Nostalgia, Traditionalism, and Economics

Nostalgia is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” Between the late 1600s and early 1900s, nostalgia was considered a psychological illness particular to the Swiss. Swiss mercenaries traveling into the lowlands to fight expressed an almost crippling homesickness, along with bouts of weeping, arrhythmia, and anorexia. We now know that nostalgia is common to peoples the world over, regardless of profession, gender, or age.

In fact, new research shows that “situations that trigger negative emotions, feelings of loneliness, and perceptions of meaninglessness cause people to become nostalgic … [Nostalgia] is a psychological resource that people employ to counter negative emotions and feelings of vulnerability. Nostalgia allows people to use experiences from the past to help cope with challenges in the present.” It fights boredom, loneliness, and a sense of impending mortality. 

Interestingly, mass nostalgia can create perverse outcomes. Thought it functions as a coping mechanism on the individual level, it can grind progress to a halt on a societal scale. Those who express the most longing for the past are often those in legacy professions: they are steelworkers, truckers, and non-industrial farmers. As society’s progress surges forward, they see their way of life hobbled, so they escape into a prior time, when their culture and beliefs were intact. But this introduces confirmation bias: they remember the good while overlooking plagues, war, slavery, and all manner of human repulsiveness. As more and more people long for this biased memory of the past, their belief system crystallizes into traditionalism.

Instead of just remembering and longing for the past, traditionalists attempt to bring the past back. By halting progressive legislation (not in the liberal sense, but in the sense of actual progress), traditionalists prevent society from moving forward. For example, Mary Lou Bruner, a teacher and Board of Education member in Texas, believes that climate change is a hoax and that evolution is an atheist ploy to gain membership (see more of her beliefs here). George W. Bush defunded stem cell research that held the key to regrowing lost limbs and failing organs. Many GOP members want to shut down Planned Parenthood, which is legitimately a necessary service; developmental economists around the world affirm that access to sexual healthcare is critical to the functioning of a modern society.


It’s not surprising that social conservatives are the people who are most nostalgic. Conservatism, by definition, equates to traditionalism. Many of these people (at least in this election cycle) are poorer than they used to be or else face stagnant wages and no real prospects of advancement. If you saw your entire way of life destroyed by technological progress during your lifetime, you’d want to go back too.

Additionally, it’s important to note that social and technological progressivism are tied up together (there’s a reason tech companies are backing Hillary). So these people who don’t want more technological progress transitively don’t want social progress, because the two are intertwined. But that viewpoint is fallacious. Nothing has resisted the force of progress for long; even relatively static belief systems (like religion) have bent to fit new social mores.

Pope Francis

Furthermore, in economics, the Solow residual states that economic growth is driven not by increased labor or capital accumulation, but increased productivity. The only way to consistently grow productivity is to encourage technological innovation. Thus, the nostalgic Luddism we see from traditionalists actually exacerbates the problems they face. By resisting positive change, those who are hurting financially are preventing economic growth. They won’t be able to realize any opportunities because those opportunities won’t exist.

When people begin to deny STEM education, intellectualism, and progress, society itself shuts down. According to the Solow residual, such denialism will hamstring our economy. No one will make new discoveries. The quality of our teachers will plummet. Everyone will face stagnant wages. Even our life expectancies will decrease. If we need to let go of the past to save the future, so be it; a rising tide lifts all boats (even if it lifts some more than others).

Also published on Medium.

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