Games and Tribes
Liberals assume wealth is static; conservatives know it’s the result of a dynamic process.


Kevin D. Williamson

It could be the case that progressives simply have a different threshold for what they consider “unfair” in the Ultimatum Game. (Again, this has not been established; I’m just hypothesizing here.) Even a small difference — perhaps one so small that it has not shown up robustly in studies — might incline one favorably toward more redistributive political schemes. And conservatives, whose beliefs are more firmly aligned with classical economic assumptions (or an oversimplified version of them, a progressive might protest), could very well be more open to less even splits in the Ultimatum Game. That, too, opens up some interesting lines of inquiry: If conservatives are more open to uneven splits in the Ultimatum Game, is that because they think more like Homo economicus — never mind “fairness,” both parties are better off than they were before — or do they find that line of argument appealing because it comports with a preexisting micro-cultural tendency?

A more likely hypothesis is this: Liberals elevate the abstraction of “fairness” over the concrete benefits that accrue to both parties under even the most uneven split in the Ultimatum Game because they believe that life is in fact a lot like something somewhere between Dictator Game and Ultimatum Game. The fundamental liberal economic fallacy is that the economy is a kind of pie and that somebody, somewhere, is deciding how to divide it up. Economies do not work that way, of course, which is why the phrase “distribution of wealth” is in fact meaningless in most modern contexts — wealth is the result of a dynamic process of creation and exchange, not something that sits in a bucket waiting to get handed out by The Man. (My guess is that this is a holdover from the liberal land-redistribution project that goes back at least to the Lex Sempronia Agraria, the conflict over which some scholars blame for the destruction of the Roman republic. Unlike modern wealth, land really does exist in fixed amounts in any given political territory, and was in fact handed out by the prince according to his whims. Our liberals: Still bravely fighting the social injustices of 134 b.c.)

Ask a liberal to describe the relationship between employer and employee, and you will very often hear something like Dictator Game or Ultimatum Game: The lordly employer simply proposes to share some of his revenue with his serf, who, as in Ultimatum Game, may have the wherewithal to walk away or may face immediate material privation unless he accepts whatever terms are offered him, even if they are as meager as those that would be dictated to him in the Dictator Game. In the real world, things are of course much more complex — there are lots of employers, lots of employees, lots of options, and lots of negotiation — but the case for (e.g.) labor unions is generally presented as a response to an implied Dictator Game. The nice thing about free markets: You may have some Ultimatum Games, but you never have a Dictator Game.

It may be that we have highly rational, intellectually consistent, and empirically provable reasons for our political differences. It may be that we are just members of different tribes. But on some very important metrics — material prosperity is not the least of them — some tribes do better than others, and one suspects that there must be a reason for that.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May.