Evolution, Immigration and Trade

By Paul H. Rubin
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Monday, May 7, 2007; 12:00 AM

It was once thought that humans are born as "blank slates" to be programmed by our families, culture and society. While those forces play an important role, evolutionary psychology teaches us that human behavior is also the product of the environment in which humanity evolved -- that many of our intuitions are ingrained because they contributed to our primitive ancestors' survival.

Public policy pays surprisingly little attention to evolutionary psychology. Yet there are many human intuitions and behaviors that influence contemporary policy issues -- sometimes in ways that are no longer useful or perhaps even harmful to humans flourishing. These intuitions are sometimes referred to as "folk economics," and one area in which they often emerge is the international economy.

Our primitive ancestors lived in a world that was essentially static; there was little societal or technological change from one generation to the next. This meant that our ancestors lived in a world that was zero sum -- if a particular gain happened to one group of humans, it came at the expense of another.

This is the world our minds evolved to understand. To this day, we often see the gain of some people and assume it has come at the expense of others. Economists have argued for more than two centuries that voluntary trade, whether domestic or international, is positive sum: it benefits both parties, or else the exchange wouldn't occur. Economists have also long argued that the economics of immigration -- immigrants coming here to exchange their labor for money that they then exchange for the products of other people's labor -- is positive sum. Yet our evolutionary intuition is that, because foreign workers gain from trade and immigrant workers gain from joining the U.S. economy, native-born workers must lose. This zero-sum thinking leads us to see trade and immigration as conflict ("trade wars," "immigrant invaders") when trade and immigration actually produce cooperation and mutual benefit, the exact opposite of conflict.

Conflict was common in the environment in which humans evolved. As primates, which are a very social order, our ancestors lived in relatively small groups in which everyone knew everyone else. Our minds are adapted to deal with populations of that size. Our ancestors made strong distinctions between members of the in-group and outsiders, and we still make such distinctions today -- social psychologists can create in-group and out-group feelings based on virtually any arbitrary difference between populations.

The in-group and out-group intuitions help fuel opposition to expanded trade and immigration. The public intuitively believes that the beneficiaries of such policies will be foreigners, and it is easy to arouse suspicion about those who are not part of our in-group. When coupled with zero-sum thinking, this is a powerful political tool. For instance, a domestic industry or collection of domestic workers, when having difficulty competing with foreign or immigrant competitors, can use innate dislike of outsiders when advocating for increased barriers.

As the evolutionary inheritors of small-group societies, our minds sometimes have difficulty appreciating risks, harms and benefits experienced by a large population. In a group of 100 people, when we observe something that has happened to someone, it is a reasonably likely event. In a society of 300 million, when we learn about something happening to one person, it may be an extremely unlikely event, but we often perceive it as likely when we see it on the news. This instinct also shapes our perspective on trade and immigration. We understandably have great sympathy for workers who lose their jobs because they can't compete with foreign workers, but we have difficulty appreciating the benefit that our nation of consumers gains from the products of foreign laborers.

As products of evolution, humans cannot help but be born with certain biases. But we are not condemned to this evolutionary programming; we can identify the biases and recognize when they lead us astray in the modern world. American history is marked by many periods of openness to trade and immigration, and those periods have often featured strong economic growth and human prosperity. However, American history has also seen many instances in which our zero-sum and anti-outsider intuitions reemerged, whether in the form of prohibitions against "dogs or Irishmen" or policies against "outsourcing."

A useful analogy is between speech and reading. All humans growing up in a normal environment learn to speak, but reading must be taught because it does not come naturally. Folk economic beliefs are like speech -- we get them without trying. A deeper understanding of economics is like reading -- it must be taught.

America's success in lowering its barriers to outsiders shows that we can and do learn. But like reading, we must teach each generation anew.

Paul H. Rubin is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics and Law at Emory University and the author of Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (Rutgers University Press, 2002). He has been writing a series on evolution and economic behavior for the Cato Institute's journal Regulation.

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