November 2009 archive

Two Arguments Against Libertarianism

Libertarianism – in a coarse telling – is political philosophy that places primacy on individual freedom over all other values. As such, it’s often placed in contrast to traditional political notions that advocate some limits to freedom, such as liberalism (economic regulation, but personal freedom) and conservatism (personal regulation, but economic freedom).

It’s not the most popular political orientation; a 2006 PEW study found only 9% of Americans polled fell in to the libertarian category compared to 18% liberal and 15% conservative. However, libertarianism appears to be particularly popular amongst those who are wealthy and well educated.

It’s also popular amongst economists, for libertarianism is quite compatible with some of the key assumptions that underlie  modern day free market economics: such as that behaviour is driven by self-interested rational agents. For these agents, interference in their behaviour restricts their ability to pursue their own preferences. From this point of view, the only role of the government ought to be to enforce property rights, manage contracts and provide a few true public goods, like defence, roads and basic infrastructure. Everything else is left to individuals to figure out for themselves, according to their free will.

Libertarianism can seem an appealing philosophy from a purely rational perspective. Why have a government interfere with my life, telling me what I should and shouldn’t want – or can and can’t do? As long as I don’t interfere with the ability of others to pursue their personal goals and preferences, I should be free to pursue my own ends unhindered. And, furthermore, in doing so, we can advance the ends of all individuals care of the magic of the invisible hand.

However, there’s a chink in libertarianism’s armour. In fact, there are two.

First is the assumptions it makes about human psychology – such as that we are capable of understanding and articulating our preferences and that we’re able to act upon them rationally, i.e. that we’re Homo economicus.

In fact, the truth is quite different. Preferences are often obscure. There are long term and short term preferences. Imagined and real. Needs and wants. And often the preferences we articulate are not in accordance to the things that actually benefit us or make us happy.

Often our decisions cause us – and others – harm. And in retrospect, we often regret many of our decisions and wish someone had encouraged us to do otherwise. Or our decisions are manipulated, either by other individuals, or by the environment at large. Or, most sinisterly, by those with vested interests, such as politicians or companies trying to encourage you to buy their product, whether you need it or not.

Libertarianism is rather unforgiving of behaviour that leads to self-harm, yet many of us have strong desires to prevent others from causing themselves harm, even if that means limiting their freedom – such as the freedom to gamble away all their money or the freedom for companies to advertise sweet and fatty foods to children.

Then there’s the second chink: libertarianism makes for an unstable society.

Common habits, customs and traditions – as well as common moral values – bind a community together and encourage cooperation. A highly libertarian society, with a vast diversity of values and customs, is a fractured society, without the bonds of common culture except those that emerge in pockets as people of similar preferences gather together (and, I’d suggest, establish rules of behaviour, which limit personal freedom).

Certainly, the market can enable high levels of cooperation in terms of production, but a strongly libertarian market is largely unregulated. That can lead to great inequities emerging, and that can also destabilise the society.

Or take a personal practice like polygany – the taking of multiple wives. Libertarians would hesitate to regulate such a behaviour, yet polygany can also destabilise society. A deficit of potential mates increases levels of male competition for status, often leading to violent conflict.

Consider many of the limits on freedom advocated by liberals and conservatives. They come at the issue from different directions, but they’re both trying to achieve the same end: bind communities together and encourage cooperation.

Liberals do this by limiting the ability of some to gain disproportionate power over the group and exploiting that power for their own ends. They also attempt to lift up the most disadvantaged, bringing more people in to the pool of cooperators rather than letting them drop off the edge. Liberals are less interested in the effort one puts in as the results that come out.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seek to regulate personal freedoms – customs, habits, practices etc. Taboos are common, with behaviours steered towards a common ground. This also binds communities together through like beliefs, traditions and prohibitions.

Food taboos in religion are like this. They might start as health initiatives, but they rapidly become instruments of conformity. And a highly conforming community is more likely to trust each other and cooperate.

Libertarians – at least extreme libertarians – sacrifice the egalitarianism of liberalism and the social binding of conservatism for hyper-individuality.

Libertarianism is an appealing idea if you hold human agency and freedom above all else. However, it has its weaknesses. Freedom is certainly worth having, but at what cost?

Evolution and Politics: Third Time Lucky

The history of the fusion of evolution and politics isn’t one to be terribly proud of, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an exciting future. And I happen to think it does have an exciting future, hence my concern not to be lumped in with efforts from the past.

Evolution and politics first locked eyes across the room in the company of Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinism movement. However, the Social Darwinists made a couple of pivotal mistakes.

Herbert SpencerThe first was to assume that evolution had an intrinsic progressive quality. Thus one organism could be called more evolved than another, despite Darwin himself rejecting that very notion. As a result, the Social Darwinists saw evolution as justifying inequality and suffering if it furthered the ends of evolution itself; if it yielded more evolved organisms. And, clearly, the wealthy and powerful were more successful than the poor and powerless. So be it, they said, it’s all for the better. Well, wrong.

The second mistake they made was to derive an ought from an is. They saw evolution as being natural, thus being good, sneakily slipping in the shaky premise that everything that is natural is good. Well, again, wrong.

EO_WilsonRound two came in the 1970s with the Sociobiology movement. This was a far more nuanced philosophy, large parts of which are still alive and kicking today under the moniker evolutionary psychology. However, Sociobiology proponents such as E.O. Wilson often – and perhaps unconsciously – made the slip from is to ought all too easily. As a result, descriptive notions – such as those concerning aggression, sexual inequality or nationalism – sometimes sounded an awful lot like apologising for the behaviours that result.

Now… round three.

Peter Singer(Actually, a brief mention of round two-point-five. Peter Singer’s cheeky little book, A Darwinian Left, is a worthwhile read for an alternative perspective on how evolution can inform political thinking from a purely descriptive level. Singer suggests that we cannot draw any prescriptive values from evolution, but we can draw some prescriptive lessons by using evolution to better understand human psychology. Thus you might value happiness, or empathy, or altruism – or if you’re conservative: competition, achievement, stability etc – and then use evolutionary psychology, amongst other things, to figure out the best way to promote those values.  Nice idea, but really only extends the notion of using out best descriptive tools to further our chosen ends. Nothing terribly revolutionary about that.)

Now… round three.

Central to my current research is the idea that, on the descriptive level, evolution might not provide insight in to any one political ideology, but might explain the very diversity of political ideologies we see in the world today and throughout history. That’s a long way from the notion that evolutionary explanations somehow suggest there should be less diversity in human behaviour.

Often an individual’s political views will be influenced by their intuitive and emotional responses to particular issues – and these intuitive and emotional responses are shaped, at least in part, by evolution. And evolution equips us not with just a limited number of consistent intuitions or emotions, but with a vast diversity of intuitions and emotions, often in conflict and tension with each other.

But evolution is canny. It hasn’t just equipped us with any old intuitions and emotions. It’s equipped us with a selection that helped us to solved many of the reoccurring problems that confronted our ancestors. Chief amongst these problems was: how the hell do you get a bunch of non-related individuals to cooperate for mutual benefit without defecting on each others’ arses?

And, crucially, there are multiple answers to that question – no one best, but some better than others in certain situations. Think of it like an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a population of Nice strategies, it’s beneficial to be Nice. However, in a population of Nasty strategies, it pays to be Nasty. And everything in between. From a descriptive point of view, I think this goes a long way to explaining the robustness of the political spectrum.

But what about the leap from descriptive to prescriptive? Without falling in to the is/ought trap, I think there are some prescriptive lessons we can gain from this.

One is that evolution can help us understand where our values come from in the first place. If your values are based around compassion, or cooperation, or even competition, there might be very good evolutionary reasons why you might hold those values. If you want to avoid the is/ought problem, then it might be worth re-examining your values in the harsh light of biology. It may even be that there is no way to escape the is/ought issue – but that might not be such a bad thing. In fact, that might lead to a kind of moral naturalism – a notion that is not altogether absurd.

If this is the case, then we might be able to – cautiously – draw some norms from evolution. One might be the primacy of survival. Arguably, if you hold a moral or political belief that is inclined to get you killed before you can pass on that belief, or pass on offspring with the genetic predisposition to that belief, then that belief will likely die out. I think that could be a very good reason for not adopting that moral belief.

Should we agree to this, then I would suggest that there is in all probability no one moral or political belief that reigns supreme. In fact, the very diversity of beliefs and norms that we see in the real world might be the optimal strategy. That’s not to say we should accept the diversity we have today in a fatalistic way – for change is another value that’s worth holding. Instead, we should seek to allow a diversity of beliefs, let them be in tension with each other and that way we have the best chance of prosperity.

Sure, there’ll be conflict that arises from this approach. But, as with any decision, one must ask what’s the next best alternative? And if that alternative leads to more conflict, then the answer may be clear. And I’d suggest that any mono-ideological position would either be unstable, and not survive, or would lead to more conflict. That’s a hypothesis that needs testing – and that’s precisely what I’m trying to do.

All in the name of having evolution and politics do more than just eye each other cautiously from across the room, but take hands and engage in vigorous conversation. That’s evolution and politics three-point-oh.