Drug Law and Deer Antlers: A Model of Irrational Repression

A while back a friend linked me to this talk, in which Sam Harris describes drug laws as irrational on multiple levels.

I have no disagreement with that – but the natural next question is: if a given set of laws are so unreasonable (harmful, expensive, ineffective, counter-productive and unjust), why are they so widespread and so hard to shift?

I want to suggest one possible model to appeal to when puzzled in this way, based on an analogy with the evolutionary dynamics of sexual competition (note: an analogy with, not a causal attribution to. This is not ‘evolutionary psychology’).

To clarify where I’m coming from: I’m assuming the irrationality of these sorts of policies from the start, and moreover their all-round irrationality – not just on average, but individually for all or most major actors involved. You might disagree, in which case I’ll be talking past you.

I’m also assuming that this phenomenon is relatively widespread: as Harris mentions, as well as drugs, numerous sexual behaviours have been legally prohibited in many places and times, and other examples could easily be given.

It’s not that there’s no reason at all to have anti-libertarian misgivings: people can mess themselves up with certain drugs, and the link between pregnancy, childrearing, and sexuality produces plenty of tricky dilemmas. But when you look at the way that repression is actually applied, it goes so far beyond what those factors would explain. The fact that heroin can be very bad for you doesn’t explain sending people to prison for years over LSD and cannabis. The fact that instability in a household can have negative effects on children doesn’t explain criminalising bumsex.

Harris himself, clearly struggling with this, suggests that it’s about religion, which is clearly inadequate. He says “only anxiety about the Biblical crime of idolatry would appear to make sense of this retributive impulse. Because we are a people of faith…we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power.” But it’s not just ‘peoples of faith’ who are thus tolerant, and it’s certainly not just societies influenced by the Bible.

More broadly, what he’s doing is trying to ‘rationalise’ the phenomenon as the pursuit of some goal. This makes sense, because we do and should generally presume that people rationally pursue goals. But we should also be willing to drop that presumption.

(This, I think, is one message of Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality, Volume I‘  which attacks the idea that sex has been subject to repression “because it is incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative”, in order to improve labour productivity or some other goal. On the contrary, Foucault says, the repression itself is somehow satisfying enough to provide its own rationale. But he doesn’t try to explain exactly why.)

The Example

So I should get to the point. A phenomenon observed/hypothesised in the evolution of many animal species is that some members, usually males, are under a selection pressure to develop prominent and maladaptive traits, because doing so serves as a signal of fitness, and other individuals, usually females, are thus more likely to breed with them.

One good example is deer antlers (note: this is not the only explanation of deer antlers, and the application of the model to any given species is always open to dispute). To grow two big bones every year is incredibly nutritionally demanding, and could easily lead to osteoporosis in other bones. Moreover, when the antlers are complete, they are a real pain to support and carry around. To choose to grow large antlers, we might say, would be ‘irrational’.

Yet the males who grow the largest antlers also tend to breed the most, and thus pass on antler-growing genes. In large part, this is precisely because they’re maladaptive – a male who can grow large antlers and survive must therefore be in other respects super-healthy and super-good at finding food. The ability to bear this ostentatious cost serves as a signal of fitness, and is thus reinforced – a less constly signal would be less worthwhile because it would be easier to ‘fake’.

But that’s only the first step. Then competition steps in. Everyone grows big antlers, so now having big antlers brings you no advantage over most of your rivals. You need to bear the costs just to stay in the competition. To win, you have to grow even bigger antlers. But then everyone else will grow bigger antlers too – so you’ll have to grow even biggerer ones.

The collective upshot is that half the population has enormous, cumbersome antlers, with no overall advantage. From the perspective of the species (e.g. in their competition with wolves), this is irrational, but they collectively compel each individual to participate.

The Model

I want to suggest that repression of harmless things in human politics might be a similar sort of phenomenon. So first, what does this model require in the abstract? I think you need two mechanisms, one for compensation and one for feedback.

Through the first, suffering a certain kind of harm will automatically generate a correlated benefit, for certain kinds of costs. Given the unreliability and variability of life, this is likely to lead to occasional cases of over-compensation: where the compensating benefit is actually larger than the harm that prompted it. But this is likely to be only an occasional, anomalous, event.

The second mechanism then allows this anomaly to become entrenched, by having the occurrence of overcompensation itself influence the relative costs and benefits, and hence the frequency of more overcompensation.

How does this work for the deer? Well, their compensation mechanism is social competition – the greater the cost you bear, the more others will be impressed by your inferred ability to bear it. But we’re familiar with plenty of more direct, psychological, mechanisms.

For instance, when something we buy is more expensive, we’re inclined to perceive it as more valuable, and be more pleased with ourselves for deciding to (and being able to) buy it. Or we get a pleasant feeling of virtuousness when we deny ourselves something, etc.

And it’s plausible to think this sometimes produces over-compensation: sometimes, some people might be better off paying more for the exact same product, because seeing it as more ‘classy’ will bring them more enjoyment than the money would.

The feedback mechanism for the deer is the way that the reproductive success of big-antlered males (the occurrence of over-compensation) affects the frequency of big antlers, and so ‘moves the goalposts’ for sexual competition (changing the original costs and benefits). For instance, having small antlers (saving on calcium etc.) might have a very small effect on your sexual success when that’s the norm, but if you’re the only one without big antlers then the other deer will likely laugh, call you names, and not let you join in their games.

But I think we have another available mechanism that can easily generate the same effects: informational conformity. This is where instead of independently estimating the costs and benefits of something, I look at other people’s words and actions, infer their estimates, and adopt those as my own. This is generally very useful because I can draw on a much greater range of information than if I had to learn everything myself. But it can easily lead to positive feedback loops, such as in cyclic fads and fashions.

The Application

So how would I apply this model to social repression? For the first step, I would argue that there are two, interacting, compensation mechanisms that apply to starting and maintaining any kind of ‘fight’. Fights are, in general, irrational, because the costs to both parties are generally much greater than the potential gains to the winner. But two compensation mechanisms can reduce this.

Firstly, there’s a social competition effect: if other people value ability or willingness to fight, then anything that demonstrates such ability or willingness will encourage others to support you. Secondly, there’s a psychological process: fighting is likely to bring feelings of personal power, for being able to put yourself on the line, for whatever success you acheive, and by putting you very immediately ‘in touch with’ what you’re capable of.

I say that these are likely to interact because when people support you in a social way (e.g. as a leader) they will also often identify with you, and so the latter effect – the greater feeling of potency – might be psychologically transferred to them as well.

Ok, so that’s a compensation mechanism. And it could easily produce occasional cases of over-compensation, where someone is motivated to start a pointless and destructive fight because of the three benefits of possibly winning, feeling stronger, and impressing others.

Note, this could apply to metaphorical ‘fights’ as well – such as fights against temptation, or fights against an abstract force, as long as you have to commit resources to fighting this impersonal enemy, and this cost is compensated by the effect of persuading yourself and others that you’re the sort of resolute, strong-willed, clear-eyed, courageous, good-fight-fighting, person they want/need to lead them.

So where does the feedback mechanism come from? I’d suggest that it’s informational conformity, as described above, applied particularly to the nature of the thing or person being fought against – and hence to the perceived costs and benefits of either fighting it or not. If everyone thinks it’s more dangerous than it is, then 1. people will continue to do so, because of conformity, and 2. the benefits of fighting it will require escalating levels of commitment, even though that means escalating irrationality.

But now observe that this may work differently in the case of fights between two human forces, and between a human force and some abstract entity. In the former case, you have two competing sources of information, likely to offer different accounts of what’s going on. This will make it hard for cue-taking to produce sustained feedback loops.

But if your opponent is a non-human force, like ‘sin’, or ‘drugs’, you can ‘monologue’, and if you claim that it’s a terrible thing which must necessarily be fought, some people will believe you, which will lead others to believe you, until it becomes ‘common sense’.

It’s not that nobody disagrees; it’s that public expression of disagreement will be dis-incentivised the more it would go against ‘common sense’, and the more it might carry personal costs. This doesn’t apply so much when the opponent is a particular human group, because they don’t have the option of remaining quiet about it – they have to bear the costs of being known as that opponent, and so are incentivised to articulate their disagreement.


Thus, a few simple premises regarding the dynamic relations of certain incentives generate the possibility of a feedback loop, whereby some X becomes the target of some sort of ‘conflict’ (even if it’s originally as simple as an individual struggling to not spend too much money on snorting it), which then constantly reinforces itself until ‘over-compensation’, whereby an agent is rewarded for doing self-destructive things, becomes the norm instead of the exception.

Each actor (say, a government) would be incentivised to devote more resources to ‘the war on X’, to fight that war more ardently and destructively, precisely because the greater the costs they were able to bear (and impose on others), the more their inferred ‘health’, strength of will, resolve, moral certainty, etc. would be valued. This ‘war’ would be like a deer’s antlers, a costly, disruptive thing that is nevertheless required for social success.

The resulting stable situation where the need to fight the ‘war on X’ is ‘common sense’, would have arisen through no deliberate, intentional policy of any party. It would not be a ‘ruse’ to acheive some goal, but a spontaneous, pernicious, outcome of certain patterns of interaction.

That’s not to deny that many individual actors would be responsible for their own, wrongful or rightful, actions. But none would have overall responsibility for the situation which produced those actions.

Moreover, it might even have a specific bias against pleasant things. That’s because the whole thing only gets started given some sort of conflict with a non-human thing, in particular something that people can be inexperienced with and still consider a threat. A forbidden pleasure fits that mould perfectly – you have a ready-made explanation of why, despite ‘everyone knowing’ that it’s a Very Bad Thing, it continues to be prevalent enough to need fighting.

Now, as I said, this is only one possible model. It may not apply to any real-world situations, and if it does it will apply in different ways and subject to qualifications. And it probably applies to some cases I haven’t considered. But it is at least another possible answer to the question ‘why would people support repressive policies that impose costs on everybody?’, if you think that they do.

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