approach.  While Wilson argues that religious fundamentalism and Randianism seem to be radically different views, they have more in common than at first appears.

Wilson argues that both views do not recognize tradeoffs.  They see their recommendations as good for everyone.  Wilson writes:

Rand created a system of thought that is just like religious fundamentalism in portraying a world without tradeoffs. This begins to explain her enduring appeal. She offers a world that has been simplified to the point where the only choice is to head toward glory (the pursuit of self-interest) and away from ruin.

Wilson supports this through the following method.

I was exploring how people use words such as “selfish” and “altruistic”, which refer to the effects of actions on self and others. . . . Every time I encountered the use of a word referring to the effect of an act on self and others, I placed it in one of the four quadrants.

What were the four quadrants?

In the real world, our actions can result in any of the four outcomes. There are win-win situations where everyone gains, lose-lose situations where everyone suffers, win-lose situations where I gain at the expense of others, and lose-win situations where I must sacrifice to benefit others. In a realistic description of the world, words referring to our actions would therefore be placed in all four quadrants. When I started to analyze some fundamentalist religious texts, however, a different picture emerged. All the words ended up in either the top right (win-win) or bottom left (lose-lose) quadrants.  [Similarly], in Rand’s world, the pursuit of self-interest was invariably good for everyone and the traditional virtues were disastrous for all.

As someone who has followed religious fundamentalism and Rand, this is quite interesting.  Rand always had a religious flavor to her works – something I think she even recognized.  One might view this aspect of Rand as her imagining a different world and her having had an extremely idealistic approach to life.  But Wilson’s is another take.

We can see the power of Wilson’s approach by considering other secular beliefs that are often referred to as “religious.”  Both Marxism and environmentalism, in certain versions at least, have a religious flavor, and part of the story is what Wilson suggests: both minimize tradeoffs and suggest that things will be good for everyone if their recommendations are taken.  Wilson sees himself (I think) as a man of the left and therefore seems to think that downplaying tradeoffs is solely a defect of right-wing thinkers, but of course it is not.

Wilson’s concludes his post:

The problem with visions of life that are detached from the world—no matter how intoxicating—is that they crash and burn when they encounter the real world. The real world includes win-lose and lose-win situations that must be managed, and pretending that they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away.

The fact that [Paul Ryan is drawn to both Randianism and] religious fundamentalism might seem like a contradiction, until we realize that both portray worlds without tradeoffs in which the only choice is to head toward glory and away from ruin. How simple. How compelling. How easy to communicate to others. And how disastrous for solving the problems of modern human existence.

This is powerful, if one loses the ideological aspects of the post.  But let us not forget that sometimes a view of this type is correct.  Sometimes policies are actually harmful for everyone.  Sometimes – to put it in practical terms – we are leaving (society’s) money on the table.  Sometimes tax rates really are at the unfavorable part of the Laffer curve.

And in those cases, you do really do want to get your message out in an effective way and your message is compelling.  That helps to explain the power of these type of approaches.

Of course, the key question is knowing when we are in the unfavorable part of the Laffer curve for any type of tradeoff, and when we are not.