Libertarianism: A Force of Nature

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R.W. Bradford’s classic article liThe Two Libertarianisms” (reprinted March 2008), clarified some issues for me. Bradford contrasts a libertarianism based mainly on moral principles – what is right – with a libertarianism based mainly on I I consequentialist” principles – what works to produce I I a way of life under which human beings thrive.” Bradford’s discussion of “moralist libertarianism” helped me a great deal. Untrained in the philosophical underpinnings of the libertarian movement, I could not comprehend the apparent naivete of certain ideas I frequently heard.

One was the Libertarian Party’s famous “non-aggression” principle: the idea enshrined in the party’s declaration, “No man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against another man.” Right on! But why would anyone expect members of the most aggressive species on the planet to refrain from aggression? I was reminded of “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” Having the doubtful benefit of learning a bit about Marxism by growing up in a People’s Republic, I realized that Marx had no clue as to the workings of the real world. I came to suspect that the proponents of “moralist libertarianism” had no better grip on reality.

Of course, some people argue that it would be difficult to attract fighters to the barricades of libertarianism if the high moral ground were given up. But that sounds spurious to me. I have no desire to mix with moral fanatics. Nothing but destruction and failure is likely to result from such associations. I prefer the unglamorous “bathtub and candy bar merchants” – predictable, hard-working people who are unlikely to take extreme or desperate measures.

In my opinion, the ultimate success of the libertarian movement will come (if ever) not from a victorious revolution but from patient persuasion of our neighbors that, yes, every- one can live a decent life by counting on himself, without Big Brother’s suffocating embrace. There is no point in rallying against corrupt politicians if the populace still expects them to deliver handouts. Politics will transform itself only when the people’s expectations change. It may take a major social upheaval, initiated by a major failure of government, for popular sentiment to be modified, but until then the best course is to educate ourselves and our friends about how to manage a truly free society. There is a lot to think about. After all, has anybody really tried it before?

But in response to Bradford’s challenge to define the basis of libertarianism, I want to present some thoughts coming from a less philosophical perspective.

I believe there are hard, biological reasons to believe that libert~rianideas are favored by evolution (or the Superior Intelligence, whatever your inclination). During the past 40 years, a new discipline, sociobiology, emerged to poke about the roots of social organization, using tools of scientific inquiry instead of speculation in the language of poets

When the first cities were built, the division of labor resulted in a leap in productivity and wealth. But tax collectors, and rule by threat, could not be far behind.


and social theorists. While sociobiology has been with us for a while, its implications are not familiar to most libertarians. Without pretending to be an expert in sociobiology or evolutionary biology (I am a surgeon), I’d like to provide an introduction to some ideas that are well worth knowing.

There are two primary reasons for an organism – whether a garden weed or an American homeowner – to take an action: self-preservation and reproduction. Everything else derives its meaning and motivation from these primary, selfish goals. Regardless of the· way in which the first strand of DNA came to be, it had to exploit its environment in order to derive energy needed to combat the inexorable gnawing of entropy. Crowded by other forms of life, and pummeled by the hazards of their surroundings, early organisms used occasional errors in the transcription of genetic codes to evolve protective cellular membranes, grow into multicellular beings, and achieve social organization. Nothing too controversial so far, just the textbook teachings of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics.

But the classical theory of evolution could not explain the “altruism” that developed in human and other mammalian species. It might make sense for an animal (including the furless kind) to risk its life to protect a set of genes encoded in the body of its offspring, but being killed or injured in defense of any other being would be counterproductive in terms of evolution. So, was this the defeat of evolutionary science? Was it time to concede to mystical motivations, to celebrate unselfish love and high-minded sacrifice as the explanation for human history?

No, it wasn’t time for “Kumbaya.” Kin-selection theory offers a much more plausible, if considerably less romantic, explanation. It appears that the roots of our selfishness r~ach deeper than individual consciousness. The primordial life that powers us, the DNA, cares only about itself, its own preservation and replication. The sophisticated structure that is built around it, a magnificent human body, serves merely as. the genes’ vehicle and multiplication factory, expandable WIthout regret when the calculus of gene proliferation so dictates. Evolution favored the reproductive success of individuals who were more prone to self-sacrifice, so long as an act of heroism augmented the survival rates of brothers, sisters, and cousins.

An example: a soldier throws himself on a hand grenade to save a few mates from the certain death. We celebrate the act of heroism; it is worthy and laudable; but its origins can be traced all the way to the selfish DNA that inserted an altruistic gene into the brave man’s body.

“Ah, not so fast!” an alert critic might say. “The soldiers in the foxhole are unlikely to be closely related; they almost certainly carry different genotypes. How can you claim that the hero’s death will help to spread his genes?”

I make no such claim. The self-sacrificing soldier’s DNA was duped. For millions of years, small bands of our ancestors consisted of closely related individuals: brothers, sisters, and first cousins. The DNA has no mystic abilities to tell brothers apart from strangers if they happen to dwell in the same closely knit unit. The armies of the world have always taken advantage of this confusion. It has been well documented that it is the survival of close buddies that motivates soldiers in battle; grand words about the beloved country, honor, and God come later, about the time of medal pinning. This explanation isn’t likely to get much praise from songwriters, but at least it’s real, and deeply grounded in our inheritance as humans.

The logic driving the development of highly complex beehIves, anthIlls, bands of primates, or human societies is directly related to the advantages that such organizations afford. The higher efficiencies of food and shelter provision, of safety, and of increased opportunities to reproduce made these sophisticated associations the preferred way of propagating genes. But the advantage came with a price – loss of Independence, even the forfeit of individual identity in some insect communities. Anthills are not friendly places for exuberant individualist or their political movements. Highly specialized communIties have to live by stringent rules.

Still, the evolutionary track of homo sapiens thrust us toward more individual intelligence and self-conscious identity, augmenting the human potential for independent life. This relative autonomy obviously complicates the challenge of governing our societies. Pity the rulers of human populations! Just recall the trouble that discovery of the word “I” produced in Ayn Rand’s “Anthem.”

Let’s think some more about rules. Methods have evolved to maintain rules of cooperation in groups of homo sapiens. These methods can be broadly classified into three categories:

1. The threat system. Rules are enforced by threats of retaliation by leaders and peers. This is the prevalent system in certain specialized institutions such as the police, the judicial system, and the military.

2. The exchange system. Relationships are based on favors and other good deeds performed in expectation of monetary or non-monetary compensation. A market free of outside pressures exemplifies this system.

3. The integrative system. Activities are motivated by such altruistic feelings as love, friendship, and solidarity, without any apparent promise of reward, except for feelings of fulfillment and happiness. A well-functioning biological family can serve as an example.

All societies employ some combinations of these three systems, their character being determined by the predominance of one or another such method of persuasion. Our primitive ancestors were strongly bound by family ties. Precedence was held by the biological urge to protect one’s kin. The world was young, with a lot of empty space open to all; in case of strong family disagreement, aggrieved parties could part without bloodshed. The integrative system probably prevailed.

Things changed when humans developed agriculture. Increased production allowed the barter of excess food; trade started in earnest. When the first cities were built, the division of labor resulted in a leap in productivity and wealth. But tax collectors could not be far behind, and the community’s modus operandi changed dramatically in favor of rule by threat- At the same time, the mobility of the producing class decreased dramatically; farming was the only game in town, and except for a small class of skilled workers, abandoning one’s field meant starvation. Ordinary producers were now trapped in a system of coercion. Personal liberty all but disappeared for the majority of the population.

Fast forward now to the industrial revolution, which released untold millions of people from agricultural labor so they could attend to the needs of rapidly growing industries. At first, their material fortunes might be not be much improved, but with freedom of movement and the ability to withdraw their services, they could achieve greater purchasing power and raise their political status. The unrestrained system of rule by threat shifted toward the system of voluntary exchange of services for goods and money.

This shift continues and accelerates, as barriers to mobility keep falling. What once was a major inconvenience and substantial risk for a 19th-century immigrant to America is now a relatively pleasant seven-hour excursion. National borders are porous, and people who have skills that are in high demand can walk in through the main door. Governments fight rear-guard battles to retain some control over movement of people and of money, but the threat system falter rapidly when confronted with labor mobility, efficiencies of exchange, and the allure of personal freedom.

A libertarian political system – based not on threat but on a broadly defined self-interest, and with the exchange system prevailing – has become a possibility. Mobile, productive workers are gaining unprecedented power because national and multinational organizations have to compete in order to obtain their services. Oppressive states get stuck with low-quality workers incapable or unwilling to keep pace with frontrunners; these states consequently fall behind in a global competition.

But what about the integrative system of social coordination? What about societies built on love, promises of equal sharing, or solidarity? The grand-scale experiments of communism and fascism have been condemned by their outcomes. In practice, social structures based on patriotism, class, or ethnic brotherhood have rapidly degenerated into totalitarian, terror-based societies. And yet – who knows? – perhaps an integrative way of life will work better when coupled with the exchange system and applied on a smaller, community scale. After all, the kin-selection principle works best within families and small groups. A society based on libertarian (exchange system) principles, but incorporating integrative attitudes in small communities, might succeed where unrealistic socialist states failed. Certainly a system regulated more by threat than by exchange would not promote a truly integrative means of life.

Viewing human history from the perspective of biological and social evolution, we can see that the rapid changes of the past 300 years dwarf the slowly accruing alterations of the previous ten millennia. For millions of years, the unhurried genetic accumulation of new features proceeded in tandem with slow transmission of cultural heritage. All mammalian species use inter-generational instruction (parents to children) to improve chances of survival for their young, but homo sapiens acquired a new and revolutionary device: symbolic thought. A few hundred years ago, when abstract thinking was combined with a practical method of retaining and disseminating accumulated wisdom – the printing press – cultural evolution took off on a moon-shot trajectory. A vertical, parents-to-children transmission was supplemented by innumerable modes of information exchange: formal education, media instruction, peer groups, etc. Extended by 21st-century means of information storage and dissemination, invented and disseminated within the framework of the exchange system, the amount of new knowledge is now limited only by the brain’s capacity to absorb it.

Accordingly, the ratio of genetic to cultural change (nature vs. nurture) in our evolution has dramatically changed in favor of cultural transformation. This should be the last nail in the coffin of any notions about genetic superiority or purity. Genetics are responsible for only a small portion of disparities among individuals. Genetically, all of us are not that much different from our root-hunting ancestors. Our intellectual prowess relates mostly to individuals’ ability to access, and willingness to use, information available to them. For this reason, a prominent physicist can win the world’s acclaim despite being imprisoned in a grotesquely deformed body, a condition that would have led to his being exterminated in a society obsessed with genetic purity.

At present, it is the direction of our cultural evolution that has immediate and serious consequences for our species. Whether they work for a living or not, individuals have been freed from the threat of starvation. Relieved from the fight for

survival, each of us can use the available time and resources

for either personal growth or intellectually deprived amusement. But cultural evolution has not stopped; in fact, it has dramatically accelerated, creating a real possibility of permanently splitting the human species into distinct categories, differing not so much by their genotype and appearance as by their intellectual pursuits and ambitions (if any) and their varying degrees of willingness to live by means of the state. A willingness to live safely and without effort by means of state support may come with the price tag of falling into the “low-speed” class, destined for ever-increasing intellectual backwardness. The equality of people, doubtful even now, could become an empty slogan within a few generations. The libertarian movement could help prevent this fragmentation of humanity by placing everyone’s welfare in his or her own hands, thus promoting interest in the productive use of mental power.

But the more important point is this: there is little doubt that the forces of evolution favor organisms and organizations displaying selfish behavior, even if “selfish” is extended to include closely related individuals. We may hide this fact, pretend that it ain’t so, but evolutionary processes do not follow ideologies or human aesthetic notions. Things must be seen as they are, not as they should be, regardless of the majority’s wish and vote.

I think that the libertarian principle of voluntary cooperation among individuals pursuing enlightened self-interest reflects our identity as a species better than the principles of any other political movement. It reflects the kind of society that evolves so as to maximize the benefits of the division of labor and the free exchange system of rewards. It encourages members of our species to trade and transmit real wealth – intellectual competence – in response to their interests, while promoting everyone’s survival and betterment.

Regardless of all debates about ideology and philosophy, the dynamics of social development appear to be headed toward increased freedom and power of productive individuals. The stars are aligning for a libertarian experiment.

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