An Interview With Robin Hanson, the Sex Redistribution Professor

Robin Hanson in 2006. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Andy Miah/Wikipedia.
Robin Hanson. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Andy Miah/Wikipedia.

Earlier this week, I published an article asking whether Robin Hanson was the “creepiest economist in America.” The George Mason University professor had become Twitter-notorious for a blog post in which he used a recent misogynist murder spree in Canada as an opportunity to ponder a world in which sexually frustrated young men might form a political movement to try to “redistribute” sex, and compared those who might want to do this to progressives who want to redistribute income. The reaction was not kind, and Hanson found himself trying to explain that he hadn’t intended to advocate for rape or violence against women, or to suggest support for violent “incels.” It didn’t help matters that the professor has a history of controversial writing on gender issues and has written supportively of the men’s rights movement.

The reaction to Hanson’s post was swift and appalled. We are now in the reaction to the reaction phase, after Ross Douthat wrote his own piece exploring the idea of “sex redistribution.” In response to my piece, however, Hanson did something a bit unexpected: He embraced the label I gave him, writing a blog post titled, “Why Economics Is, And Should Be, Creepy.” In it, he spent some time reviewing the academic literature on creepiness and concluded that the term seemed apt, but not necessarily bad, in his view, since it represented the field’s willingness to be intellectually adventurous.

“Economists often consider language and policies that violate world norms, which makes them possibly threatening,” he wrote. “While many surface indications suggest they have the best of motives, they also have many quirks that make them seem a bit odd. So they are harder to trust. Making economists an ambiguous threat. Which is to say: economics is naturally a bit creepy.”

Hanson and I talked about that post and more during a long phone call on Wednesday and a follow-up call on Thursday. He had originally asked to publish a response to my piece on Slate, but instead agreed to a Q&A. We had a fairly wide-ranging conversation, and the interview has been edited significantly for length and slightly for clarity. Two of my follow-up questions appear first below, while another two appear at the end of the transcript.

Jordan Weissmann: What exactly did you mean by the phrase “redistribute sex”?

Robin Hanson: I had in mind the general concept of changing the distribution of sex. The concern is about inequality and sex. And that’s represented in the distribution of sex. And I had in mind policies that might influence that distribution. And since sex is a very complicated thing, it’s influenced by a great many elements of our lives; that means there’s potentially a great many policy levers. Many people who thought of me as an advocate thought it was appropriate to demand that I give specific proposals. What was I proposing? And I said, well, I’m not trying to give specific proposals. I’m trying to talk about the general idea of doing something in this space.

I listed a number of concrete examples. But I didn’t think of those as obviously the best, just the things that we know about, or come to my mind. There was legalizing prostitution. There is giving people money who have less sex, so they could use it for various things. There is perhaps some training they could undergo. There is promotion of monogamy and discouragement of promiscuity, because those apparently seem to have influenced the distribution of sex. And I gave the example of promoting monogamy to show that societies have had policies in this space for a long time that have been effective. So it’s not like it’s impossible to have any policies here, or that nobody’s interested.

In your blog post in response to my article, you wrote that economists should sometimes be creepy. But do you think it’s possible that certain creepy arguments, or some of the language you use when writing about sex, contributes to the environment that alienates women from economics?

I don’t know. The claim was that economists have an important role to play in re-examining our social practices and institutions from scratch using our best theory, and that we—our society—has many quick heuristic norms about what sorts of things shouldn’t touch or connect to which other things, and which policies shouldn’t be used where. And that we should push past those in our analysis. If it’s true that women are less comfortable with that, then in general, that might be more off-putting to women. If it happens to be true that women are less comfortable with doing that on particular topics like sex, then the fact that that happens with sex might put them off.

Have you ever considered asking a women in your office, when you’re writing on one of these very sensitive issues about gender and sex, “Hey, am I crossing a line here? Is there something I’m not thinking about?”

Obviously the more I expected something to generate a hostile or unexpected reaction, the more I would try to be careful. But that comes at a cost. It’s time-consuming to have people review your posts and give you comments on them before you post them. And most people don’t. Most bloggers, I think it’s pretty clear, don’t have people pre-read their posts before they post them.

Do you have a number of female colleagues at the economics department at George Mason?

I have female colleagues. But they’re not near me in the office structure.

Do you ever talk with them about these subjects?

No, but honestly, I hardly ever talk to any of my colleagues about these subjects. Male or female.

Do you think the dearth of women in economics is a serious issue for the field right now?

I believe that on average, since women are being discriminated against, we would better off if we didn’t do that. If we didn’t discriminate against women there would be more of them and we’d be better off as a result. That seems like a really easy thing to conclude. I don’t know if it’s a big thing. I don’t know if it’s a large effect on the profession. I think that we have other much larger problems than that. But it’s certainly a problem.

You’re a fan of the men’s movement, or the men’s rights movement. What appeals to you about it?

Well, I have a somewhat contrarian bent, as do many of my colleagues. So when I hear a point of view presented as being contrarian, and plausibly so in the sense that it’s not the dominant point of view and people criticize it, that makes me curious. And if upon a first cut browse of that point of view, it seems plausible or even reasonable, that’s interesting because most don’t meet that standard. And so men’s rights does plausibly meet that standard.

Feminists have long also said that standard social roles and expectations hurt men as well as women. But having men say “and this specifically is how they are hurting us,” and “this is how law and policy is hurting us,” takes that further. So I thought it was plausible to note that male parents were consistently losers in custody battles. And often courts would assign the man financial responsibility to a child that was not actually theirs because the court thought somebody should be paying. That also seemed to me a legitimate complaint. And of course, there are statistics that on many parameters men are more widely distributed than women. Men have a higher variance. And it includes many success parameters. Often there are more men at the high end of the distribution of success, but also more men at the low end, in failure. And the men’s rights people were pointing to that low end saying there seemed to be less sympathy for that. These are things that seem to me, on the face of it, plausible arguments.

I think that when a lot of people hear the phrase men’s rights activists, though, they associate it with a certain kind of misogyny. Can you see why some people would feel suspect of someone who says hey, “I’m a fan of the men’s right’s movement?”

So, I have a book out recently co-authored with Kevin Simler called The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, which is about why we’re not fully aware of many of our motives. One of the chapters is on politics. And in that chapter we say we like to think about politics in terms of promoting better policy. But it’s actually more about taking sides and showing your side that you’re with them. And I think that is in fact what happens more in these cases. So that people’s first reaction to hearing somebody like me say anything about a topic is to ask, “What cues can I get out of this about what side they’re on? And am I on that side or against it?” And I think that does play out here. And that’s an obstacle for someone trying to do abstract academic analysis, which is that people will mostly ignore the analysis. And take these cues to decide what side you’re on and react that way.

Do you think the men’s movement has a misogyny problem, and a violence problem, at this point?

I’m not close enough to it to really know much about the different subgroups, and their affiliations, and their pattern. I think we just have a general problem that when there are differences in opinion, the loudest, most outrageous people get far more disproportionate attention. And so that’s a problem with our discourse all over the place. And certainly it happens on the other side too. People on the right can find the most extreme, crazy sounding people on the left to point to and say those people think like this. And therefore, I’m not so crazy dismissing them. And so that’s a problem. Because people like yourself are drawn to finding the most extreme, dramatic quotes they can find, wherever they go searching. Given the large amount of stuff published today, you’re going to be able to find extreme stuff. And then the key question is how representative is that of the larger group of people who share those concerns. And our current media world does a lousy job helping people estimate that. I’m not saying that it must only be a tiny fraction. I’m saying how can you tell? As an observer like myself who hasn’t looked into it, how do I know how representative that is. And so that’s why I don’t speak to it. I don’t take a stance on those communities. On their opinions, and their attitudes, and whether they’re praise-worthy.

But your stance is that when you think they have a point, you’re happy to think about it and discuss it?

In general, as you probably know, people like myself think abstractly and write abstractly. And most of the time when we write an abstract blog post, it just falls completely flat and nobody’s interested. And people constantly tell us what you need to do is have one of these ideas and wait until it’s in the news, and then if you blog on it, then people will be more interested.

So is that what you did here? You saw a news hook.

Right. I said, “Oh, look, here’s an excuse to talk about a subject I’ve talked about many times before because it’s in the news.”

Oof, I gotta tell you man, as a journalist, I understand the impulse. As a reader, it didn’t strike me as the best time to launch into a sympathetic take on sexually frustrated men given that one had just mowed down 10 people with a van.

Right. And I hear you. And that sounds plausible. And if I had thought these things through more carefully, I would have paid more attention to that. And honestly, you know, in addition to many idiosyncratic things, I am probably personally less able to and inclined to think those things through. I’m more the nerdy intellectual type in his own head, trying to understand the world and work out puzzles and theories.

Your post said that being sexually frustrated may be as bad as being poor, and seemed to suggest that sexual inequality might be as big an issue as income inequality. Why do you think that’s the case?

Well, I haven’t failed to notice that sex is a big thing. As I mentioned many times over the years, many people say explicitly sex is a big thing to them. Many people say explicitly that not having sex is a big thing. And that sounds plausible to me of course because I’ve sometimes had less than at other times. And that was a big thing for me. And of course, sex is a huge part of literature and common conversation. So it’s obviously a big thing to people. One question is how big, perhaps. But note, for the structure of my argument, I don’t need to claim that sex is as important or more important than income. I just need to say that it’s in the ballpark, comparable. That it’s the sort of thing you might consider. So you don’t actually have to choose between dealing with income inequality and sex inequality. You could be trying to deal with both, even if one is smaller than the other. To me the interesting point is that many people are all over and into income redistribution. And those people seem hostile to the idea of sex redistribution. And on the other side, the people interested in sex redistribution don’t seem to be very interested in income redistribution. And that’s an interesting phenomenon and puzzle.

I’ve noticed that you bring this up somewhat frequently in your work. You hit on this point that people are not interested in all sorts of inequality. There are select kinds of inequality that draw their attention. What I can’t tell is if you think that somehow invalidates their concerns about the sort of inequality they care about.

This recent book, The Elephant in the Brain, concludes that we are often wrong about our motives. Its main method is to focus on puzzling behaviors that are the main clue to the difference between the motives we claim and the motives we actually have. So I’m all about noticing puzzles and trying to dig into them. And one of the possible hypotheses to consider in these puzzling behaviors and cases is that people are not honest with themselves about their motives. So yes, that’s obviously a candidate explanation here.

So you think that people who worry about income inequality just might not be sincere?

Well they might not be fully aware of their own motives.

What other motives do you think might be behind their concerns?

Well, I have a blog post that you may have seen or not suggesting that inequality talk may be about grabbing.

It’s a way to gain power over other groups?

I noticed that among the many types of inequality we could focus on, we focus on the one that’s easiest to grab a lot, that makes it easiest to take things and then have an excuse for taking things. So that is suspicious to me. It’s not definitive.

Another plausible hypothesis, though, I should say, is that we inherited a huge amount of default concerns from our ancestors as foragers. We spent 1 million years or 2 million years as foragers and have only really spent 10,000 years or so after that. And foragers consistently redistributed food and protection. And they did not redistribute sex. So, you could just say that default presumption has remained from a forager ancestry. That’s another plausible hypothesis to explain this difference.

Isn’t the simplest explanation that money’s really important and you can’t live without it?

We live in a rich society.

Not everybody is rich, though. That’s the whole point.

They’re still rich compared to most people who ever lived in history. Compared to the median person in history, almost everyone in our society is rich. And so, the threat of not dying if you don’t have enough money is really a pretty minor threat for the vast majority of people in rich societies.

Is that the standard we really want to judge by now? Not dying?

Well that’s the one you mentioned!

I want to move on to another one of your most controversial posts or series of posts, where you compared infidelity—the phrase you used was cuckoldry—to rape. You eventually said it was a bit like “gentle, silent rape.” Why do you think those two things are potentially equivalent?

So just to be clear, the scenario is a man spends his life raising a child that is not his. And they do that unknowingly and without having agreed to it. It’s not any mere infidelity that we’re talking about here. And so we’re comparing that to rape. And in the background, I was using a sort of simple evolutionary heuristic to ask roughly what would we guess the overall level of concerns about these things to be, if evolution had encoded our concern about them with a connection to their evolutionary harm. We do this a lot with human behavior and animal behavior: We look at what is in their evolutionary interest and then we try to explain behavior that way. And so, from that larger evolutionary perspective, it’s quite plausible that cuckoldry would be a larger harm than rape, because cuckoldry is actually is actually having lost that evolutionary heritage, and rape is the potential of that.

What drew you to this subject? You’ve come back to it over a series of years. It’s clearly something you are interested in. It wasn’t a one-off post.

I teach law and economics. And so I’m frequently thinking about various elements of law and asking about our differential treatment of different things in law. It’s a legal phenomena and it seemed to be an interesting question. Another data point we have is that until the last few hundred years, most societies in the farming era did consider cuckoldry a larger harm than rape.

In the last few hundred years there’s been a number of very strong long-term trends in attitudes and values that are striking. We’re more anti-slavery, pro-equality, pro-democracy, pro-leisure, pro-art, lower fertility. And one common favored explanation for these trends is moral discovery: that we have just reasoned about these problems and now better understand the moral truths about what better behaviors and attitudes toward these things are. I don’t find that very plausible as an explanation. One reason is that this theory of moral discovery predicts that it should look roughly like a random walk, because that’s how information processes change things, but instead it looks like steady trends.

And I instead favor a theory that the proximate cause is increasing wealth—that we are primed to change our attitudes on many of these things due to being rich. And the more underlying cause is that we are reverting to forager-like values as we get rich. Foragers are more attuned with nature and their feelings, and they basically lived doing what felt right, and that usually went roughly right. And farming was only possible because we had enough cultural plasticity to rein that in, and produce a lot of self-control through conformity pressures and religion, to create a whole different set of values and behaviors that was actually somewhat at odds with our forager nature. In the last few hundred years we’ve been getting rich, and as we get rich, these implicit threats that kept us true to the farming ways have just felt less plausible and compelling. And we have drifted back toward forager attitudes, which explains most of these major trends.

I’m less inclined than most people, or even most of my colleagues, to focus on moral judgments about all of these things. I’m interested in morality as a social phenomenon, trying to understand where it comes from and predict it. But I just tend to think that for the purposes of understanding our world, making my own moral judgments isn’t that useful.

Someone can look at your work and see a guy who has expressed a lot of sympathy for, as you put it, beta males who are sexually frustrated. A guy who is very worried about cuckoldry, which is an issue relating to women’s sexual behavior and whether or not they’re sneaking around and lying to men. That you are at least willing to entertain and at least talk about ideas like sexual redistribution, which even if some people might have interpreted that in a more malign way than you intended it, is still a frightening concept. They might look at all that and say, hey, this guy, even if he isn’t saying it outright, he’s interested in patriarchy.

Let me first note that if we made any sort of rough estimate about how important sex is in people’s lives, I doubt it would fall below 10 percent. And I have spent substantially less than 10 percent of my intellectual career thinking about sex. So, compared to its relative importance, I have underemphasized it. So I don’t see myself as someone who is unusually obsessed with sex with respect to my writing. There are many people whose whole careers are focused on sex, and sex relations and gender and mating. And I am not one of those people by far.

Again, I think if you read Elephant in the Brain, I think you would see that I am more willing to explicitly step back from the world we are in—the industrial era and norms and values and behavior and attitudes—and look at it in the context of the other great eras that have gone before us. The farming and the forager eras and potential future eras, like the age of em, and look at them more neutrally, and ask how to understand which ones had better attitudes, or better behaviors, and to understand how to compare them.

In that mode, I do not want to automatically presume that the norms of my era are obviously the best and that everybody in all times and places should follow them. Therefore, if you think of the traditional farming era world or you think of the foraging era world as patriarchy, then I am giving an open mind to patriarchy. I am asking why it’s there and what functions it served and why it might be a reasonable response to the context and not just presuming that they didn’t have our moral discovery and they didn’t have our moral lessons and that they were wrong and we are right.

You talked about how people often aren’t aware of their own motivations or aren’t honest with themselves about their own motivations. Do you ever doubt your own motivations?

I try to. But it’s hard. Honestly, I think we each have a limited budget of honesty. And to the extent that I’m going to spend that budget, I think it’s more effective to look at typical, average, human behavior, and try to explain it, and not get too far into my own behavior to explain it.

A straightforward motive story about my article, which I’m happy to not deny at least, is the story that I’m a libertarian. I lean libertarian. And libertarians have often been more skeptical of rationales for income redistribution. That seems anti-libertarian to them. And so, I and they are more primed to look for doubts about, you know, or defects in people’s concepts of redistribution. And so this comparison of sex inequality is an example of something that calls redistribution into question.

So are you trying to highlight the hypocrisy of people who support income redistribution but are not open to an idea like sex redistribution? Or are you just genuinely confused about why people who favor one don’t favor the other?

I am not sure why we treat these things differently. I suspect we may not have a good reason for treating them differently, but I don’t know that. One of the reasons we treat them differently may well be hypocrisy. That’s certainly one of the theories on the table. But it’s also true on the other side that the people who are interested in sex inequality but not interested in income inequality would also be hypocrites under that theory. But that’s one of the theories on the table. It’s not a strong conclusion.

A problem with our usual political world is that we expect people to be taking stances and that the main reason that they’re in that sort of world is to push some sort of view. So the stance of an analyst standing back and saying gee, I wonder why you do these things, I expect feels a little odd to people who hear the usual policy advocacy in this space.

But you do have an history of expressing sympathy for sexually frustrated men and with expressing some interest in the men’s rights movement. So I guess I am still wondering, do you think this idea you expressed, of redistributing sex, is potentially a good idea?

Potentially, sure, that’s the whole point. If it’s an open question—it couldn’t be an open question if it weren’t potentially a good idea.