Human nature and libertarianism

There is another interesting topic in this month’s Cato Unbound, with Michael Shermer arguing in the lead essay that human nature is best represented by the libertarian political philosophy.

Shermer (rightly) spends most of the essay shooting down the blank slate vision of humans that underpins many policies on the left, and suggests that moderates on both the left and right should accept a “Realistic vision” of human nature. He then simply states that the libertarian philosophy best represents this vision. Unfortunately, Shermer provides no explanation about why that might be the case, and in particular, does not detail why libertarianism might better reflect human nature than conservatism.

In the first response to Shermer’s essay, Eliezer Yudkowsky puts Shermer’s argument as such:

[B]ecause variance in IQ seems to be around 50% genetic and 50% environmental, the Soviets were half right. And that this, in turn, makes libertarianism the wise, mature compromise path between liberalism and conservatism.

Yudkowsky’s response to this argument is spot on:

In every known culture, humans experience joy, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, and surprise. In every known culture, these emotions are indicated by the same facial expressions. …

Complex adaptations like “being a little selfish” and “not being willing to work without reward” are human universals. The strength might vary a bit from person to person, but everyone’s got the same machinery under the hood, we’re just painted different colors.

Which means that trying to raise perfect unselfish communists isn’t like reading Childcraft books to your kid, it’s like trying to read Childcraft books to your puppy.

The Soviets were not 50% right, they were entirely wrong. They weren’t quantitatively wrong about the amount of variance due to the environment, they were qualitatively wrong about what environmental manipulations could do in the face of built-in universal human machinery.

Shermer’s argument was a change from the line of reasoning that I have heard from him before, which is that if the left understood that capitalism is an emergent system like evolution, they would be more accepting of it. I find that argument even less convincing. My understanding of evolution provides one of the strongest challenges to my libertarian leanings – evolution is full of wasteful competition for relative status and what is good for the individual is often not good for the group.

The weakness of these arguments is probably reflected in the deeper rationale for Shermer’s libertarianism. As Yudkowsky questions, is human nature the real reason for Shermer’s libertarianism?

Would Michael Shermer change his mind and become a liberal, if these traits were shown to be 10% hereditary?

… Before you stake your argument on a point, ask yourself in advance what you would say if that point were decisively refuted. Would you relinquish your previous conclusion? Would you actually change your mind? If not, maybe that point isn’t really the key issue.

Yudkowsky’s answer to the question of why he is a libertarian is similar to mine:

When I ask myself this question, I think my actual political views would change primarily with my beliefs about how likely government interventions are in practice to do more harm than good. I think my libertarianism rests chiefly on the empirical proposition—a factual belief which is either false or true, depending on how the universe actually works—that 90% of the time you have a bright idea like “offer government mortgage guarantees so that more people can own houses,”someone will somehow manage to screw it up, or there’ll be side effects you didn’t think about, and most of the time you’ll end up doing more harm than good, and the next time won’t be much different from the last time.

A human nature thread could underlie some of this explanation, with the nature of individuals in government and bureaucracy shaping the outcomes from government intervention. However, an understanding of human nature, in itself, does not settle the case for libertarianism. It may provide some support, but it provides just as many challenges.

21 thoughts on “Human nature and libertarianism

  1. In your estimation, how does liberatrianism square with a hunter-gatherer ethnography consisting largely (if not completely) of egalitarian political arrangements?

    In practice, the libertarian political philosophy develops de facto hierarchies at the earliest stages. Building on Nozik’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the conditions for Moselle’s “predatory state” under the emergent political system we’ve arrived at through agrarianism seems to fundamentally mirror what would arise from a libertarian philosophy.

    Boehm’s, Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior, argues strongly that the sense of fairness in human nature induces substantial leveling mechanisms in HG bands that are imposed by the group on any “upstarts”. These mechanisms only seem to dissipate at the point at which violence becomes abstracted and put into service of property (land in this case) ‘rights’. If that’s the case, it seems that arguments that libertarianism is congruent with “human nature” are ignoring most of human evolution.

    —— Divergence from main point —–

    The issue of whether such ‘rights’ are natural rights seems self-evidently false. Yet, libertarians (perhaps a distinction from libertarianism) tend to argue in favor for land rights.

    To my mind, the modern obsession with land rights seems to be an outgrowth of the ecological context. Rather, the perceived lack of resources in comparison to those of others under the recognition that resources (land) are finite. This seems to be amplified by nation-state mentality and the historical context of armed state conflict. Thus, the motivation for land ‘rights’ simply appears to be a maladaptive expression of perceived resource scarcity.

    —– End divergence from original point —–

    The last part is rather speculative, and I’m more curious about your response to my original question… If hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, where/when/how is the bridge to libertarianism? It seems like a leap to me.

    1. I don’t believe that human nature is completely congruent with libertarianism – no political arrangement is. Rather, it is the preferred arrangement given human nature and the shape of the world today. Human nature may be strongly shaped by our history of living in egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, but we no longer live in them, and with our now massive ability to produce, acquire and store resources, we are not returning to them (I should read Boehm’s book, but my rough understanding of his thesis is that egalitarianism is underpinned by nomadism and no food storage – i.e natural limits to power). Today, power can be projected, governments entrench the interests of the rich and powerful (and often project power on their behalf) and I am not convinced governments could create an egalitarian society if they tried.

      I’m also not sure that the egalitarian, levelling mechanisms were optimal in hunter gather societies – the egalitarianism was often enforced through violence and the natural constraints to power. Personally, I would choose to live in today’s world.

      And that is the real beauty of the libertarian state. If someone wishes to form a small, egalitarian band, they can. It could be based on kin or those closest to them, as was the case for hunter-gather bands. The libertarian state will protect them from violence and coercion from others. It will also provide protection to allow honest trade with strangers, as I expect most people would want to keep the bounty from specialisation and trade that the modern world provides us, no matter what group arrangement they saw fit.

      1. First problem, I don’t see your vision of a realized libertarian state as any less Utopian than a return to hunter-gatherer existence.

        I don’t think it’s accurate to characterize nomadism and no food storage as “natural limits” (I also don’t think that’s Boehm’s argument, but I’ll leave that to your potential future readings). Rather, I think they are more accurately thought of as reactions to the unnatural limit of individual modern humans abdicating their ability to subsist independently on a day-to-day basis. This may appear to be two sides of the same coin, but I don’t think the distinction is trivial when we’re talking about human nature. Humans experience increased psychological stress loads when disconnecting from their own subsistence. Hunter-gatherers don’t need to worry about the future in the way a delayed-return tribalist or owner of a modern pantry and refrigerator because of their relative self-sufficiency. Because of this, HGs don’t even have a concept of time more than about three days into the future. They don’t celebrate birthdays or keep track of age other than by physical visual cues.

        I think there are (at least) three biases that prevent libertarianism from sufficiently coalescing with human nature. These being heuristic-based biases that were likely adaptive in the EEA, but are maladaptive in the current ecology.

        1) Wealth accumulation. The heuristic, “get as much as you can (for yourself, and family)”, would have met the “natural limit” of nomadism and storage across the EEA. I again hesitate to accept the term ‘limit’ because, as above, I think it implies a technological limitation that implies a deficiency in the lives of HGs that individual HGs don’t experience. In any case, when the behavioral bias based on this heuristic is exercised today, we end up with non-rational hoarding behaviors and obsessions about things like estate taxes. The concept of passing accumulated wealth from one generation to the next is an evolutionarily novel development of the agrarian state arising directly from land ‘rights’.

        I don’t have research at my fingertips, but the resentment of nepotism seems to be somewhat of a cultural universal. At least more frequently than we would expect on average. I suspect this has something to do with the references in the evolutionary psychology literature to “cheater detection”.

        To my mind, Thomas Jefferson’s vehement rejection of “the dead hand of the past” represents an intuitive insight into this aspect of human nature.

        2) Wealth accumulation (signal theory). The drive for status signaling (a la Miller via Veblen) provides a powerful hoarding motivation that was checked by “natural limits” in the EEA, but becomes problematic under the current system of state capitalism, and likely similarly under the libertarian state. However, a strictly libertarian state would likely allow this bias to multiply in unbounded fashion (assuming libertarian capitalism).

        3) The aforementioned egalitarian tendency. Stating that the modern context has changed in such a way to negate recognition of the tendency does not negate the tendency itself. Your argument that leveling mechanisms involved violence, and are therefore undesirable, establishes the false choice to return to the violence if we return to the egalitarianism. This significantly discounts our ability to come up with less violent leveling mechanisms now.

        The problem then becomes the additive effect of points 1 & 2 set against that of point 3. If, as I suggested in my first comment, the basis of a libertarian state is fundamentally the same as an agrarian state regarding its predatory nature, it’s not so easy to accurately predict the emergent properties of a libertarian state as so rosy. I think this is where human nature needs to be taken more seriously. If social interactions aren’t tuned to human nature, they’ll continue to breed contempt and disharmony. Saying that the libertarian state is the best we can do is thus far an unconvincing claim (I mainly refer to the original post and Shermer v. Yudkowsky).

        It’s easy for us to say we’d rather live in today’s world, but the ethnographic record is full of hunter-gatherer bands who resisted assimilation into the state. In fact, resistance of assimilation by the state is the norm. The agrarian states’ progress has been one of forced assimilation by way of slavery and conscription in service of land and its defense.

        There is an easy way to potentially bypass the criticism of a libertarian state merely replacing governmental authority with corporate authority. Namely, agrarian justice (perpetual land ownership replaced by ground rent). As I have written elsewhere, drawing on the work of James C. Scott, the fundamental driver of hunter-gatherers’ assimilation into states is not a matter of choice, but the state’s need for labor and a lack of frontier for hunter-gatherers to migrate to in order to “opt-out” of being controlled. The persistence of available frontier across human evolution provided a constant check on dominance hierarchies in addition to the groups’ leveling mechanisms.

        In your conception of a libertarian state, are there checks on “the dead hand of the past” in either accumulation of wealth passed from one generation for the next and/or perpetual land ownership? Would you permit corporate ‘persons’? If so, would they exist in perpetuity so long as the market pricing mechanism allows?

      2. On utopianism, the probability of a large-scale libertarian or hunter-gatherer society vision being realised in my lifetime are approximately zero. On the libertarian side of things, I tend to agree with Tyler Cowen that increasing wealth and big government are a package deal. However, on your points….

        1) Of all the ways in which people accumulate wealth, the “dead hand of the past” worries me little. Over time, inheritance tends to break up ownership (plus children don’t always share the traits that allowed their parents to accumulate their wealth). I am more concerned about wealth accumulation through corruption (Russia), making taxpayers bear the downside (investment banks), imposing externalities on others (big oil etc) and by government.

        I am also comfortable with the concept that corporate persons could exist in perpetuity (their ownership would be divided by individual inheritance as any other property). However, I would not consider most corporations today to represent that ideal – the hand of government stagnates the creative destruction that would occur in its absence. For example, banking would be looking much different today if government did not act to save those corporate persons who should die.

        On a more philosophical note, I don’t see inheritance as much different from gifting. If you have a concern about wealth accumulation, I am not sure inheritance is the best point to worry about it.

        This is not to say that I do not believe that the inequality that accompanies wealth accumulation has no negative side-effects – particularly if this inequality extends into areas such as mating opportunities. To me, this is one of the strongest challenges to the stability of a libertarian state in the long-term (although again, this might be a problem under many systems).

        2) I agree that libertarianism places no upper bound on wealth accumulation. But where egalitarianism is forced from above, the status seeking, diversely talented, differentially motivated humans do not respond positively. E O Wilson’s comment on Marxism, “Great Idea, wrong species”, came from a life of observing one form of egalitarian society (with a rather dominant queen). While wealth accumulation to the extent it is accumulated today may be evolutionarily novel, the desire to acquire resources is not. The question is which desires can be tapped to greatest good (or possibly, left alone).

        3) Given the above, what non-violent, egalitarian political systems are available for which there is any evidence that they may work? Do they involve an increase or decrease in government power?

        To me, the most interesting element of your comment relates to the absence of a frontier. Today, it is not easy to find one. But I would argue that it is under libertarianism that people will have the best chance to opt-out. The sea-steaders are not trying to escape unequal distribution of wealth – they are trying to escape government. Government are the major obstacle to the frontier. I wouldn’t rule out small pockets of libertarians finding a patch of frontier in the future – maybe they will agree to live under a hunter-gather style system. It would be interesting to see how it goes.

      3. Just a point of clarification: I can see the ambiguity in my phrasing, but I didn’t intend to conflate “dead hand of the past” arguments with genetic/familial inheritance. My examples don’t represent the idea in its entirety. It deals more with the myriad problems of ‘rights’ that arise when being born into a world in which everything is owned by agents of the relative past and governed by rules concocted by agents of the relative past. In the absence of frontier (a post-Jefferson development), this essentially results in being born owned (by the state), and is thus a problem that exists regardless of parents.

        E. O. Wilson is a smart dude, but sometimes I think he’s spent a little too much time with bugs. It’s hard enough to generalize primate behavior to humans, let alone ants. I find his comment to be more of a pithy soundbite than a true/useful axiom. I’m not particularly sympathetic to Marxism anyway, and I wouldn’t call Marxism egalitarian.

        “Given the above, what non-violent, egalitarian political systems are available for which there is any evidence that they may work?”

        Since all of the real-world examples of political systems are essentially iterations of the primitive agrarian “predatory state”, the question of evidence easily misdirects from the possibility of answers from outside that paradigm.

        “Do they involve an increase or decrease in government power?”

        It’s misleading to isolate power to government power in the current context in which much of the power is corporate power, which reflexively motivates and enables government power (military-industrial complex, et cetera). This goes back to my original point about the libertarian state mirroring the agrarian state at its foundation.

        Immortal corporate personhood with unlimited shareholders was an act by government to expand corporate power and amplify its reflexive impact on government power. Thus, my suggestion to ‘limit’ corporate power to ‘limit’ corporate power and government power (in turn) is a ‘limit’ in name only because the corporate power only exists artificially through government. However, libertarianS lose this context and would accuse me of increasing government by ‘limiting’ corporate power.

        I would be kinda sorta satisfied with the workability of a libertarian state (in respect to human nature) if 3 conditions were met:

        1) Quasi-frontier. If we assume the continued existence of nation-states, quasi-frontier may be enabled by the unrestricted ability of individuals to chose their nationality and/or place of residence. This is one area in which the market mechanism is currently being artificially, and almost totally, blunted. Not to mention the limitation is a violation of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” by every nation that signed it.

        Quasi-frontier would enable individuals to opt-out of domination and restore that fundamental fact of hunter-gatherer existence in the EEA. As frontier provided a check on dominance hierarchies in the paleolithic, it would provide a check on state power within the current context.

        2) Agrarian justice. Thomas Paine made a good argument and Henry George fleshed it out. I think Jefferson would agree that agrarian justice goes a long way to negating the “dead hand of the past”. It would also facilitate the practical application of condition #2.

        Hunter-gatherers have no concept of land ownership. While the human population is likely too high to do away with artificial delineations in land use, agrarian justice may be a sufficient compromise.

        3) A check on multi-generational wealth (and land) accumulation and monopolistic tendencies. I apply this to corporations and inheritance. In omni-present capitalism, there is no such thing as voluntary exchange as all interactions are mediated by capital. Leveraged and/or accumulated capital provides instant opportunities for exercise of power. It would also facilitate the practical implementation of point #2. As I alluded to above, this condition may, in some cases, be met simply by removing the artificial constructs government has reified.

        Anything arising out of point #3 must recognize and account for individual signaling. Thus, I don’t envision a concept of redistribution that checks individuals, only the unearned transfer from one individual to another. However, I find that the current implementation of state capitalism leads to a proliferation of faked and unreliable signals. I suggest that it is the recognition of this on some psychological level that is at the root of widespread public discord in things like the Wal-Mart effect.

  2. Egalitarian and libertarian are not synonyms. In fact, one would expect the forager “mind,” evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of resource sharing, to be more compatible with socialism.

    And, I think it is plain that the vast majority of people in all cultures prefer some sort of socialist arrangement. This is true of the US also.

    1. The more I think about this issue, the more I would characterise the “wish for equality” to be a wish to not be on the bottom. As a result, I would characterise the preference for socialist arrangements to consist more of a desire to not be on the bottom than for a distinct preference for those arrangements.

    2. I think this is an interesting question. From the standpoint of evolutionary theory, I think socialism is most like strong group selection, and therefore not likely to be aligned with human nature. However, I’m sympathetic to David Sloan Wilson’s arguments integrating multi-level selction, group selection et cetera, and think they should be considered as well.

  3. Jason, You don’t actually seem to take in or understand the legitimate concerns of Andrew. Do you not address them because you really don’t see them, or because you do not have any reasonable idea of how to deal with them?
    (Also, no one is suggesting a return to hunter-gatherer society)
    However, I think Andrew made very clear that the human tendencies towards wealth accumulation and a wish for equality will be in constant conflict in the future, independently of the political system, or lack thereof. Only a political system that can within itself address these issues can hope to survive without frequent violent outbursts of correction when either of these tendencies fails to balance the other. We can have different opinions of where the point of balance might be, but to fail to recognise the
    The most convincing argument for Libertarianism is, as usual, the lack of alternatives (until someone realise that a democratic state is preferable to the choice between the choice between corporative autocracy and starvation). For the left I can see how Libertarianism is preferable though, since it diminishes the organized means of capitalist oppression (i.e. the corrupt state). Wealth accumulation runs unchecked in both conservative and libertarian societies, but a libertarian state is less of an obstacle for the disenfranchised to overcome when restoring equality.

    Another two notes on the original
    A common misconception; Sovjet communists were not motivated by “unselfishness” but by the conviction that it was in their self-interest to cooperate in a communist system. For a while, the communistic system turned out to be very productive, more so than its capitalistic counterpart. Personal sacrifices were seen as longterm wealth accumulation to benefit the children.

    When it comes to heritability of intelligence, I think you have really gotten it quite wrong. While we indeed inherit some traits, the traits that we pass on to our children are very much modulated by how we live. I recommend you to listen to the “The First 1000 Days” series of the BBC Medical Matters podcast. It is sometimes not as informationdense as one could wish for, but politically, these findings are absolutely revolutionary.

    1. There is no political system that can successfully address the conflict between wealth accumulation and this “wish for equality” by making everyone more equal without hitting other issues – the same type that the centrally planned Soviet economies discovered.

      I don’t believe that the Soviet Communists were motivated by unselfishness – I have no doubt that the Communist leaders were as selfish as anyone.

      1. I agree. The two tendencies are contradictory; that is why these who traits would need to be balance eachother.

      2. This may have gotten lost in the shuffle, but I’m in favor of signals used by individuals (in line with Geoffrey Miller). I’m not sure that wealth accumulation is the best signal, but I don’t deny that it can be a reliable, and therefore ‘legitimate’, signal. Where I see the problem (that humans react to on a gut level) is in the proliferation of faked and unreliable signals that are not only enabled, but also encouraged by the current system.

        Jason mentioned gifting somewhere, and I think that the role of gifting needs to be scrutinized in this context.

        So, I agree that no political system can (or should) successfully address for wealth accumulation (as proxy for signals) on individuals. However, I also believe it can (and should) be successfully addressed for groups.

  4. Interesting post Jason. I really enjoyed the discussion in the comment section too.

    I would argue that some key issues that deserve further scrutiny are three:

    1. Our apparently hard-wired idleness when it comes to dealing with long-term threats.

    It could be argued that overpopulation and unsustainable consumption do merit some sort of coercive social order if we want to remain a viable species. Ensuring the supply of goods through proper ecosystem management forces us to redefine what does initiating force on others really mean. Like, for example, having a baby. The voluntary extra pressure on the biosphere could be understood as initiating force on others if the parents understood the real implications of overpopulation while they made the decision. Which leads me to:

    2. Accountability and complex cause-effect relations.

    Libertarianism tends to stop demanding accountability for one’s actions when the effect they have on others is indirect, but our current circumstances would merit extending the line to other issues such as the decision of buying furniture made from certified wood or not. This is, imo, a crucial aspect of global trade since we are almost never fully aware of the consequences of the consumption of a given good in the place where the goods or raw materials for the good where extracted. I am skeptical about to which extent would a hypothetically perfect access to information would be enough to generate the needed empathy for more sustainable consumption habits.

    3. Psychological determinism / Free Will

    How to compatibility the notions of merit and responsibility with the our, at best, partial lack of free will. This enough to prevent me from comfortably embracing meritocracies in which environmental factors are very diverse and thus would empower or handicap people depending on their life history.

    About wealth accumulation, I think it turns into an issue when the people belonging to the lower part of the gap in income inequality are not able to meet their basic needs (mating included). And yes, this would imply defining what are basic needs really. Neurobiology would come handy here as it would enable us to associate certain conditions with neuronal activity related to pain or discomfort…

    1. Addendum: I omitted one sentence on idea 1:
      …others really mean. Like, for example, having a baby The voluntary…

      [Fixed up in the your comment above}

    2. On issue 2, that is the point where my position differs from that of many libertarians – I am willing to draw a much wider group of indirect harms into the mix through appropriate pricing of externalities and protection of ecosystems. I agree that empathy is unlikely to deliver many promising results.

  5. I self identify as an individualist, and while I think that there is a lot of overlap between individualism and libertarianism, I don’t feel comfortable giving myself the “libertarian” label because of some of its associations. After all, I am for a public option in health care and schooling, and a bare minimum social safety net:

    One important point that I want to make is that I think that any discussion of political theory is completely meaningless if it is not couched a system of morality. Morality is the “why” behind the “what.” The process of designing a government is an optimization problem, but one cannot perform an optimization problem without a clear understanding of what variable or equation he is trying to optimize. I, personally, take human life, and mine in particular, as a standard of value. In my opinion, this is also the standard of value that is put forth in the Declaration of Independence.

    In my mind, the obvious variable that we would want to maximize in this optimization problem is “value creation” in the general sense, which loosely tracks to GDP, at least in a world in which incentives are perfectly aligned. I do not disagree with the premise that efficient markets produce maximum GDP. My problem with libertarianism stems from the simple fact that markets are inefficient. The cause of this inefficiency stems directly from the concept of life as a standard of value. Basically, since life has infinite value, any contract involving human life on one side and not the other results in a value imbalance. If you just got bitten by a snake and I have the antidote in my pocket, you will be willing to pay any amount of money to me for the antidote. It should be self evident how this example relates to health care.

    So if we accept that 1) government’s role is to maximize GDP, 2) efficient markets maximize GDP, and 3) market inefficiencies are caused by value discrepancies as a result of life having infinite value, then we now have agreement on terms, and the discussion can now be about the “how.” That becomes a debate about facts, not ideology.

  6. The simple question of leftist statist impotention is not interesting at all is the life has already did it. The problem of Libertarianism is its seing the humans just as the goods producers, not the society members as the conservatives understand.This explains the childish political ideas.

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