Saturday, March 18, 2006

Me Get Woman, Me Rule Earth

I am quite disappointed with Phillip Longman's article The Return of Patriarchy in the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Policy. The main thrust of his article is that conservative patriarchies are on the rise because individuals in such family structures tend to propagate. In contrast, liberals are having fewer children, thus putting their viewpoints and belief systems in decline. I would like to discuss some points specifically:
1. "Fearful of a future in which the elderly outnumber the young, many governments are doing whatever they can to encourage people to have children."
This is not a critique of the article so much as the governments involved. Underlying the worry of falling fertility rates is the real problem: that each generation does not fund its own retirement. So long as this is the case, there will always be imbalances. The modern population should be allowed to find its new equilibrium, especially if it is declining. On a systems level, we tax the earth enough as it is. Why should we be promoting higher fertility when we don't truly need it? Let's fix the underlying problem.
2. "Indeed, falling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. Why then did humans not become extinct long ago? The short answer is patriarchy."
Longman gives little evidence of recurring drops in fertility and even less evidence that patriarchy is what enabled humans to avoid extinction. I think the shortest answer here is sexual drive. Beyond that, it is likely that maternal behavior is the strongest factor in the survival of our species. This behavior is extremely potent and has genetic, neurobiological underpinnings. In other words, it is not simply learned.

3. Longman's main (if only) piece of evidence of his hypothesis is that states that voted for Bush in 2004 had a 12% higher fertility rate than Kerry states. What exactly does this mean? We don't know the belief compositions of these states, nor do we know whether liberals or conservatives (or somebody else) in these states are procreating more than others.

4. Let's assume for the moment that conservatives really are procreating more. Does this mean that an entire population will shift attitudes or beliefs? Of course not. Longman makes the assumption that the only way to spread one's beliefs is through genetic legacy (or perhaps familial legacy). His argument relies on the assumption that, by not having children, an individual's beliefs or attitudes simply die out. In contrast, I propose that those individuals who do not have children have all the more resources and time to spread their beliefs and attitudes throughout the world. My point is that his assumptions are far too simple for a system as complicated as culture.
5. "But as long as the patriarchal system avoids succumbing to these threats, it will produce a greater quantity of children, and arguably children of higher quality, than do societies organized by other principles, which is all that evolution cares about."
Evolution? I think it is a stretch to say that patriarchy is still under any selective pressure of evolution, as he is suggesting here. If he is referring to a sort of social evolution, then I will give him some leeway.
6. "Advanced societies are growing more patriarchal, whether they like it or not."
After reading the entire article, I have failed to see any good evidence for this. Perhaps one of you out there will see more.

Note that I have not taken any ideological position in these critiques. Rather, I think Mr. Longman has written a piece that appears to be more sensation-driven than logic- or data-driven. It is an interesting hypothesis, but with little to back it up, and with no consideration of plausible alternatives, it is just another man's opinion.


Henry said...

This does seem to be a silly theory.

I think that the apparent link between patriarchy and fertility may be due to social ambition as a cultural value. That is, cultures that have strong social bonds and which grant great recognition to social and familial accomplishment tend to incentivize larger families. Such strong cultures are generally the result of natural selection (under naturally selecting conditions culturally weak families and groups are either culled directly or are forced to adopt the cultural techniques of their more successful neighbors). Advanced societies are rarely subject to strong natural selection so such facets of culture tend to fade the longer a civilization remains affluent. The tendency for males to be the outward representatives of the family and social group (patriarchy) tends to be a feature of such naturally selected culture for good reasons.

If we imagine a group of humans living under intense natural selection--something along the lines of zero population growth in the face of relatively high birth rates, as is the norm among natural populations of all species-- we can see quite clearly why 'patriarchy' (I am using the special definition of patriarchy as males serving as the outward face of the social and family group while not requiring that males assume an overtly commanding role within the family group) tends to arise. The short explanation is that human child rearing is a very labor-intensive process. First we have very substantial gestational periods. Second our children are wholly dependant for the first year of life (they must be carried, actively fed, and cannot be behaviorally controlled (e.g. quieted)), and only marginally less dependant in the following couple of years. Further, our children need to assimilate culture for several more years prior to becoming significant contributors to group welfare. If a woman with a life expectancy of only three or four decades is to produce and rear enough offspring to overcome the odds against their reaching reproductive maturity she will have time for little else. She will frequently be pregnant and thus partially incapacitated and the rest of her mature life she will likely be responsible for transmitting culture to her growing young. Under these circumstances it is completely unsurprising that women would not be active hunters or warriors. Within the context of the social group their role would be internal. They would remain near the fires, shelters, and stationary possessions of the group. The males with a physically minimal role in birthing are free to assume anatomical specializations attuned to hunting and fighting. Thus a primitive society would have a simple two-part system of specialization engendered by the mechanics of human reproduction with the females assuming a primarily intratribal role and males assuming a primarily extratribal role. These roles are reflected in our secondary sexual characteristics, morphological, cognitive, and sociobiological. Males are larger, more athletic, spatially oriented, and aggressive because they are specialized to deal with the physical world and outside competitors. Females are smaller, socially oriented, and less aggressive and more nurturing because they are specialized for culture transmission and cooperative intragroup interactions.

So social ambition (which I suggest may be the actual root of higher fertility) and patriarchy are both products of cultures that are subject to (or at least recently emerged from) intense natural selection. Thus I would suggest that patriarchy does not cause fertility, rather both fertility and patriarchy are results of natural selection and as selection fades they both do as well (with a considerable lag time). The correlation of their fading appears (I am claiming falsely) to suggest causality.

The benefits of social ambition (which for lack of time I have not elaborated here, though I suspect they are obvious) would almost certainly still apply in an advanced society. The benefits of patriarchy, at least as I have explained them above, would not seem to.

That was just an aside. What I really wanted to write this comment about was the travesty of pay as you go retirement (point one above).

Ryan rightly notes that one of the absurdities of pay as you go retirement schemes is that they necessitate an ever-growing population. We recognize here the widely ridiculed opportunism of the pyramid scheme. So long as an exponentially expanding supply of payees is available the scheme comes off without a hitch but as soon as the supply of rubes dries up the whole system collapses. This is why the economists and politicians who have promoted these foolish policies around the world now have to convince everyone that it is in our interest to allow floods of immigrants to flow into our countries in order to make up for our shameful failure to multiply with sufficient rapidity.

Ryan says that we should allow the current population come to its own equilibrium and I agree wholeheartedly (though Ryan may not have meant quite what I mean by that phrase, so perhaps he won't endorse what follows). The fact is that this process of equilibration is an inevitability. We can raise the retirement age and reduce benefits or we can inflate and reduce the value of the dollars that the payments will be made in but one way or another the baby boomers will not get their entitlement although they may get their due. The means simply do not exist to support the system. Ultimately, by whatever method we may choose, the promises of the social security administration will be repudiated and we--the taxpayers--should not feel guilty about this. Those now heading into retirement had decades to avoid the trap that they are now destined to enter. In fact they stridently demanded that the trap be constructed. I have likened it to the children of a family (the voters) clamoring for more and more, and their father (the federal government) frantically struggling to meet their demands. The father takes a series of ever more demeaning and ethically questionable jobs until eventually he is a major figure in an organized crime syndicate. His family gets to enjoy great wealth, but when they get their come-uppance (perhaps a rival organization burns their house down with them in it) it is truly theirs, they cannot lay the blame at the foot of their father. They may not have asked him specifically to take up a life of violent crime but by stridently demanding that he provide them with a finer lifestyle while simultaneously ignoring how he brought home the bread they made their own tragic fate. It is broadly acknowledged that the best way for a politician to get thrown out of office is to preside over a poor economy. The people vote with their pocketbooks. So the selective force that the voters have exercised has created a government that strives to maximize current economic comfort at whatever cost. In effect, by an exercise of electoral behaviorism, we have trained our representatives to rob our future in order to supply our present.

One of the most pernicious aspects of this retrograde chronokleptocracy is the wholesale prevention of capital accumulation. By consolidating virtually all (15% of income (half of this is your employer's matching funds) as opposed to 1-2% in the private market) American savings into a collective government trust fund and then spending all that money on current consumption--transfer payments, government employment, military expenditures, and all sorts of pork (i.e. our handout from the future)--we prevent any actual saving from taking place. When we consider what saving is all about this turns out to be a terrible thing. Savings is the source of capital. Capital improves future economic gains. So, instead of a significant portion of GDP being tied up in capital such as equipment, facilities, and other productive profit wielding forms of property (assets) we are forced, quite literally, to sink that money into current consumption (liabilities).

Of course the American people still have the option of saving a larger portion of the income that they retain, but if the government is already taking 15%, allegedly to provide for our retirement, why bother. After all, if a person actually consistently saved 15% of their income over the entire course of their career and invested it (even very conservatively) they would be able to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

I could go on for a good while yet but I fear I must stop for now. I have already robbed my future self of enough restedness.

Ryan said...

Henry - thanks for your comments. I am making "chronokleptocracy" my word of the day - I can't think of a better word to describe this mess. You're right, I initially thought of equilibrium in the population sense, but it equally applies to fiscal status as well. What amazes me is that voters do not seem to have the foresight to fix this terribly broken system, and politicians are too scared (or inept) to even explain the problem to them.