Surviving and Thriving

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Scott Alexander explains the difference between Right and Left:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.


I propose that the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow.


Leftism wins over time because technology advances over time which means societies become more secure and abundant over time.

As a decent natural experiment, take the Fall of Rome. Both Greece and Rome were relatively leftist, with freedom of religion, democratic-republican governments, weak gender norms, minimal family values, and a high emphasis on education and abstract ideas. After the Fall of Rome, when Europe was set back technologically into a Dark Age, rightism returned with a vengeance. People became incredibly religious, militant, pragmatic, and provincial, and the government switched to an ad hoc and extremely hierarchical feudalism. This era of conservatism ended only when society reached the same level of technology and organization as the Greeks and Romans. So it’s not that cultures become more leftist over time, it’s that leftism varies with social and economic security.

Both rightists and leftists will find much to like in this idea. The rightists will ask: “So you mean that rightism is optimized for survival and effectiveness, and leftism is optimized for hedonism and signaling games?” And I will mostly endorse this conclusion.

On the other hand, the leftists will ask: “So you mean rightism is optimized for tiny unstable bands facing a hostile wilderness, and leftism is optimized for secure, technologically advanced societies like the ones we are actually in?” And this conclusion, too, I will mostly endorse.

Given that we are in conditions that seem to favor leftist ideals, the modern debate between leftists and rightists is, to mix metaphors atrociously, about how hard we can milk the goose that lays the golden eggs. Leftists think we can just keep drawing more and more happiness and utility for all out of our massive scientific and technological progress. Rightists are holding their breath for something to go terribly, terribly wrong and require the crisis-values they have safeguarded all this time.


  1. etype says:

    I despise these back-of-the-lunchbox historical theories. N.American Anglo Westerners think their deluded, television-induced plot of a culture and life is the apogee and model that fits all others.

    With no respect, I suggest Mr. Scott Alexander does not have a clue what he is talking about… and what he knows of classical culture is derived from the history channel.

    Would it be too jarring for his compromised intellect to know that it was republican virtues and the warrior culture which first introduced what he would, in his left/right schizophrenia, call ‘leftism’, or ‘socialism’?

    No, because that would require study of source documents and actually knowing what he is talking about… and my guess is ‘knowing what he is talking about’ would be in conflict with his world view… which is to spout universalistic bromides to a barely literate audience who like things left/right, yellow in front/brown in back… for how to put on their underwear type simplicity.

    How about it was Bismark, the most conservative of all 19th century statesman who first instituted old age pensions, unemployment insurance, welfare, etc. in modern Europe, in concert with the industrial cartels, (who actually did care for the good of the polis…imagine that?) in one of the most conservative, dynamic and far seeing cultures the world has yet known, and still lives by it’s innovations?

    This similar to the many times I’ve read bloggers comment on how good things were in the 50’s… ‘the masculine society’… eventually capping off the force of their argument by showcasing ‘Madmen’…a television show written mostly by women, that is… (wait for it)… a fucking television show. Why not Spiderman… or ‘Game of Thrones’… That’s my type of history, lot of teenage girls.

    I read these I just shake my head. They confuse the purpose of constructing a model, a ‘theory’ with marketing an agenda.

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