But when common sense and evidence suggests that low social mobility and income inequality reduce economic growth, why would any government act in a way to promote their own? This assumption is based on the idea that people behave in a way that always maximised the benefits for the whole group. If you look at the way animals behave this is not the case, decisions are typically made to get the best rewards for the individual, sometimes these coincide with behaviours that benefit the group and in these cases cooperation occurs. But taking humans as a good example, Robert Mugabe benefits by using state funds to let his wife go shopping in Europe but the country as a whole suffers.
How does this relate to our beloved Tories? (Just remember this is pop-evo-psychology) I place nepotism in our political classes squarely at the feet of mutualism and reciprocal altruism. Both parties are likely to benefit from these interactions, but as Bill Hamilton pointed out: many of these benefits may not be realised until the future. Vampire bats famously give blood meals to individuals who were unsuccessful on their nights foraging, but bats are more likely to share with individuals who have previously given them food. Helping progress the career of someone from a high socioeconomic class may be more likely to result in a benefit to you further down the line, after all they are wealthier. Also knowledge of past interactions helps inform how likely you are to gain future benefits, cheating is rife in animal systems and like vampire bats past interactions may play a role in shaping who we chose to help. If someone has gone to the same school or university as you and moves in the same social circles then it’s easier to gauge these things. You may also have more accurate information about their actual ability, so you may be more certain of what you are getting compared to an individual from outside of your group.
But to keep things honest, and I am not saying nepotism is honest, costs are often used to deter cheating. When the cost of cheating is high then it is less likely to happen. If an individual is in your social circle or friendship group and cheats then the social cost is quite high. Therefore, it may be harder to enforce the reciprocal nature of altruism when helping individuals from outside a known group.
Finally, on our tour of why people help each other, is kin selection. The theory here is that you assist those who share more of their genes with you than other individuals, to improve their chances of breeding and increasing those shared genes. How on earth does this relate to politicians? Well it doesn’t relate directly, but kin selection and relatedness is a strong factor in group structure in animals and potentially our ancestors. This is really straying into pop-psychology now, but if these same attitudes have been extended to for example the football teams we support then why not our social classes? In group- out group dynamics, an idea of us and them may be a by-product of kin selection on our ancestors. An idea of we help our own not those other people, may have arisen from this.
All of the above don’t take into account the pervading culture of societies, as these will change the costs and benefits of nepotism. For example strict policing, by police not by other individuals as happens in ants and bees, may provide a high cost to nepotistic behaviour. But I hope that I’ve given some insight into why it might be that the ‘old boys club’ might exist, and by understanding why it exists we can seek to change the costs and benefits of this behaviour to stop it from happening and improve social mobility and our economic future.
If this rambling post has piqued your interest into why animals and humans cooperate then here are a few interesting papers that deal with altruism and cooperation:
Fehr & Fischbacher (2003) Nature, 425:785-791
Clutton-Brock (2002) Science, 296:69-72