Primary Color Tribalism

Tribalism is the recent slatestarcodex (SSC) buzz. It’s wholly worth reading, so go there first if you haven’t already. You will find that this post here is best understood as an extended-length comment to that SSC post. Whereas most LessWrong-influenced folk are given to keen analyses and steady production of new insights, my tendency here as always is instead the development of alternative hypotheses and the headlong leap into engineering applications. Others can better test the hypotheses; I mainly want to know what the ideas might be good for.

First, then, are the main ingredients. SSC extensionally identifies the Red tribe in the U.S. thusly:

conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue tribe gets a parallel list:

liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.


Many comments following that article contain additional impressive insights and further discussion of the topic. I contributed one comment containing neither, but that did reflect my interests in engineering and alternative hypotheses:

I want to form a new tribe. Hm, how about having a Yellow tribe typified by libertarian-communist political beliefs, strong Alain de Botton-style atheist religious beliefs, pushing polyamory norms, owning kirpan-like non-lethal guns, eating nutritionally complete GMO veggies and vat-meat steaks, drinking tea made with flouridated and lithiated tap water, driving motorcycles, listening to lots of podcasts, enjoying a cross between rugby and the board game Go, getting conspicuously upset about coordination failures and uncalibrated predictions, marrying early and often, constantly pointing out how much more civilized fictional countries are than America, and listening to playlists of all the world’s recorded music filtered for emotional valence and otherwise randomized.

I don’t currently fit into any of those categories, but if the tribe actually coalesced I’d happily gravitate into it.

It would have remained a silly instance of my humor, except for a followup comment in which someone helpfully pointed out that writing a blog on these topics would be a natural way to collect tribemates and thereby solve the coordination failure of the Yellow tribe not yet existing. So then, Hear ye Internet whom I don’t actually attempt to make aware of my blog: let’s form the Yellow tribe. I’ve extensionally given some possible characteristics of it that do a better or worse job of placing the cluster in stereotype-space, if not in idea-space. To figure out the best intensional definition, let’s analyze the cluster’s position.

A second commenter thought that Yellow, as described, was a subset of the Grey semi-tribe, which SSC described this way:

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

My initial reaction to Yellow, on the contrary, was to classify it as really a subset of Blue, because I can only seriously imagine Blues wanting to join in any significant number. There’s little reason to expect politically-libertarian folks to suddenly become friendly with communist-fraternizers! And the Reds, of course, are ironically even more anti-commie. While writing the extensional description of Yellow, each item was chosen to parallel the items in the SSC lists and be approximately equidistant from Red, Blue, and Grey. Unless I repeatedly failed at maintaining the distance with a consistent uncorrected unintentional bias, it’s just not very probable, a priori, that the Yellow cluster would overlap cleanly with another cluster. The more likely case is that the other commenter and I, lacking a good understanding of what the Yellow cluster would be, coerced it into our nearest available political concept. To progress further, then, what we need is a theory that lets us establish a clear relationship between Yellow, Red, Blue, and Grey.

Naturally, I’m going to use another of SSC’s methods of analysis: the Thrive-Survive axis. The Red tribe is composed of the people with values suited to surviving the nearly-unsurvivable, plus their thriving-minded political allies. The Blue tribe is composed of the people with values suited to thriving amidst abundance and safety, plus their survivally-minded political allies.

The thrive-survive axis can support other (sub)tribes. Greens are the best-organized and best-known subtribe of Blue, and their place on the thrive-survive axis is plain: they are pure thrivers without the strength or compromises that come from having allies. Similarly we can posit the existence of Oranges, who would be pure survivors without allies, and might fall politically into the Constitution party, for example. Greys are not comfortably in the middle, however; moderate politics is Purple territory. Here the minds of partisan Libertarians and other politically-informed readers will leap to the Nolan Chart, which adds a second axis to the traditional left-to-right axis and places libertarians in their own quadrant of the resulting 2D political spectrum. On the contrary, that model predicts too clean a tribal separation and fails to explain well why Greys are overwhelming thriving-minded. The Greys, I suspect, are fully members of the thriving-minded cluster but are partly separated from Blue by possession of a different guiding principle: their attitude toward the exercise of collective power. This is not well suited to placement on an axis. Thriving-minded folk have room for alternative visions for society according to many principles. For that matter, survival-minded folk also have alternate visions, usually according to their different religious traditions. So a Yellow tribe, if it is to be made, should presumably have its own guiding principle if it is thriving-minded and/or its own religion if it is survival-minded.

There’s an obvious sense in which the libertarian political position is designed to be perpetually out of power — they do, after all, want to basically dismantle the government and force themselves out of power whereas the other groups would eagerly re-expand government and re-acquire power if it disappeared. Another reason the Greys have only partially separated from Blues is because they have had shifting allegiances: they have been on different sides of the aisle at different historical moments, siding with Republicans when the Democrats are in power riding roughshod over the country’s economy, and siding with the Democrats when the Republicans are in power pushing their harsh theocratic social standards. The next most natural political slot for a Yellow tribe, then, may be to become the opposite of the Greys in this regard. Yellows could also grow yet remain only partially distinct by deliberately shifting allegiances, specifically by being inclined to cooperate with and defend the Reds when the Reds have power and to cooperate with and defend the Blues when the Blues have power. Yes, that means intentionally going where no one has dared go before: the lower quadrant of the Nolan Chart.

Nobody wants to join me in the bottom quadrant?

Nobody wants to join me in the bottom quadrant?

But fear not! Nazi or Bolshevik territory is far away, nor would Yellows bring new terrors to our shores, for the same reasons the other tribes here are not mass murderers in pursuit of their ideals: all aim for democratic, evolutionary change and reject autocratic, revolutionary change. The Nolan Chart is, as they say, the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, and consequently it fails to capture a great deal of important information. Above, I rejected the Nolan Chart as the right description for the Greys and here I also reject it for the Yellows. Political libertarianism in its pure form is the result of strict adherence to the Non-Aggression Principle. So while the bottom quadrant of the Nolan Chart is perhaps the correct quadrant for a group that is conspicuously upset about coordination failures and prediction calibration and is infatuated with libertarian-communism, this would be on account of adherence to a different principle: utilitarianism. Coordination failures, after all, are nothing if not unachieved achievable utility for the masses. A common way, if not necessarily the usual way, to correct coordination failures is to use government, whether that be on the economic side such as environmental protection regulations or on the social side such as setting up legal systems that make polyamory easy. The placement that Yellow earns on the Nolan Chart is an artifact of my effort to place Yellow equidistant from Red, Blue, and Grey; the fact that it ended up utilitarian is no coincidence either, but likely has already been spotted by frequent SSC readers: its defining list of items was drawn largely from SSC’s common blog topics. No surprise, then, that Yellow’s intensional definition turned out to look fairly consistently utilitarian in its philosophy.

There is likely some skepticism about how well the Yellow list hangs together. Here’s a brief run-down of my perspective, which I fully admit is colored by confirmation bias:

  • Libertarian-communism, like all forms of communism, is in part an attempt to solve the Great Big Coordination Failure, the competitive economy. Unlike virtually everyone else, the libcoms correctly predicted the outcome of communist parties seizing power. Libcoms aim, like relative utilitarianism, at equal consideration of every person. But the most important reason for utilitarians to tend toward libertarian-communist politics is the proposed organizational methods to kill Moloch, or in more traditional language, to reconcile individual and society.

  • Strongly held religious beliefs (albeit in this case atheistic humanist renditions of traditional religious beliefs) can motivate frequent meetings that cement community bonds, give people a ready-made way to plug into their communities, give opportunity for otherwise very awkward bonding experiences of all kinds, provide no-shame guidance on existential questions for people who want to ask, and caring for each other emotionally and materially in a way that neither government nor circles of friends can do as efficiently or effectively as a institutionalized community of shared values. A utilitarian tribe may be particularly interested in crafting their own religious tradition so that they can unify the survival-minded and thriving-minded ends of the political and cultural spectrum.

  • Getting the government to confiscate traditional guns but push people to own kirpan-like non-lethal guns dramatically would reduce the opportunity for a strong person to take advantage of a weak person in a criminal situation. It plausibly would enable people to respond immediately and everywhere to outbursts of violence, an omnipresence no cost-effective police force can achieve, as the Red folk argue, but the equipment would lack the ability to cause the massive numbers of accidental deaths or contribute to mass shootings, as the Blue folk argue standard guns do.
    Girl in the anarchist militia in the Spanish civil war

    Marina Ginestà, anarchist militia member fighting the Stalinists

  • Nutritionally complete GMO veggies and vat-meat currently have little incentive to be produced by the market, in which many Reds want an exercized right to eat unhealthily and many Blues want food produced with minimum science. Government funding of the research may bring them to market successfully and drive the price down, and with additional regulation could push animal flesh off the market and end malnutrition, two big utilitarian goals.

  • Public utilities’ provision of tap water is incredibly efficient, and flouridating and lithiating it solves public health issues. Tea consumption may have additional public health benefits.

  • Motorcycles are more fuel-efficient per person than buses at typical ridership rates, more parking-efficient than cars, have far better availability and coverage than public transportation, and may have lower accident rates than cars when cars are removed from public roads (which Yellows would do by regulatory fiat). Utilitarians may well support the switch to motorcycles as well as bicycles in most cities, paired with strict enforcement of traffic safety regulations. Between cities, utilitarians would likely support trains instead. In farming areas and other special cases, trucks would still be needed, of course.

  • Whereas the Reds love football, perhaps because it involves big burly men in displays of violence, and the Blues kinda wished they liked soccer because it’s international and teams hardly ever score against each other, and the Greys mock sports because they can’t organize a successful team, the Yellows love their cross between rugby and the board game Go because it involves the intelligent, purposeful, minimalist, and skillfully-coordinated strategy and violence. For all tribes it’s their politics reduced to play, rather than in earnest. There’s no need to hide from the fact that the state rests on the threat and, when necessary, exercise, of violence. (These are all more stereotypes than reality.)

  • Podcasts don’t fit the theme. Neither do emotionally-filtered, randomized playlists of all the world’s recorded music, except insofar as that implies that everyone would have access to all the world’s recorded music, and could play exactly the kind of music that gave them most utility at a particular time. The best I can say in favor of podcasts is that they’re faster than reading and they leave your eyes and hands free to engage in other tasks, which is of some benefit. (Hm, maybe I should make podcast versions of my blog posts…)

  • Comparing fictional countries to America could be relevant in that utilitarians would be keen on the results of simulations of policy proposals that have never been tried in the real world. If we don’t compare against fictional countries, then we’ll be stuck advocating only incremental reforms in the direction of the nearest local optima, when instead we could aim farsightedly to grand improvements in the achievement of human values.

  • And finally, marrying early and often (without divorces in between), and socially-pushed extreme polyamory in general, is the original communism, and partly solves the coordination problem of finding and pairing off with the One Right Person Forever.

Granted, every other political group under the sun will claim that its political philosophy is also the one that will lead to greatest utility. The difference is that, for these groups, the utilitarian argument is rarely the first argument chosen or the most motivating argument. Reds typically appeal first and most to their rights, to tradition, religion, and the worthiness of the rich and successful. Blues typically appeal first and most to civil liberty, to equality, global sentiment, and the suffering of the poor and unsuccessful. Greys typically appeal first and most to freedom, property rights, economic efficiency, and philosophical derivations from deontological assumptions. By contrast, Yellows would typically appeal first and most to pursuit of happiness, to solidarity, subsidiarity, and foresight.

Let’s do it. You, me, and a few million others. You might say that, if people who want to form a tribe around pragmatic coordination for the optimal utility of everyone can’t form one, then no one can.


3 thoughts on “Primary Color Tribalism

  1. I noticed your kind comment over at SSC, and thought I’d do you the courtesy of replying on your blog.

    I’m in Dallas, actually, but would love to get together if you’re up this way. In the meantime, your blog looks thought-provoking, and I’m glad to have discovered it.

    On the topic of this post: I’ve long noticed that the sort of European-style Christian Democracy (or Canadian-style Red Toryism) tendency to which us Catholics have traditionally been sympathetic (and which appealed to white ethnics so much in the Democratic Party of Al Smith’s and FDR’s day) places us at the dreaded bottom of the Nolan chart, too: “conservative” (in U.S. terms) on culture and “liberal” in U.S. terms on economics (i.e., supporting welfare, immigration, peace activism, and other causes beloved of most U.S. Catholic bishops). Since I’m neither a utilitarian nor a Nazi, there are at least three ways to end up in that quadrant of the Nolan chart–your Yellow Tribe, Catholic populism, and Fascism. (And yeah, Catholics do have an unfortunate weakness for Franco-style regimes. But still–not the same thing as the FDR platform!) All of which is just to say that the Nolan Chart is fun, but way too simplistic to be a lot of fun.

    Glad to make your acquaintance.


    • Thanks for getting back to me! Dallas is definitely beyond casual driving distance. Such is life in our enormous state!

      Euro-style Christian Democracy is definitely the prime example for a healthy existing political culture in that part of the Nolan Chart. Thanks for adding that. The Yellows will never really exist, as clear social utility-gains are not contentious political issues in the first place. Political fights come up when discrepant values and beliefs lead to starkly different conclusions. :-\


  2. Well, maybe I’ll get down to Austin sometime. I have in-laws near there.

    Meanwhile, I’ll remark that having read the back catalog here, I found your account of your journey into a Catholic theism sorta like mine maybe, and then back out of it again into atheism, sympathetic and attractive. I’ve ended up in a different place so far, obviously, but I resonate a lot with how you think, and I hope you’ll start blogging more often!


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