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Our genetic makeup and libertarianism

Over at the blog Gene Expression – a site focusing on issues such as inheritability of certain conditions and traits – I left a short comment in response to an article, entitled, Human Nature and Libertarianism:

“I guess a short answer is that anyone who argues that our inherited traits outweigh things such as our volition and capacity for free will (not necessarily using those words in the old religious sense) will find it to be an unreliable guide to their politics. Some Darwinians seem to be socialists, some on the right, some libertarian. The truth of the insights of Hayek, or Milton Friedman, or Ludwig von Mises, say, are not in my mind remotely affected one way or the other by whatever might be the latest insights from evolutionary psychology. I am concerned if issues of political philosophy (the proper role of the state, individual rights, whatever) are placed at the mercy of the laboratory.”

I suppose I should add that there are useful insights, of course, that can be drawn from scientific studies that try to get at how and why people hold the views they do, although I think these things need to be treated with a great deal of care.

 

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12 comments to Our genetic makeup and libertarianism

  • Clovis Sangrail

    … these things need to be treated with a great deal of care

    Too damn right! For as soon as these attitudes are just a matter of our genes then they have no philosophical validity. Right-thinking becomes the new aim for gene therapy and yet again (as in Soviet political psychiatry) we can be treated out of our wrong-thinking.

    Scientific determinism is one of the greatest of Liberty’s enemies and of tremendous assistance to the totalitarian mindset.

  • Paul Marks

    You are opening a can of worms again J.P.

    I will not follow the thread (for that will just get me into arguments with people I do not wish to argue with), but I will say the following….

    I do not deny that both genetic inheritance and environmental factors have an influence upon us – but I deny that they destroy the concept the of choice (agency). Agents (choice makers)exist – our choices are real (not “illusions”) and people who deny this are guilty of the worst sort of moral cop out – the worst sort of “bad faith”. If we make an effort we can (at least sometimes) overcome both genetic and environmental influences and make real choices.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul, if you are reading this, you might be interested to know that it’s much more difficult to make me angry now that i follow a low-carb diet.

    Getting on to the main topic: the meta argument addressed in this post is correct, we cannot afford to have the foundations of our political thinking at the mercy of whatever new research comes out.

    A few clarifications:
    1. I have published research in the hard sciences myself;
    2. I mean “we” both as individuals and as a society;
    3. of course we need facts to decide on concrete issues, but we must combine these facts with values which cannot be inferred from facts, see Hume and all that.

    As for the issue of the post at Gene Expression, the best place to start is Hayek’s essay: “Individualism: True and False”. As I understand it (and this is always a necessary qualification with Hayek), it says that there are basically 2 kinds of libertarians/individualists: those who want people to be free because people are informed and rational, and those who want people to be free because people are ignorant and irrational, and selfish for good measure.
    Hayek thought that only the latter are true libertarians/individualists: the former are closet socialists (to put it in a blunt, non-Hayekian way).

  • RRS

    In all these kinds of discussions that involve “processes of evolution” etc., one seldom sees a reference to the path opened by Lynn Margulis.

  • As I understand it (and this is always a necessary qualification with Hayek), it says that there are basically 2 kinds of libertarians/individualists: those who want people to be free because people are informed and rational, and those who want people to be free because people are ignorant and irrational, and selfish for good measure.
    Hayek thought that only the latter are true libertarians/individualists: the former are closet socialists (to put it in a blunt, non-Hayekian way).

    Quote material.

  • Lee Moore

    Both of Snorri Godhi / Hayek’s formulations appear to be consequentialist; ie both types would seem to be ready to abandon libertarianism if new facts about human nature should be discovered. Type C – ie the type who supports libertarianism regardless of what human nature might be – seems to be missing. (I am not a type C myself.)

    I think libertarianism is only supportable if human nature falls within a reasonably narrow range – which happily I think it mostly does. (I really don’t think you could get libertarianism to work in bee society. Only chemical fascism will do for bees.)

  • James Waterton

    From what I understand of the Gene Expression crowd, I keep them at arm’s length. Like the Steve Sailers of this world, I think they rely too heavily on IQ (which one can improve via study) and at worse Sailer and the Gene Expression blog is a dog whistle for that odious bunch, the so-called “race realists”.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Lee: I think you are correct in pointing out that both forms of libertarianism identified by Hayek are consequentialist, and that natural-rights libertarianism is not included.

    However I don’t think that the form advocated by Hayek need be abandoned if people were proven to be informed, rational, and respectful of other people’s life, liberty, and property: in such a case, the ruling class COULD be entrusted with more power, but it NEED not be.
    By contrast, the utilitarian folks seem quite ready to give more power to government when people are proven to be less than perfectly rational or have less than perfect information.

    Alisa: thank you for the kind words.

  • Midwesterner

    I think libertarianism is only supportable if human nature falls within a reasonably narrow range – which happily I think it mostly does.

    To an individualist, this statement begs the question of which human’s nature? It makes complete sense that one human will be a hardcore individualist and another be clingingly collectivist in nature. I’m not going to compel the collectivist to behave contrary to their nature except where their nature impinges mine. When that happens I will respond as necessary to prevent them from forcing me into their collectivist vision. Separation of individualists and collectivists is the only peaceful option as one of them believes in collectively held life and property and the other one believes in individual life, liberty and property. Individualists joining together into mutual defense associations (ie, constitutional individualist governments) is essential if they are each to repel the attacks of collectives/gangs.

    Maintaining the strong defense necessary for an individualist society is always difficult, as having the means of defense assembled tempts its leaders to conquest both foreign and domestic, an inherently collectivist activity. This observation is why the American founders put so much effort into limiting their invention’s access to physical power.

    Whether my individualism is the result of absolute heritability, free will or drawing a card from the kitty, I still act on it. They day any ‘scientist’ goes beyond seeking understanding and begins advocating, or even ‘proving’ the morality of certain values, they have jumped both feet into pure collectivism. Individualist consensualism requires no excuse or justification which is as well since collectivism tolerates none.

  • Lee Moore

    Separation is a nice idea, but since people (a) have children and (b) change their minds, you have to allow immigration and emigration. Which is fine for the individualist island. But the collectivists would forbid it. Besides which the collectivists have long believed that the reason why collectivist solutions do not always approach the advertised perfection is that allowing the rich / privileged / kulaks / whatever to exclude themselves deprives the collective of vital resources, generates unhealthy competition etc. You only need look at the US and its federal creep to see the weakness of the let’s mind our own business team when up against even second division will to power merchants.

    What I meant by “if human nature falls within a reasonably narrow range” was no more complicated than “if human height falls within a reasonably narrow range.” I do not require everyone to be 5 foot six, and I can well understand that 4 foot tenners and 6 foot sixers may have different views on the acceptable amount of leg room for an airline seat. If humans generally – ie a big enough proportion – are willing to associate on a mostly voluntary basis, and are willing to obey the rules (ie basic criminal law and property rights) without waiting for threats of punishment then you can get by with a small set of rules, and with state coercion restricted to a small population of rapers and pillagers. But if most people are happy to steal or intimidate, and only relent under immediate counter threats, then the coercive structure required to protect liberties will be too overwhelming.

    I do not claim that human nature (ie biology) is the only influencing factor. Culture, environment, history are important too. As are individuals making their own decisions in defiance of culture, environment, history and biology. But. for example, although there are parents who dislike their children and do not wish to be burdened with bringing them up, “human nature” (ie that big proportion again) is that parents love their children and are willing to make sacrifices to bring them up. This feeling is, whatever the lefties say, mostly a biological not a cultural impulse. And children – with some exceptions etc – mostly prefer to be brought up by their own parents. And they remain emotionally and intellectually immature until they approach adulthood.

    Thus a collectivist society that believes that the state should determine who raises children, and how, is likely to cause a lot of unhappiness if it starts taking children away from their parents as a matter of routine.

    Meanwhile an individualist society which regards children as autonomous individuals equal to adults may regard traditional parental coercion of children as impermissible. Which may also cause a lot of unhappiness. How much slack to permit parents in the coercion of their children depends to a great extent on what you think about the natures of parents and children, and being a libertarian doesn’t get you out of having to consider it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mid writes,

    It makes complete sense that one human will be a hardcore individualist and another be clingingly collectivist in nature.

    Give that man a cigar and a bottle of rum! *Applause*

    He follows with this:

    I’m not going to compel the collectivist to behave contrary to their nature except where their nature impinges mine.

    In other words, I’ll leave them alone as long as they’ll leave me alone.

    Unfortunately, they won’t, not if there’s any mixing at all between the two societies. Either somebody’s going to claim the right to tell us how to live, OR ELSE, or one of us is going to get involved with Them because, say, they insist on dumping some sort of toxic waste into our rivers.

    Beyond that, I still think that the degree to which you can have a truly libertarian society depends first of all on the population density and then upon the like-mindedness of the populace, at least insofar as political philosophy and basic human decency are involved.

    The more closely people are packed, the shorter the arms of each person’s must be if his fist is to avoid hitting anyone’s nose even purely by accident. We see this even in happy, well-function families.

    And if everyone genuinely agrees as to where the fencelines are, and that they should not be transgressed, the less likely the accidental impact of a fist upon a nose.

  • Midwesterner

    Give that man a cigar and a bottle of rum!

    I like that idea. I’ll watch my mail box. But be careful to put all of the correct stickers on the package. You don’t want to serve hard time in the Federal Penitentiary like the elderly orchid grower in Texas who missed one of the many required labels on an orchid he mailed.

    I used to think that population density was a determining factor in the possibility of libertarian society but haven’t held that opinion in a long time. Your last paragraph says all that needs said:

    And if everyone genuinely agrees as to where the fencelines are, and that they should not be transgressed, the less likely the accidental impact of a fist upon a nose.

    If two parties cannot agree on the fence lines, no matter the size of the range, there will still be a range war. But if they do agree on the fence lines, even as crowded as labeling food in a fridge, then a libertarian society is possible. This is why I drone on about consensual associations and reciprocity. Nobody will think the agreed lines are perfect, each will probably give up something to negotiate reciprocity, but the end result is worth the concessions.