Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Liberals and Libertarians, part II

Continuing the recent theme, an e-mailer asks me about the differences between liberals and libertarians. My e-mailer's suggestion: perhaps the answer is to be found in evolutionary psychology. Here's the argument in its entirety.
One of the very first attractive selling points of libertarianism to those who are inclined to accept it is its symmetry and consistency with regards to government intervention in the "economic" and "social" spheres. I'm sure you've seen the world smallest political quiz and its 3 dimensional political spectrum, mapping out this basic idea.
Anyway, the novice libertarian is prone to see the liberal and conservative sides as blatantly contradictory and absurd on their faces. How can the same government be trusted in one instance but not in another? This apparent contradiction has always been bothersome to me, because it is too blatant a mistake for a reasonable person to make. So either liberals/conservatives are plain unreasonable, or there is an explanation I am not appreciating. One of my goals has been to discover the grounds for drawing a distinction between the economic and social spheres in the minds of liberals (conservatives are another topic for another day).
Here is the argument I find most convincing:
If you believe in evolutionary psychology, then you might find appealing the argument that human beings evolved under zero-sum conditions, and hence are prone to believe they still exist. Not as a reasoned conclusion, but as an instinct.
Prior to agriculture, humans were really not producers so much as they were predators. We would hunt animals (and gather plants) that nature provided us, but we were limited to what amount of plants and animals nature provided, and it was never enough for everyone. This was a zero sum world. An animal that I killed and ate represents one less in the forest for you to kill and eat. If you and I were in competing tribes, then we would have been zero sum competitors for the scarce resources available, and your success would have meant my failure and vice versa. Your very existence was a threat to mine.
And so it is intuitively pleasing to think that, under such conditions, we would evolve to have certain attitudes, perspectives, and responses towards each other consistent with a zero sum reality. Natural selection would demand that humans develop hostility towards and distrust of competing humans. You see this in the wild with any number of other animals. They do not love their own kind, they are locked in a perpetual war with their own kind, a competition for survival.
Now the advent of agriculture changed the rules of the game. The rules in a productive world are different. Now each human, as a potential trading partner, is a potential benefit to me, and not necessarily (or likely) a threat to my existence. Your gain must no longer be my loss and vice versa. In fact, the opposite is true. So long as the two of us are engaged in productive work, your gain is my gain and vice versa. To the extent that we expend our energies in production and trade, it is now a positive sum world between us.
But while the rules changed, the players did not. Positive sum gains made survival all the easier, and natural selection ceased to have much influence on human traits. We never evolved beyond our zero sum mentalities, we never had need to. Negative sum mentalities can still survive and prosper under positive sum rules. You don't need to understand economics to function within the economy. The zero sum mentality has never been weeded out and it persists to this day.
My tentative hypothesis is that the difference between liberals and libertarians relates not so much to our personal preferences, or our upbringings or educations, but to our relationship with the negative sum mentality inside us. The libertarian is somehow able to set it aside. The liberal cannot. I have no explanation for why this would be.
But assuming I am correct so far, then everything seems to fall into place rather nicely and the initial contradiction I spoke of is cleared up. A zero sum mentality has reason to designate the economic sphere as distinct from the social, and therefore subject to different rules. Enjoyment of the so called "social" freedoms does not imply an injury to somebody else, even in a zero sum world. But enjoyment of economic freedoms does. To the zero sum mentality, all economic activity is potentially injurious of innocent parties. This is quite different indeed.
Egalitarianism is the perfect philosophy for a civilization living in a zero sum world. If we are to be civilized, if we are to elevate humans above mere animals, then we should come to some sort of agreement on fair rules for the distribution of the fixed pie, since unfair rules could mean death to the weak. In a zero sum world, egalitarianism IS the thoughtful, kind, "looking out for the little guy" philosophy it claims to be. Indeed, "survival of the fittest" or "every man for himself" is a pretty heartless and brutal philosophy in a zero sum world, and probably not worth defending, unless we want to scrap civilization altogether and become savages again.
But because we do not live in a zero sum world, egalitarianism is instead the destructive force libertarians know it to be. I don't need to explain to you the libertarian arguments for why egalitarian policies tend to hurt those they are intended to help. I'm sure you're familiar.
The zero sum mentality comes equipped with its own zero sum morality. This is the morality that would be proper and appropriate to a zero sum world, the world we once lived in, the world in which we developed our moral instincts. I suggest that while liberals can learn market economics, and understand the positive sum nature of the economy, they cannot shake their zero sum morality. Of course, a zero sum morality is all too often at odds with a positive sum economy, and so we get the modern position of liberals, which I call the "market as a necessary evil" position. No longer socialists, modern liberals understand that the market must be tolerated if society is to avoid utter collapse, but they still find it morally repugnant and look for any opportunity they can to alter its outcomes in ways consistent with the zero sum morality.
As a self-proclaimed Liberal, I ask you what you think the Liberal's relationship is with the zero sum mentality/morality I've described. The Libertarian never ceases to remember that ours is a positive sum world. That fact is always in the front of his mind when dealing with any economic issue. It is a fact relevant to both consequentialist and natural rights defenses of the free market economy, and so the Libertarian will never forget it. Can you say the same for the Liberal? How much thought does a typical Liberal give to the significance of zero sum v positive sum? And of course, if I've completely missed the point of Liberalism, if I'm so off base as to render all of this meaningless or moot, please explain.
The question deserves a longer response than I can give right now. I'll be putting up a separate post in response sometime in the next couple of days. I suppose that my quick reaction would be to say that it's not clear to me why it would be the case that if we evolved with a zero-sum morality, some of us seem stuck with it while others are able to transcend that morality. That's a little to Nietzschean for my tastes. I suspect that the biggest difference between liberals and libertarians is going to come down to the claim that liberals hold that there are moral values that are not captured by the functioning of the free market. I'll try to elaborate on the theme in my longer response.


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