What are some criticisms of evolutionary psychology or left wing social and economic policy

Over the last few years I have developed my personal philosophy on the nature of life and human behavior which is more or less based on evolutionary psychology which states most of human behavior has its roots in evolved behavior designed to keep us from dying in the wild. Also I have developed some fairly left wing economic and social viewpoints.

So, in the spirit of critical thinking, why should I change my mind? What is wrong with evolutionary psychology (the concept that our behavior individually and en masse is mostly driven by a desire not to die), left wing economics or egalitarian social policy?

As far as economics (as an example), the argument I’ve heard is that if you raise taxes on corporations they will not hire. If you let them become profitable they will hire new people. However my counterpoint to that is that under Bush corporate profits went from $500 billion in 2001 to almost 1.4 billion in 2007. And hiring stagnated. So that can’t be the only factor.


I think a big part of my view on left wing economics is my feeling that right wing economics is mostly driven in a top down fashion. Ie, my view is that wealthy, powerful individuals fund think tanks like Heritage, Cato, Frank Luntz etc. who use psychology and good communication skills to try to convince the working class that economic policy designed to benefit the wealthy actually benefits the working class too. So these organizations, when they get the concepts written up, give them to politicians and media outlets who eventually give them to the public. The end result is millions of middle class voting citizens who consistently support economics designed to directly benefit the wealthy because they’ve been packaged to appeal to the middle class’s interests (anger at loafers/cheaters, fear of outsiders and threats, indirect benefits, etc).

I feel like with economics, many of the conservatives I know believe anything designed to directly benefit the middle class will do more harm than good. But anything designed to benefit the wealthy will do more good than harm.

So things which directly benefit the working and middle class like labor unions, environmental regulations, universal health care paid for in part with employer taxes, a high minimum wage, tax funded renewable energy investments etc will all directly benefit most people, but they feel these will indirectly harm them by creating an environment unfriendly to business.

However on issues which directly benefit wealthy individuals and powerful corporations like reducing regulations, lowering labor/environmental standards or lowering the dividend, estate, corporate & capital gains taxes; will indirectly benefit the middle class by encouraging hiring and economic growth.

My knee jerk reaction when I hear conservative economics is to just assume that the people promoting them have had their opinions bought and sold by the wealthy to turn them into useful voters at the polls. But I know there has to be more to the story than that, and there are far more valid criticisms of left wing economics than that. In fact, one of the signs that you are in a cult is when there are no valid reasons to disagree with the leader. If you disagree, it is because you have some sort of flaw (you are ignorant, possessed, being tested). So reaching a point where you do not have an open mind to the concept that you could be wrong on a core level is generally a bad thing.

For one thing, I do think higher wages via labor unions can make a company less competitive with its non-unionized competition. But what about the positive trade offs from having a union? The lower turnover and higher consumer spending (our economy is about 70% consumer drive) should be good for our economy.

Not only that, but labor is just one part of the cost of running a business. A unionized workforce in a nation with cheap energy, great transportation, an educated workforce and good communication technology should out compete a business that pays lower wages but has to pay more for energy & transport and which has access to a lower quality workforce.

But again, I know there are far too many variables in the real world to simply say X = Y. But I do look at the corporate profit rates under Bush and think, if increasing corporate profits results in hiring, where were the jobs? The Bush years were great for the well off, where was the trickle down effect? The Clinton years, despite far lower corporate profits, saw far more hiring. I’m not saying it is 100% Bush or Clinton’s fault, I’m saying the trickle down effect doesn’t seem valid. I’m not asking that to create a strawman argument to knock down so I can feel I am right, I’m asking because I don’t get it.

The cash for clunkers program is an example of a failed government policy IMO. From what I know of it, about 80% of cars that were bought would’ve been bought anyway. So it actually cost closer to 20k for every car sold. Plus the used cars were destroyed, which drove up prices in the used car market, which hurt people already financially strapped who can’t/won’t buy new cars. Plus most of the new cars bought barely got better MPG than the ones traded in. I think the average gain was from 16mpg to 25mpg.

These issues are far too complex to ever truly understand on more than a superficial level. Which sucks. But what can you do.

left wing economics? right wing economics? To me this sounds like talking about left wing or right wing physics. Physics is physics. If you want to generate electricity to keep things running, it will tell you how to do that. If you run top speed at a brick wall, it will explain why you skull got smashed. Likewise, economics provides tools to understand what is happening under Left or Right regimes - the good, the bad and the ugly.

If you want to argue that Left policies are good because (under Bush) Right policies didn’t work, then you are committing the either-or fallacy. Just because there seem to be just “two alternatives” being offered by the political marketplace it doesn’t mean that one of them is right. They could both be wrong, whether in general or for the particular situation (e.g. when China keeps lending Bush or Obama vast quantities of money, that’s not exactly a standard textbook situation for national economy). Indeed, we should expect that there are countless “wrong” alternatives out there as well as a few scattered and hard to find “right” ones. Just because America has been fortunate to have one such “right” model working, to some extent, decades ago, doesn’t mean that the same model would still work today (even if anybody actually tried to restore it) or that we can do whatever moronic thing now (liar loans, cap and trade, huge CEO salaries, outsourcing of vital industries etc) and still enjoy similarly high standard of living as we had in the past. Wealth is not a Western birthright stemming from rightwing or leftwing thought, rather it is something that is attained through a lot work and a lot of careful thought.

As far as evo-psych goes, our evo-psych is to a significant extent developed precisely to prosper in the sort of densely populated, highly stratified society our ancestors have lived for thousands of years. As opposed to that “wild” situation you bring up - the folks with the wild attitudes didn’t get a slap on the wrist and anger management classes in the past, instead they often got their head cut off. So we are domesticated in many ways, e.g. compared to Yanomamo and similar. Incidentally, the book http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Clark_(economist)#A_Farewell_to_Alms argues that for several centuries before the Industrial Revolution in England there was intense selection for wealth and middle-class attitudes in terms of survival of children. Sort of like idiocracy in reverse, because the non-hardworking and the non-intelligent simply had kids starve in the harsh medieval / post medieval environment.

Well, I would say that evolutionary psychology isn’t solely about an inbuilt motivation to not die - there’s also the passing on of genes. And there’s also the question of to what extent evolutionarily speaking we are primed to survive and reproduce in individual terms and social terms - off the top of my head, altrusim as a mechanism is certainly something that i’ve seen considerable explanations for both in terms of primarily aiding the individual and in aiding the social group (and so related family).

That said, I suppose the biggest objection i’ve seen (and certainly the one i’d probably agree is a big problem) is that it’s extremely hard to take a particular behaviour and then figure out precisely what and how that behaviour has come about. And there’s relatively little consensus when explanations come up. It’s very much a theoretical position, even within psychology. Consider especially that the situations thousands and millions of years ago are very different to those today; it’s hard to map “running away from a sabre-toothed tiger” to “stress from morgage payments”.

Too, there’s the question of exactly how much we’re actually affected by these things. If it’s hard to determine what the underlying cause is, it’s harder still to come up with some percentage of predisposition. To what extent are we controlled by such things, if controlled is the right word? What role do other factors play?

There’s also the problem arising from the base assumption. If our minds have been affected through evolution in this way, then logically they were at some point considerably affected by outside factors - and the changing circumstances of humans and pre-human species suggest that we’ve been open to such changes for a good long while. So likely as not we still are; if we were impressionable then, who’s to say we aren’t impressionable now, and that it is our current times (or, at least, more recent times) that have affected us more?

Evolution has left us with two polar opposite drivers: altruism to protect the group and selfishness to protect ourselves. I’d argue that layering prescience in an intelligent and sentient being tips the balance of a particular behaviour in a particular circumstance toward selfishness.

The soldier ant has no clue about the future, no intelligence with which to weigh choices and no sentience with which to care. When his genetic drive to act for the common good is triggered, he acts.

Make that ant a creature who can predict the future (this action will cause me personal discomfort or death), give him an intelligence to weigh choices (if I do this, then “x”; if I do that, “y”) and give him a consciousness to be aware of the consequences, and you have yourself a human, right?

Now comes the problem of economics layered on those genes. Not just macro-economics–what’s good for all–but micro-economics–what’s good for the** Pedant**.

Think tragedy of the commons. Does what is best for the commons win as a net choice for the group? Not usually.

A short-hand summary of broad-scale economic policies is this:

In (liberal) structures where the common good is the primary emphasis, motivation for individual effort diminishes because the common good is too diffuse a goal for most people to work their a$$ off.

In (conservative) structures where personal good is the primary emphasis, motivation for the common good diminishes because individual reward is gained even when it is achieved at the expense of the common good.

Socialism: we are all sort of poor. Harness altruism and hope that we collectively succeed.
Capitalism: some are filthy rich and many are abjectly poor. Harness greed to create wealth and hope it trickles down.

Highly abbreviated, of course, but basically the part you are missing is the part where evolution has not created us as purely altruistic as you imply.

Oh yeah: without getting into a debate about Mr Bush’s policies: if you are really altruistic, you can’t complain about a job that went overseas to an even poorer guy, can you? We are all in this together, right?

You’ve brought up this issue in a previous thread and you’ve repeated your flawed premise: you believe “evolution” has a forward-thinking purpose. Evolution is not the confirmation of what’s right vs wrong. Evolution is simply the expression of a million prior random events.

For example, let’s say that a wave a of virus plagues sweep the globe. The humans clustered together with altruistic compassion eventually develop immunity and survive more than the smaller pockets of isolated individuals. On the face of it, this scenario seems to support your premise.

But another example is that a series of broken asteroids smash into the planet. The dense altruistic communities get wiped out but the isolated individuals in various parts of the globe live. Now it looks like that altruism is “wrong” and selfishness is “right.”

To be biased towards any evolutionary result (such as altruism) as being more “righteous” makes no sense. Any number of random events can give the ILLUSION that any particular evolutionary endpoint is righteous.

When did I say evolution has a thinking premise? I don’t believe that. We develop whatever habits or physical traits we need to to have a survival advantage in our short term environment. Altruism (when applied with reciprocation and limited to kin and members of the social unit) exists because it tends to work in most environments. If pure selfishness provided a 1% better survival chance across the board, we would live in a different world. Besides, altruism is generally only applied in situations where it is useful to evolution. Individuals who are genetically related to you or members of the social unit you are dependent on are the biggest targets of altruism. People who threaten you or the social units, or who are irrelevant to you or the social unit do not get altruism. Its not metaphysical.

Also **Revenant Threshold ** when I say we are designed not to die, I’m talking about ‘dying’ in a way that also considers providing for/creating a next generation or providing for the social unit that an organism is dependent on since those both involve death (death of the genetic line, death of the social unit). I also consider threats to a social unit that a person is dependent on, or the concept of a species dying off (which would include not having children). But your point about the vagaries of applying EP are true. People can mostly theorize. But isn’t that true in most of the humanities?

Also epigenetics is showing that environment plays a huge role in what and how genes are expressed. So even if we evolved to live in the savannah, we have undergone a lot of evolution in the last 10,000 years which, when combined with the different environment is going to result in different genes being expressed and different behaviors being promoted.

Is profit bad? I mean the first problem I see with your entire theory is that it seems to operate from a left-wing premise that all things corporate or profitable or wealthy are inherently “bad”.

If your company is not competetive, all other benefits become moot.

I’m seeing a lot of hand-waving and “why-don’t-they-justs” here. As you said, there are a lot of variables and when you change one, it often has unforseen consequences on the others. The flip side of your proposal is that higher wages and greater consumer spending typically leads to inflation, a higher cost of goods and lower real purchasing power. Your statement that

does not appear to be based on anything but wishful thinking. If it were true, we would not be sending most of our manufacturing to India and China.
Why don’t you apply an evolutionary premise to economics? Companies are simply interconnected entities designed to convert raw materials and capital into products and services that people need and want. If those entities are not able to survive on their own, they should be allowed to either adapt or dismantle, freeing up their resources to be used elsewhere in the economy.

Personally, FWIW, I don’t think the left or the right are doing a good job in terms of economics. Both sides continue to implement populist policies that seem designed to allow Americans to preserve their sense of entitlement to a higher standard of living than the rest of the world.

You said it with this,

What I’m trying to stress is that we don’t know WHAT ULTIMATELY is “designed to keep us from dying” because we don’t know all future events that affect evolutionary responses, dominant genes, whatever. Global viruses, climate change, sociological response to extreme population density of 20+ billion people, asteroids, etc, etc. Therefore, you can’t use “evolutionary psychology” as support for your arguments. You can state the current snapshot of evolutionary psychology to try to explain what we are today but you can’t extrapolate from that and say we have a predetermined destiny towards altruism or cooperative cooperation tomorrow. We just don’t know. We can’t predict all possible environmental stimuli that can happen in the future.

A world where a billion random events eventually results in the evolution of a certain Wesley Clark pushing for left-wing policies is only one of many possible outcomes.

If we restrict the time horizon to the “short term” as you say, such as 100 years or 1000 years, I can understand it. However, it still doesn’t make sense to pull “evolution” into the discussion to support the policy.

The intentions of those policies are not the problem. It’s always the execution.

There are 2 huge problems that the human race can’t seem to overcome:

#1 The egalitarian social policy ultimately has to be administered by SOMEONE or SOME GROUP at the top to dole out this “equality.” Well, there’s your problem right there. The people at the top of course are humans. Flawed humans. Eventually, these flawed and corrupt human beings (and their families, and their friends, and the people who bribe them, etc, etc) are no longer “equal” with the rest the citizens they’re trying to equalize. You’ve recreated the very problem you’re trying to solve. For example, Russia’s elites have food but the peasants starve.

#2 An egalitarian society requires all brains of all citizens to express equal preference of all activities (movies vs school) , all products (iPods vs CD players), and all people (beautiful people vs ugly people). Redistributing money around doesn’t solve this fundamental behavior.

Because it doesn’t work too well. It ignores the fact that they are designed entities run by intelligent creatures who have their own interests; treating them like mindless creatures created by evolution tends to produce a terrible estimation of how they will act. For example; if you step back, remove most regulations you don’t get Darwinian competition at all. You end up with the various leaders of the corporations getting together and fixing prices and the economy in general to safeguard their position. If you lower taxes to provide a better environment to attract companies, you will likely lose business to the community that has nice private schools and golf courses; because the company doesn’t make decisions, the people running it do. Genes are mindless; evolution has no purpose; people have both intelligence and purpose, and that will screw up any attempt to model the economy as an evolution based system.

And even to the extent that treating economics as evolution works, it ignores other problems. Such as the fact that ruthlessly letting companies fail can hurt people, and there’s no moral justification in sacrificing people for a thing like abstract economic efficiency. Why should someone freezing in a cardboard box care if sacrificing him added a minuscule fraction of a percent to the GNP? Evolution is an amoral system; not a moral imperative.

Ah, that’s a fair definition then.

So far as theorizing, yes and no. Psychology is pretty much partially part of the humanities and partially part of the sciences. Certainly there’s a considerable amount of theorization in the field as a whole, but I would say that compared to other forms of psychology, evolutionary psychology in particular is notably tricky so far as connecting evidence and theory goes. Showing that things are so is much easier than showing why things are so, and evolutionary psychology has its “why” stated in the premise.

Evolutionary psychology is a lot of fun, but it isn’t science. At least not yet, as we have no way of falsifying hypothesis.

Having said that, it seems reasonable to assume that our social behavior is a legacy of natural selection. It gets tricky, though, because our behavior isn’t necessarily the same under different environments.

One thing to keep in mind is that there was a tendency in the early days of this “science” to assume that our social behavior was locked in prior to the advent of agriculture and civilization. We’re seeing a lot of evolutionary psychologists these days making assertions that our social behavior has evolved quite a bit since then. Still, just conjecture at this point.

I’m wondering if the OP can more clearly articulate what it is about his understanding of EP that leads him to a left wing political stand. It was clear to me after reading the OP how that came about.

Sure, but I wouldn’t stretch the comparison that far. Economics is a social science, not a physical science. So, it is not possible to isolate variables in a controlled setting. Plus, because the shaping of human societies is at stake, moral values take on much greater significance than in discussions of atomic structure, for example.

Plenty. I put my thoughts on the subject of evolutionary psychology in this thread. I’ve refined my viewpoint a little bit since then, but the basic ideas still hold. To summarize the major reasons why I reject evolutionary psychology:

  1. It is plainly false that our behavior is mostly driven by a desire to propagate our genes. I don’t really have any desire to propagate my genes, while I do have many desires that aren’t related to propagating my genes. Today, for example, my behavior has consisted of getting up, eating breakfast, taking a shower, going to church, petting my cat, eating lunch, buying a pair of pants at an after-Christmas sale, trying on some shoes but deciding not to buy them, reading a book, and now writing a post on the Straight Dope Message Board. I have done nothing related to preserving or copying my genes. (It can, of course, be claimed that these behaviors are indirect results of various modules that were produced by evolution, but that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If nearly all human behavior is not beneficial in an evolutionary sense but is only a side effect of things that are, those things would not produce any significant evolutionary advantage.)

  2. Our behavior is determined by our free will, not by our genes. Things that are determined by our genes can’t be changed. For example, we can’t decide to change our eye color, our height, our tongue-curling ability, whether our earlobes are attached, etc… Things that we can change are not determined by our genes. We choose our behaviors, our habits, and our preferences. We can choose to eat sugar less, to become less aggressive, to restrain our sexual behavior, to be friendly and outgoing, and really anything else that we want to change about our personalities, we can.

  3. The only way that we could inherit things from our ancestors is through our genes. We know a lot about the human genome. There have been many expensive, extensive studies of it in the last generation, all aimed at matching up genes with traits. After all that work, scientists have not found a single gene that produces altruism, selfishness, care for children, desire for certain mates, sense of justice, or any of the other modules that are commonly theorized by evolutionary psychologists.

  4. Genes are not magic. Genes produce proteins. That’s all they do. If genes caused certain social behaviors, then it would have to be the produced proteins that cause those social behaviors. There’s no evidence of any protein causing a social behavior, nor even any theoretical explanation for how it could happen. Instead, there’s substantial evidence that the structure of our brain is not determined by our genes, but rather by our choices and the stimuli that we are exposed to, particularly when young.

  5. Evolutionary psychologists can’t agree with each other on what humanity is evolved to do. Some say we’re evolved to be violent, others that we’re evolved to be nonviolent. Some say that we’re evolved to be altruistic, others that we’ve evolved to be selfish. Some say that we’re evolved to be monogamous, others that we’re evolved to be polygamous. Every researcher simply projects their own tastes, morals, and politics onto the human genome.

  6. Last but not least, much of evolutionary psychology is just plain nuts. Allegedly serious researchers want us to believe that grandparents “invest” more in their daughters’ children rather than their sons’ because they can be more certain of being genetically related, that men and women give gifts differently because they have different “mating strategies”, that our genes cause us to remember the names of cheaters more than of other people, that women sleep around more because they want their children to have a variety of genes, but only in countries where AIDS is common, and so forth. In other words, evolutionary psychologists believe a lot of things that are transparently false.

So there are six good reasons to reject evolutionary psychology, any one of which ought to be enough. For a serious takedown of the field, I’d recommend The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology by Jaak Panskepp, a psychologist at Bowling Green State University. The bottom line, though, is that even if you’re not convinced by the massive evidence against evolutionary psychology, there’s still no evidence for it.

I guess it’s better to pay companies to make shit no one wants (ie General Motors) and then pay people to buy it (ie Cash for Clunkers).

The whole problem with your entire line of thinking is that it ultimately hurts the middle class. Where do you think all this money comes from to prop up companies? The government has to either raise taxes which lowers net income or print money which causes inflation and lowers purchasing power. Or it creates a burden on companies which reduces their ability to hire or expand.

Better than letting the economy collapse and people try to stave off hunger by eating bark and grass.

Tax the rich. they have most of the money in the country, they’ve been catered to and allowed to disproportionately benefit from the country for a very long time. And the country can’t afford to carry the rich on its back anymore, letting them take and take while giving little to nothing back. And no, they won’t leave the country to “flee high taxes”; where would they go that wouldn’t tax them more? Outside of some failed state hellhole somewhere. They have no where to go.

“Mostly” seems a reasonable argument. But, to be fair, one of the same problems with evolutionary psychology is also one of the reasons we can’t necessarily reject it (as is so often the case); if our behaviour has been affected by our evolutionary past, then it only makes sense that we wouldn’t act in a similar way to back then since we live in a different environment.

Besides, all those things could easily be construed to have affected your gene propagation chance. You were about during the day, you fed to maintain your health, you relieved stress. And i’d certainly disagree with your last point, because you’re assuming that things have to be beneficial now.

I disagree. If I feel I have a problem with anger, I can certainly act to suppress it - but I can’t simply will the problem away. I don’t like sprouts; I can’t choose to change that preference so I enjoy Christmas more (unfortunetly). And it goes back a step too - we can’t choose to change our opinions about our preferences. Not only can’t I make myself like sprouts, I can’t make myself a person who would be interested in that possibility. You can choose to eat sugar less, but you can’t choose to not care; you either do or you don’t.

Look at your last sentence - we not only can’t choose to change anything about our personalities, we can’t choose to want or not want to change things. I can’t choose to agree with you; I can’t choose to want to agree with you. And it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that perhaps some of that personality which is so set in stone is at least partially affected by our genes. I mean, some of it obviously is, but too there’s certainly room in the murk of our minds.

I think you’ve kept one of the same misapprehensions you had in the past on this subject. First, predispositions is a pretty key word. Second, you seem to be assuming that genes don’t interact or interaffect each other at all; that there has been found no “altruism gene”, which one either has or doesn’t and so is altruistic or not, doesn’t mean that some interaction of many genes may produce some extra predisposition towards altruism (or selfishness)

And, of course, there’s the problem of knowing everything now. That something hasn’t been found doesn’t mean it’s not necessarily there; certainly, it also doesn’t mean there is something there, but I think you may well be jumping to conclusions a wee bit.

Your claim that the structure of the brain isn’t affected by our genes is bollocks, i’m afraid. Simplest example; men and women’s brains are on average similar to each other yet notably different. There are genetic disorders which can leave a person with an abnormal brain structure, just as it can any other body part. Oh, and let’s not forget a wee cite from your own first cite;

From the top of a section talking about the nature/nurture debate, which, I would imagine, would be rather less of a debate were genetics to play no role at all. To be clear, I certainly wouldn’t deny that upbringing and environment play a role, but to disqualify genetics entirely - when your own cite disagrees with you, even with a “certainly” - is rather a strong position.

Your second cite has an entire section on “The Importance of Genes”. You should give it a read, it’s quite interesting.

Again, seems like a mix of nurture and nature being claimed here.

Your conclusion doesn’t follow. That evolutionary psychologists disagree does not mean that the reason they disagree is because of their own particular views. Amusingly enough you seem to have projected your own particular views onto here, even if that view is simply that you do not need to provide the linking logic. And it’s certainly too far a stretch to make the grandiose claim that “every” researcher is so horribly biased in this way.

Are you perhaps relying upon your common knowledge, here?

I’d be interested to know what you feel is the problem with those particular studies that you cite; “transparently false” isn’t a particularly cogent argument. It’s just a restatement of opinion; your “argument” here is that you think they are wrong.

You have zero good reasons. There most certainly are good reasons to be sceptical, but so far as I can tell you’ve managed to miss all of them, or overstate your case, or simply make no argument or reason at all. I’d assume this reflects upon the quality of the book you suggest, but given you’ve managed to cite a couple of studies in this very post which considerably disagree with you (and do so rather obviously), i’m not particularly impressed enough with your reading ability to condemn the poor guy’s work. When the bottom line is contradicted by your own cites, it kind of makes this a lot less enjoyable.

Out of interest; what refinements to your opinion would you say have come about since your last thread? Were they the result of some research you did on your own on the subject?

If our behavior is not influenced by our genes, then why don’t we behave the same as chimpanzees*? We acquired our behavior patterns somehow, and unless the proposition is that “God did it”, the only other explanation is that it is our genes and our environment. But genes are primary-- that’s what we start with. And as long as the environment is reasonable amenable to human survival, we see behavior patterns that are similar (to a remarkable degree) across different geographical areas.

*And interestingly enough we do have a lot of similar behavior patterns with chimps that we don’t have with species we are less genetically similar to.

And to add economics to this, we have found economic drivers that we share with chimps.
In a famous experiment, they gave half a class mugs, and then asked those with mugs to write down the minimum they’d take to sell the mugs, and the half without mugs to write the maximum they’d pay for the mugs. Classical economics says that they should average about the same, since the value of a mug is pretty standard and those with them haven’t had them long enough to get emotionally attached. What they found was that those with mugs wanted on the average twice as much as those without mugs were willing to pay.

Now, for the chimps. They established a preference of some chimps for either a banana (say), or a tube filled with peanut butter. They then gave the chimps the object that they did not prefer. They then immediately offered them the opportunity to switch. The chimps preferred the object they possessed, not the food object they actually liked better.
The explanation I heard for this is that in the wild it is safer to eat the thing you have than to risk getting something you might like better. (Explains why I eat the peanuts on airplanes, no doubt.) In a lot of ways, economic policies that ignore how our minds really work is doomed to create disasters.

Okay, I will tackle what’s wrong with left-wing economics.

First, the big one: Incentives. A fundamental principle of human action is that people respond to incentives. Offer a reward, and people will take action to win the reward if it’s something they value. Punish a behavior, and you will get less of that behavior.

Socialism has lousy incentives. When people can live a comfortable life without having to work hard, innovate, create, or produce, some will choose to do so. If people aren’t allowed to keep the fruits of their labor, they will choose to work less.

Another phrase for this is moral hazard. If you offer better welfare programs, you will get more people applying for welfare. If you make it harder to fire employees, you will get more employees who behave badly. If you offer more generous sick benefits, you will find employees calling in sick more often.

And so it goes. Rewarding poor behavior and punishing socially beneficial behavior such as entrepreneurship and creative risk-taking causes society to stagnate and for productivity growth and wealth creation to slow down.

The problem of Information. The next problem with left-wing economics has to do with the nature of central control and authority, and how it is utterly unable to manage a complex, technological society. One of the best writings on the topic is F.A. Hayek’s The Use of Knowledge in Society. I highly recommend reading that link - it’s a short article.

The basic gist of it is that the workings of an economic are hellishly complex. It is a giant web of billions upon billions of constant transactions, each made for specific reasons. No central authority can hope to manage it or understand it. Not only that, but the information required to make good decisions does not exist in a central place - it is distributed in the minds of hundreds of millions of people. Furthermore, the information doesn’t even exist until people are forced to make choices in how they wish to allocate their resources.

The result of this is that central command creates unintended consequences. A central authority decides to create a ‘cash for clunkers’ program, or to ‘invest’ in green jobs, or to put price caps on salaries of executives, or in other ways decides to push the market around by fiat. But he cannot possibly know how these things inter-relate with millions of other goods and services, and therefore, the result is never quite what is expected.

For example, the old Soviet Union really tried to scientifically allocate the resources of the country. They had armies of accountants and economists and councils and production planning committees and analysts and the like, all doing their best to figure out how best to allocate the resources of the country. The result was an endless series of misallocations, shortages and gluts, and economic stagnation.

A capitalist economy works because it is driven from the bottom up, with a system of negative feedbacks to keep it in control. If there is a shortage of something, the price rises, stimulating production and curbing demand. The needs and wants of the people appear in the aggregate result of millions of purchasing decisions. If people want more of something than is available, the price rises. If no one wants something, the price falls until people want it at the new price. If the new price isn’t sustainable, the product vanishes.

The miracle of the market is that people work together even though they’ve never met, regardless of their religions, locations, or political persuasion. My computer may have parts in it put together by a Hindu in India, a socialist in Belgium, and a Muslim in Indonesia. They deal with each other out of self-interest. I don’t have to know or care anything about them.

But when government gets involved, suddenly these decisions become political. Suddenly you have to ‘buy American’. A bureaucrat decides that the worker in Indonesia isn’t paid enough, and punishes me for dealing with him (or more likely, the unions paying the politician’s campaign bills don’t like business going to someone else, so they tell the politician to find a politically-correct reason for cutting off the poor Indonesian’s living, and we all accept the rationale).

The result of government-controlled resource allocation is that decisions become political. Cooperation becomes confrontation. You only ‘get yours’ if your politician manages to take what you get from someone else. Our productive, cooperative economy becomes a zero-sum game where people fight over the spoils. Besides being inefficient, it’s damaging to the social fabric of the country. In France, a good day is one where less than 100 cars are burned by disenfranchised people fighting to get their ‘fair share’ of the government’s handouts.

As an aside, the OP’s framing of this issue is all wrong. Right vs left isn’t about favoring fat cats against the little guy, or supporting big profits against the poor. In fact, big profits often come from collusion between government and Industry. In highly competitive markets, profit margins are generally low. If the free market drives conditions such that executives are paid a pittance, I really don’t care. But ask yourself - do you really think bailing out the financial industries and the auto companies from their own stupid decisions (including the decision to put short-term profits and high salaries for the executives ahead of long-term stability) is really going to improve their behavior?

And that was a lousy experiment. Because that kind of pricing is an example of game theory. People with the mugs aren’t trying to determine what the mug is worth - they’re trying to determine what the other person thinks the mug is worth. The people without mugs are trying to determine the same thing. Classical economics does not say anything about what their initial prices will be. Now, if they were allowed to negotiate, you can imagine that they would very quickly converge on something very close to the real value of the mugs.

This is actually a point that Hayek makes in the paper I linked to. Information about relative value doesn’t even exist until people are forced to make choices. If you just ask them what something is worth to them, you’ll get a much different answer than if you force them to actually put their money where their mouths are.

One of the reasons why Communism always winds up tyrannical is because in a country where everything is ostensibly free, you simply can’t figure out what people need. If you ask every carpenter in their country if they need a new saw, they’ll all say yes. But if you only have half as many saws to give out as there are carpenters, how do you decide who *really needs it? Each person may have even been honest - any new saw is better than the one you have if it’s even slightly worn. Now, the marginal value of a new saw to each person is radically different, but how can you know? How do THEY even know? Let’s say they are all good Communists, trying their best to only take what they need. How do they determine whether they should take one of the saws? They can’t, unless they know the marginal value of a saw to everyone else.

There are ways to run the experiment better. For example, tell the class beforehand that if they get the price of the mug within $1 of each other, then both sides get a mug - and get to keep them. If they differ by more than $1, then the mugs get turned in and they get nothing - or they both get an F for the assignment. Now both sides have an incentive to figure out the real value of the mug, and you’ll get much closer answers.

Or, you could just watch “The Price is Right”, where people show a pretty good ability to guess the prices of various products.