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A Libertarian Society is unlikely because...
Posted by: Jon Henke on Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Max Borders, in TCS Daily...
The late philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out that when people compare themselves to one another, they are disposed to feel one of two emotions — guilt or envy. Guilt when someone has a lower station than you; envy when someone has a higher station than you. I would add a third to this mix: indignation. That's when you compare someone of a higher station to someone of a lower station, and feel that something is wrong. I refer to this complex of emotional responses to unequal life-stations as the "Stone Age Trinity."

Egalitarian Hard Wiring

Why do we have these egalitarian emotions? Religious folks would say we have egalitarian feelings because a benevolent God wants us to be charitable; or that greed is a sin. Moral philosophers might give us grand theories about guilt, envy and indignation that have to do with the "moral law" or some other high-falutin' rationale — arguing, perhaps, that these feelings are a psychological complement to more enlightened reflection.

But I (and some others) think it has to do with the wiring of the brain — a neural circuitry configured over millennia in our evolutionary past.
Because our ancestors saw an evolutionary survival benefit from sharing, perhaps we've evolved an instinct for "sharing, reciprocity and division of labor". But since we now "live in highly complex societies of millions, not bands of 150" and "[a]griculture, the division of labor, and other human developments have changed our social arrangements faster than we can evolve", it means we are "in a protracted struggle against Paleolithic instincts — which, of course, translate into the zigzag of everyday politics" and we're likely to remain in that paradigm for quite some time.

If that hypothesis is true, then biology and evolution are both stacked against a sustained libertarian society. Individual mileage varies, but human society is simply not equipped for it.

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Previous Comments to this Post 

This doesn’t pass the "so what?" test. How often do you compare yourself to someone else? Although I have reason to believe I have at least an adequate degree of consideration, empathy, and compassion for those with whom I come in contact, it is quite rare that I compare myself with another individual. Social intercourse simply isn’t primarily comparative except for the neurotic or insecure.
Written By: Bullet Wound
Behavioral economists have trouble explaining individual’s perceptions of "fairness". One example they use is for a professor to offer a team of two students money. One of the teammembers (named A) gets to decide how that money is allocated, and the other (named B) can either accept or reject A’s decision on how to split the proceeds, but if "B" rejects, neither student gets the money. Unequivocally, "B" is better off with any amount greater than zero, and knowing this, "A" maximizes his or her take by offering "B" the least amount possible (i.e., $0.01). But empirically the "B’s" usually reject the "A’s" offer if it’s less than roughly 40% of the total. Economics students do slightly better, but not significantly so than students of other disciplines.
Written By: m. jed
URL: http://
Max has a point, but it’s not as simple as "we’re not wired that way, so we can’t do it." I don’t think we evolved to do email either, but most people have no problem with it. Not even my senior citizen mother, who just got her first computer a few months ago.

Evolutionary biology can be illuminating, but since we can’t typically do experiments on its hypotheses, they remain just hypotheses. In particular, we can’t do a very good job of separating the effects of "wiring" from the effects of culture. Why are people starving in Sudan while poor Americans are obese? The short answer is that we have a culture that works well in the modern era, and they don’t.

So would a society in which the culture embodied libertarian principles be prosperous and stable? Would our inborn tendencies for envy, revenge, etc. be too strong to overcome?

The early American experience (which featured communities well above the 150 "magic number" Max discusses) suggests that people’s minds are not the problem. We had a society that worked with minimal government for decades. Excepting the Civil War, it worked well for over 100 years. At least on a day-to-day basis, people are capable of living in a culture in which they don’t need a lot of compulsion to live peaceful, prosperous lives.

So I think the egalitarian baggage from early tribal societies is not a bar to a larger libertarian society. It’s an impediment, sure, but not a barrier.

The question in my mind is not whether we can handle libertarianism. It’s whether we can handle prosperity. It’s well known that prosperous societies begin to have falling birth rates, many below replacement levels. The ennui of prosperity seems to be a reaction to the human need to struggle for something, even if it’s just subsistance. Prosperity seems to sap people’s desire to reproduce, and since I think any libertarian society would become prosperous, that looks like quite a problem.

Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
Bullet Wound, do you really need it explained to you why you can’t justifiably extrapolate from yourself to the general population? Does it not enter your mind that you might possibly be an outlier? I’ve always been pretty Buddhist when it comes to that sort of thing too and have never understood status games either, but I don’t pretend that I’m normal in that way because that’s manifestly not the case.

m.jed — Actually it’s not hard to explain at all. Read Robert Frank’s Passions Within Reason. In an iterated ultimatum-type game it’s good strategy to be spiteful because that improves your bargaining position. If the other guy knows you won’t accept anything less than 40%, you’re basically guarenteed that. If he knows you’ll accept whatever he gives you he’ll give you a raw deal every time. So yes, in a one-shot game you may as well take whatever you’re given, but real life in the EEA wasn’t (and isn’t) like that — real life is recursive.

Billy Hollis — My position is pretty close to yours, but I have to take issue with this:
In particular, we can’t do a very good job of separating the effects of "wiring" from the effects of culture. Why are people starving in Sudan while poor Americans are obese? The short answer is that we have a culture that works well in the modern era, and they don’t.
This is a common confusion. "Culture" isn’t some foreign, independent variable; it’s an emergent outgrowth of our innate cognitive substrate. Humans have far greater ability to create their own environment than any other animal, which in turn effects how our hardwiring leads us to react. It’s a continual feedback process. Having said that, there’s a plausible case to be made that the relatively lower cognitive capabilities of Africans as a group is also an impediment (but not a barrier, to use your distinction) to their ability to build up cultural capital. I wouldn’t say it’s insurmountable, but to get there they’ll likely need more help from the outside than, say, East Asians did.

In response to the main post, I would just add to Billy’s comments that the challenge here is to construct an institutional arrangement that allows for these cognitive anachronisms to exist without being able to cause any serious harm, just as we have market institutions that channel greed in constructive directions. The very fact that we’ve already managed to pull ourselves this far out of the proverbial muck is promising. Nobody ever said this stuff was easy, but humans do learn, and on the bright side classical liberals do generally have reality on our side.
Written By: Matt McIntosh
Guess that is why I’ve never been into comparing myself to others...

I go my own way. Life aint fair. And it isn’t up to the government to ensure equal outcomes, only equal opportunity (ie a level playing field.)
Written By: Keith, Indy
URL: http://
"The ennui of prosperity seems to be a reaction to the human need to struggle for something, even if it’s just subsistance."

I always attributed falling birthrates with present vs future happiness. If the society isn’t very prosperous, you need to "invest" in children to ensure that you will be better supported in the future. When money or other investments aren’t severely limited, children taking care of their parents is a good "social security". In addition, child mortality rates tend to be higher, so more children are necessary.

In a prosperous society, you have to give up far more enjoyment opportunities to raise a child. Enjoying the present is much more valuable, and therefore future investment is more expensive. Even beyond that, the absolute cost of raising a child in a prosperous society is much more expensive, because of the additional education and other items for the child that were considered "luxury" in a poor society.

As for human nature conflicts with a libertarian society, I think it’s more hardwired than egalitarianism. Humans are hardwired for "security" and like to feel "safe". If they can arrange for that to happen, most will willingly sacrafice potential gains for security, even if there would be a very good return on that investment.
Written By: Tito
URL: http://
Unfortunately, I tend to agree with the first poster. It seems every single conflict, political or individual breaks down to the Theory of Spock: "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many" (and, of course vice versa).

I tend to rationalize our reality as God’s ongoing random computation of infinite variables crunching toward solving the Great Cosmic Mystery: which creates the most Celestial Harmony, the happiness of the individual or the needs of the collective.

What frustrates me are those on ’either side’ (known as the "Right and Left") who insist on THEIR (mcq) extreme as being ’right’, when in fact, it has to be a complex balance of the two. Fighting over where this balance point exists is the sole reason for our existence.

But, like everyone else, it is just an opinion I offer based on my observation of 50+ years of ’reality’.
Written By: Rick D.
URL: http://
Here’s another reason libertarian societies are unlikely:
Libertarianism isn’t really about maximism freedom from government. Otherwise Somalia would be touted as a libertarian utopia. Libertarianism is about maximizing freedom within a govt/nation structure. It’s a balance between freedom and control, with the freedom emphasized. But since people will also have the freedom to disagree where that balance point is (by definition), it is unlikely to coalesce into a political force.
Written By: Nathan
"it has to be a complex balance of the two"
Absolutism alert!

It HAS to?

Every ideological debate is always best resolved with some sort of balanced compromise? I suspect I can come up with contradictory examples - slavery, for example.

Written By: Unknown
URL: http://
Let’s say you’re right. Then Somalia is then the perfect libertarian region. Woot. You win. Hope you enjoy it.

Shall I say? logic and reason would indicate that libertarianism advocates a balance between freedom and control with an emphasis on freedom.

Parsing minor rhetorical turns of phrases doesn’t really advance understanding, I think.
Written By: Nathan

I was objecting to Rick D.’s assertion that extreme POV’s are always wrong, that a complex balance of the two is the only way. I don’t think he meant that as a casual turn of phrase and I disagree with it.

I don’t know what you mean about Somalia in reference to my point. I’m not talking about libertarianism in my rejection of Rick’s assertion.

Written By: Unknown
URL: http://
Tito’s point about birthrates is one I’ve been thinking about too. I would also point everyone to this post by Brandon Berg. There’s a good chance the fertility rate data is misleading.
Written By: Matt McIntosh
Well Nathan, as I understand from a posting on this site, SOMALIA IS BEING TOUTED AS A LIBERTARIAN UTOPIA. The Posting was at the Von Mises Institute by a Yummi Kim, IIRC. So you see why I say satire and irony are dead, you can NOT satirize these times, because there is some intellectual who actually PROPOUNDS WHATEVR "MODEST PROPOSAL" YOU MAKE.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Libertarianism is not the lack of altruism, or compassion.

It seeks to avoid the centralization and monopolization of this "caring" by any one entity, government or other.
Written By: Steve
URL: http://
And for reading/viewing pleasure I present, Stateless in Somalia and loving it.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
My bad. your quoting of Rick’s comment was similiar to my own line "balance between freedom and control", so I thought you were saying I was extremist for saying that.
Disregard, if possible.
Written By: Nathan
Is no problem man.
Written By: Unknown
URL: http://
Slavery a contradictory example ? Depends how you define it - seems to me most societies are fully aware that there are slaves working in all manner of factories and farms in the 3rd world, but I don’t hear any great noise about it. What do you call a person in, say, Siberia, who owns no property and earns a subsistence wage with which he rents a shack and buys some vodka (there being no property available for him to buy) ? OK he’s not shackled, but what options does he have ? It’s a hypothetical example, but I think it accurately illustrates the fact that everything is relative...

Libertarianism is a misanthropic dream promoted by sociopaths who want to live off the wealth they fantasise that they would make if only the rules of the game were tilted more in their favour. It’s pathetic. There is no such thing as freedom, unless you are completely alone. Once you start demarcating territory and claiming ownership of property, you restrict the freedoms of others, thereby inevitably inviting a similar response that limits your own.
Written By: Blewyn
URL: http://

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