Human nature and libertarianism


Jason Collins


September 17, 2011

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.