Human nature and libertarianism

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

*A cross-post from Evolving Economics

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.


  1. An important point that Pinker makes in Blank Slate is that this “50% hereditary 50% environmental” claim is in a sense highly misleading. The variation that is not hereditary is presumably in some sense environmental, but it is for the most part not explainable by systematic differences in environment, at least not in first world countries. For all practical purposes it is not explained at all.

    That being said, I have to agree with Jason and Eli. Even if it were true that there were no meaningful inherited differences between individuals, that would not be an argument for a centrally planned society.

  2. It seems to me that libertarianism would work fine in a population of intelligent, courteous, independent and well-behaved people, but those kinds of people certainly constitute a small minority. Most people (liberal or conservative) live in fear and are more than willing to trade their freedom for security.

  3. I agree with expeedee 100%. Libertarianism is good in small doses, but it makes the same ultimate mistake Communism made – that humans are basically good. As far as I can tell, Libertarianism asserts that “the government that governs best governs least” – which begs the question “How little can a government govern and still carry out its basic function – protecting its citizens from injustice and serving as a referee of last resort?”. These days, I no longer believe in people’s ability to self-regulate, although I defintely am not a totalitarian (they are very definitely destructive of freedom, initiative, citizen morale, and economic development.

    In truth, I don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question “How much government is the right amount of government?”

  4. These notions sound very much like the Christian notion of ancestral sin.

    The problem with libertarianism, with which I sympathize is that in most times and places, the masses crave not liberty, but strength.

  5. @expeedee and @Phil75231 Libertarianism does not require security to be sacrificed. Individuals are protected from harm by others. If you are worried that humans are not basically good, would you want to give them coercive power through government?

  6. “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.”

    And that’s even when one assumes an ecological, rather than organismic, model of society. Are there any examples in nature of complex societies arising out of self-, rather than common-, interests?

  7. Jamie beat me to it. Atleast in the case of Randism, individualism is the word. And individualism doesn’t work so well especially given we’re all going to die.

  8. The left wing may publicly embrace the theory of Tabula Rasa (blank slate) but they depend on the hard-wired trait of jealousy to get themselves into power.

  9. I think the phrasing may lead the question. Society has progressed into cooperation because socialism is human nature – a rallying cry against extinction. It is the hallmark of our success as a species; otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

    If heredity takes it toll, and the individual is (for arguments sake)working in their own self interest and in the interest of others – then the model with the most promise would eventually become that of highly organized humanitarianism, not libertarianism.

    If people are inherently selfish and the constructs of our psyche mask these actions then there is a reason for this charade. It serves a grand purpose.

    Chaos isn’t a system to be trusted and evolution proves this. Our self awareness gave birth to empathy and guilt, mechanisms that enforce communal – not personal – behaviours. This is evolution as a species which is totally biological in nature, something that has arisen out of social structures that favour these traits. Our capacity to cooperate in highly organized systems in opposition to unknown variables is the reason we succeed.

    Even free market adherents do not claim that their philosophies are dredged purely from self interest but that self interest is in fact more beneficial to society as a whole. It is a psychological coping mechanism employed to rationalize ancient models of behaviour in self labelled ‘conservatives’. Although the claim of “being selfish serves the greater good” is pure fallacy, it does illustrate a fine point – the method may be different but the goal is the same.

    Logical exercises clearly exhibit that even if our attempts of organizing societal well being are, at best, flawed – they are still better than the alternative. Any child can play Monopoly and soon realize that one player wins while everyone else looses. Our existence is one of games, and as a society we need to create one whereby all partake and none loose. Chaotic evolution is a game you loose, even if you think you win.

    The existence of capitalism and it’s shift toward libertarianism is a current trend in an ever evolving system trying to find a better model. Socialism, then communism will result, once society and natural selection concurrently support the model. However, this is a controlled model, one in opposition to the blind evolution of the past.

    If science can somehow save the human race (pun fucking intended) from our consumption of every known resource – we may see the final stages of this model. Unfortunately, if things stay as they are we will suffer the same fate as every other living being that has overpopulated it’s ecosystem, we’ll starve. That’s evolution baby.

    This is, and has always been the course of nature. If we cannot control the sprawling chaos with highly organized systems of cooperation we will die off. This is the purpose of human emotion paired with intellect. We must work as a whole, or die as a whole. There is no middle ground, it is an illusion created to illustrate a movement toward harmony and allow us as a species to move away from childish things.

  10. Jason

    Agreed. I was not referring to libertarianism when I mentioned people exchanging freedom for security. I was referring to the two-party (conservative/liberal) democrat/republican situation, where either party eventually chews away at freedom and civil liberties, because of course they must in order to maintain order.

    Ultimately, a society is only as good as its average citizen, and that, I think, is the basis of many of our problems.

    And regarding human nature, I am a conservative and generally choose the oppression of the right rather than the left since I believe that in the long run, the policies of the right improve the chances of my genes (along with my children’s and grandchildren’s genes) being passed on to many subsequent generations.

  11. Hbd* chick (see her blog) has suggested that libertarianism flourishes in populations whose members are not bound by much inclusive fitness, the most notable case being the white population of the United States in which we have a number of (mostly) European ethnicities that have recently melded together (contrast to Sweden and Germany for example, to say nothing of Japan. At the opposite pole we have societies composed to tribes and clans due to high degrees of consanguineous marriages, as we see in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, libertarianism (or more generally individualism) and “amoral familism,” as it has been called, can be understood as value systems shaped by the amount of out-breeding vs. inbreeding in the society concerned. By this measure they are literally poles apart.

    For myself I think Hbd* chick is on to something. She does good work, for the most part relying on secondary literature which she scours for data.

  12. “How little can a government govern and still carry out its basic function – protecting its citizens from injustice and serving as a referee of last resort?”

    I don’t agree those are a government’s functions. A government should ensure that it does not commit injustice while carrying out its functions. Even when people have a reasonable understanding of ‘justice’, it’s not desirable to achieve it through governmental ends. The risk is simply too great.

  13. Human nature be damned, I see a dillema of economics, more than any other kind. How will we pay for government? It always operates at a deficit, which necessitates expansion and perpetual growth. Money printing. All steps of the process taken into consideration, it costs MUCH more than a dollar to print a dollar.

    Government debt disproportionately effects those with less disposable income, as the dollar devalues, basics cost more. Government in itself then functions as class warfare. The rich do get richer, the poor poorer.

    That said, free markets I believe have the potential to help us reach beyond competition for resources. But human nature loves competition. with abundant food and basic necessities, we will find another way to compete. The most competitive of us will explore space, and compete with the vast darkness of the uknown. Back on earth I reckon people will compete as artists, like peacocks and their tails more than brutal lions.

    Personally I wouldn’t want to live in a world of non-competition, but I believe competition is cooperation is competition is…ad infinitum. Nothing brings humans together better than unity against a common foe. If we don’t have open market competition, we will have more violent (war) competition. The former seems much less stressful to me. I’d rather compete in business than on the battlefield.

  14. The argument for libertarianism is much simpler: since people vary (for what ever reason) a minimum of one size fits all rules is the best way for each individual to take maximum advantage of the gifts s/he is given.

    Take our rules on LSD – some people can profit greatly from it (Steve Jobs), others are debilitated by it. Should Jobs (and others) be denied the profits (which are societal as well as personal) in order to putatively save those that can’t handle it?

    And of course in a prohibition regime no one is saved because distribution is handled by criminals and they don’t check IDs or check your psychology. They just check the cash.

  15. I have a hard time understanding how anyone that understands evolution and understands human behavior can think that actual libertarianism is the best way to build a society.

    It is simple minded to think that there is a simple answer for every problem (government for the Communist, free markets for the Libertarian). It is obviously the case that some problems require government solutions and some problems require market solutions. This is obvious and the reason for it is because of human nature.

    If you are seriously a Libertarian you need to do yourself a favor and go live in Africa for a while. You will see Libertarianism at work. Most people pay no taxes. Governments provide no services. People are truly free to do whatever they want. It’s like heaven. You will particularly love the market solution to crime. Every wealthy home owner has to hire their own live in security force to protect the house around the clock. Ever walk past a man with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder on your way to morning coffee?

    The market solution to road construction is a real winner too. In many areas the only road maintenance is performed by children who fill Land Rover-sized potholes with stones and then set up a small road block to slow cars to beg for a few shillings. Meanwhile the road is so cratered you have to pick your way through it like a minefield and the single filled in pothole is little help in your quest to drive over 30 kph without busting a tire or leaf spring.

    The market solution to the court system? If you are a businessman and someone fails to pay you for your services what do you do? Why, you hire someone to threaten the debtor at gunpoint, or you kill that person as a warning to others, or that person kills you to avoid the debt and to warn other creditors. It’s great!

    Obviously, governments are more efficient and better providers of many things (mass transit, roads, security, healthcare, education, etc.). Obviously markets are also efficient providers of many things (clothing, food, housing, entertainment, etc.).

    Most people want to live comfortably. We can argue about the best way to create a society where most people live comfortably. But with as much data as we have demonstrating it, we ought to all agree that it is going to be a mixed system (much like we have) with both government and private solutions. Libertarianism and Marxist extremism have both been discredited. They both fail for exactly the same reason. Human nature.

  16. @Jason – there is a difference between anarchy and libertarianism. There are not many libertarians who do not support some form of security and justice provided by the state.

    Anyhow, the problem with Africa is not one of libertarianism.

  17. @Jason-To elaborate on the second Jason’s comment, don’t confuse libertarianism with the absence of rule of law. In almost every country in Africa and everywhere else in the developing world, governments intrude where they shouldn’t and don’t intrude where they should– almost the converse of a libertarian society. Sure, you can run a small shop selling snacks and beverages, but try becoming an serious businessman without political connections. Sure, you don’t have to pay taxes, but speak against the state and see how long your “liberty” lasts.

    Libertarianism assumes a basic level of infrastructure and public services, and then allows the rest to be handled by the market. In order for the market to function properly, there must be police and a court system; the government must enforce contracts and protect private property.

    Rather than using Africa, you should be using Hong Kong, one of the world’s most economically successful societies, as perhaps the closest thing we have seen to libertarianism.

  18. @Jason1 and Joseph,

    You are correct that Libertarianism is different from anarchy. Very little of Africa has anarchy (perhaps only the DRC?). There is rule of law, it’s just that the law is most commonly enforced privately and not publicly and market forces dictate its success or failure (usually the latter). It is undeniable that the market fails to provide adequate roads, safe transportation, healthcare, education, security, etc (things you take for granted living in a country that has largely socialized these problems).

    Regardless, the real point is that the market solution to many problems is often worse than the public solution from society’s perspective. The reason for this is our evolved nature. This really shouldn’t be controversial. In fact you both say “well sure, nobody wants a libertarian solution to police and courts”. I take this as a tacit acknowledgement that some mixed system is preferable.

    Libertarianism, like socialism, is an ideology often times divorced from biology. Both are good when they work and bad when they don’t. So let’s be sensible and abandon the idea that there is a single answer for every problem.

    The more interesting thing is identifying which approach is best given the situation. I think the answer will lie in the relationship between self interest and societal interest. I think when self interest aligns with societal interest a market approach will be best. When self interest conflicts with societal interest, a socialist approach will probably be better.

  19. Jason, the “libertarian solution to police and courts” is for the state to provide those services. Again, you’re confusing libertarians with anarchists. Libertarians posit an essential role for the state, and not as a concession, but as a fundamental element of their political philosophy. Only the state can perform certain functions which are necessary for the health of the market. Even the state screws those things up very frequently (e.g., would you really feel better about being beat up by a cop than by an armed citizen?), but it’s important to at least aspire to have an impartial third party to mediate disputes and maintain domestic tranquility. A lot of the time, the state does it pretty well, and you’re absolutely right that we couldn’t have our prosperity without it.

    Look, if you’re saying that the state should provide a court system, police and national defense, 99% of libertarians agree with you. If you’re saying that the state should provide roads and schools, at least moderate libertarians would agree with you. You’re using Africa as a strawman. Name one libertarian African country.

    Another note: you don’t seem to understand the concept of rule of law. It is an economic term that I was not using loosely. An every-man-for-himself situation is one which lacks rule of law, and you clearly are describing such a situation in African countries.

  20. Joseph, I am most assuredly not confusing Libertarians with anarchists. There most certainly is rule of law in Africa. There definitely are societal rules that people follow. Disputes most certainly are settled by third parties, it just so happens that the third party that is appealed to is often the most powerful private person in the area and not the state. It obviously works like shit from society’s perspective, so nobody (including hardcore libertarians) advocates it. The African countries themselves don’t want it, but they are too weak to do anything about it.

    I have to laugh that you are at the same time defending Libertarianism and incapable of imagining how these things can work without the State. Europeans often feel the same way about healthcare and well fare. They can’t even imagine a market solution to healthcare or well fare. When you experience the market solution, they seem to have a point…

    So what is so special about those few things you listed that should be left to the state? Why is everything else the state does necessarily bad? Please explain why our biology dictates that court systems, police and national defense alone must be performed by the state, while everything else must be performed by free markets.

    An anecdote that you might enjoy: I was once working in Kenya collecting fossils. By Kenyan law all fossils are owned by the state and you must have a permit to collect them. Of course, in practice, there is no entity to enforce such rules. While out surveying one day, an enterprising young man decided that he was going to corner the market on Anthracothere teeth and sell me ones he had found. He brought me a beautiful partial mandible wrapped up in an old sock and offered to sell them to me. We explained the “law” to him and showed our permit and told him that he was obliged to give us the teeth. Of course he laughed and went on his way with the teeth. Now, there was no chance in hell we could ever give him a schilling for his teeth, because if we did every man in the area would be out digging up every scrap of bone they could find. However, we did want the teeth. We tried the district officer (actual government) who told us there was nothing he could do. So, instead, we went to the local big man, who, as far as I can tell, is just an old guy with a lot of goats. We had to explain the situation to him and why we needed the teeth, etc. He said he would find the young man and see that our teeth were returned, but asked if we could give him a small tribute for his time. I think we gave him 2,000 KS (about $20) and the next day the young guy stopped by the survey area with his anthracothere teeth and begrudgingly gave them to us. Justice served. The big man sided with us (and 2,000 KS). It didn’t always work that way though. In another instance with a case of stolen boots the big man did not side with us. I guess you win some you lose some.

Leave a Reply