Can’t escape biology. Is Libertarianism a Force of Nature?
Like everything else in the realm of living things, political systems are born, mature and eventually whither away, replaced by new forms of social organization. A community’s way of conducting its affairs is—or should be—an expression of its biological needs and tendencies. Therefore, political regimes based on principles reflecting the human natural imperatives should produce happiest and most stable societies.
The last hundred years have seen massive social experiments based on the ideas of justice, equality, racial brotherhood and other well-sounding notions that, unfortunately, have no meaning in the science of biology. Without exception, populations sucked into the utopias of communism, fascism, race purity/superiority and religious extremism suffered cataclysmic failures. Joined by millions— at least at the beginning— of enthusiastic participants, these experiments failed not for lack of popular support. After having killed millions of their real and imaginary foes, the proponents of New Order did not suffer defeat through the lack of revolutionary fervor. And they did not lose because of cultural backwardness; in fact some of these societies were science leaders. The regimes based on pure social ideology failed because their fundaments were laid on the imaginary fluff of theoretical concepts rather than on the hard rock of human biological traits.
One would think we should have great interest in delineating our natural, biological propensities, but Homo sapiens politics seem to be a taboo for practitioners of science. Why biologists are so rarely heard in political disputes, even when accounts of social behavior of wolves, crows and apes regularly entertain the public? Instead, demagogues, mystics and know-nothing-useful activists crowd the field, leaving no room for people who might tell us something new about who we are and what social structures might serve us best.
During the past few decades, a new discipline, sociobiology, emerged with the unique goal of exploring the biological base of our social organization. Scientists to boot, these man and women use exact tools of inquiry to formulate their opinions. Their language is quite unlike the flowery narrative of social tinkerers. It leaves little room of maneuver for spin-doctors and, perhaps, this is why politicians and mass media do not take to the sociobiology discoveries too kindly. The dry facts are not very useful for bamboozling the public.
Without pretending to be an expert in sociobiology or evolutionary biology (I am a surgeon), I’d like to introduce a few of the ideas that deeply affected my political attitudes. I came to believe that the libertarian system of values follows the evolutionary forces most closely, and the humanity will—eventually—discover its biologic destiny in the political organization promoted by this movement.
An organism, a garden weed or a homeowner, has only two primary reasons to give up some of its precious energy while acting: self-preservation and reproduction. Our ambitions, love, duties—all those high-minded reasons for work and struggle derive their meaning from these two primary, selfish goals, nothing else. And if that link is severed, the responsibilities are often snubbed and duties are conveniently “forgotten.” It is very hard to motivate people who have nothing to gain in terms of survival, mating opportunities and child rearing, as many ideal-based communities have found out.
Our story started with a strand of DNA, which—regardless of its origin—had to exploit its environment to obtain the energy necessary to combat the inexorable gnawing of entropy. Mercilessly crowded by other forms of life and pummeled by environmental hazards, the first organisms used occasional errors in transcription of their genetic code to improve their chances of survival. They grew protective cellular membrane, evolved into multi-cellular organisms and finally started to organize into social groups. This chain of events, even if not yet completely understood, is not very controversial for most of us, just a junior high-level explanation of the evolution. No one would propose to slip into it any notions of justice or fairness; the selfish own-interest and drive to procreate appear quite sufficient, no need for ethical considerations.
However, once we get to the human evolution, a major problem arises, warming hearts of the social idealists who prefer to believe into the natural goodness of fellow humans. Some members of Homo sapiens communities—but also certain mammalian species—were noted to exhibit a biologically suspect behavior, altruism. The scientists found out that, on occasion, individuals acted against their own interest in order to protect other members of their pack. Now, we can intuitively accept that a subject (including a naked ape) would risk his life to protect the set of genes encoded in the body of his/her offspring, but to get killed in order to save a stranger? That, honestly, looks counterproductive in terms of evolution and flies into face of its classic teachings.
Yet, humans do it. Is there a way to clarify this phenomenon without drawing on holly scriptures and romantic verses? Perhaps, many uplifting twists of our history can be explained only through the unselfish love and divine guidance! Alas, the mystical goodness of our kind can be accounted for without calling upon higher powers. And what a humiliating account it is! We are back to selfishness.
The kin selection theory spoils the spiritual party. It is rather embarrassing to note that the roots of our selfishness reach even deeper than our individual consciousness. The twisted chains of DNA, the primordial force powering our very existence, are paragons of the pure, unadulterated egoism. The warped nucleotide chains care about nothing else but their own preservation and replication. A human body, this magnificent structure built around the genetic code, means to them nothing more than a vehicle carrying the genes. Oops, actually, they need something else, a facility to multiply their DNA patterns; we serve that purpose as well. How about our intellect, self-awareness and passions? Unfortunately, for our DNA it’s just the software necessary to run smoothly this combination of a taxi and a noodle factory.
Anger and disappointment. It’s hard not be emotionally upset by this account of our existence. It is only natural to seek consolation in a religion; accept a more palatable justification for our being and, even better, hope for eternity. The reader who wishes to preserve the self-respect accorded by his or her spiritual beliefs might stop reading right here, because the narrative of our existence just gets worse. Unfortunately, the comfort flowing from ignoring facts comes at the expense of decreased ability to cope with the real world.
According to calculus of gene proliferation, it is sometimes advantageous to sacrifice an individual to ensure survival (and further multiplication) of a few more DNA-carrying units. Like in a game of chess, swapping a pawn for a tower may be a good move. Nothing personal, pawn.
Throw in a few millions years, while self-sacrifice-prone individuals are rewarded with better breeding opportunities, and we have a deep genetic pool of heroic homeland defenders. A beehive, a termite colony or the beloved fatherland—once we strip the poetic veneer of human rationalization, it’s the same biological mechanism, regardless of a species. Equipped with intelligence and imagination, our communities give this process an extra push, consciously promoting the self-immolation attitude. How not to celebrate a heroic soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to save from certain death his mates in a foxhole? Undoubtedly, it is a real gallantry, and a solid benefit to his group, but … could this bravery be traced to the selfish, single-minded DNA strand hell-bent on proliferation?
“Ah, not so fast!” an alert critic might say. “Soldiers in a foxhole are unlikely to be closely related; they almost certainly carry different genotypes. The hero’s death would not help to spread his genes! It just does not make any sense!”
The critic would be right. The kin selection theory would be useless here, except … At this point, the whole story becomes even more maddening, because on top of the extreme egoism we have to face a fraud, this time committed by our leaders. The self-sacrificing soldier’s DNA was intentionally duped, misled and deceived.
For millions of years, our ancestors lived in small bands of closely related individuals: brothers, sisters and cousins. They formed a gene pool that needed to be defended, even at the cost of life sacrifice. It is not true any more; our communities are extremely diverse now. Any big city apartment building has tenants whose roots reach to three or four continents, but nobody told our DNA about it. As long as individuals live in a tightly knitted unit, like a prehistoric tribe or a modern platoon of Marines, they are a band of brothers, as they say in Hollywood. Armies of the world have been taking advantage of this biological confusion forever. Military tacticians took note and they still exploit their soldiers’ real motivation in battle—to protect their close buddies. Not much has changed over the millennia. The grand words about the beloved country, honor and God come later, in time for pinning medals.
There is no hope for songwriters and propagandists to spread this explanation of altruism; it won’t bring them any sponsors. But for the rest of us, understanding our human inheritance in biological terms is valuable, because we will be happier once our political structure aligns with our natural instincts, no matter how unromantic they might be.
An argument can be made that we have outgrown our base instincts, overcoming the selfish DNA influence. Perhaps, we are more like angels, now, driven by intellect and highly developed social feelings. There might be some truth to it, but I suspect that we still have a rather long way to reach the level of cherub morality. We are still acting out our biological egoism; it’s just that our definitions are changing, expanding the field of our benevolence wider and wider. We recognize better now that many genetically unrelated individuals could advance our biological goals, and therefore should be engaged into a reciprocal game of favors.
The development of highly complex beehives, anthills, bands of primates, or human societies is directly related to advantages such organizations afford. These sophisticated associations became the preferred way of propagating genes because of their higher efficiencies of food and shelter provision, safety, and increased opportunities to reproduce. But the advantages came with price; members had to give up their independence. In some insect communities, individuals even forfeited their identity. Anthills are not friendly places for exuberant individualists or their political movements; highly specialized communities have to live by stringent rules.
However, the evolutionary track of Homo sapiens turned away from such super specialization, directing us toward individual intelligence and self-aware identity. This personal autonomy obviously complicates the challenge of governing us, if we are to be pushed into the mold of an anthill. Just recall the trouble that discovery of the word “I” produced in Ayn Rand’s “Anthem.”
Nevertheless, in order to keep the benefits of communal life, we have to be organized somehow. Lets review the ways of maintaining social order, hoping to find the system of governance that is best aligned with our broadly understood biological needs.
1. The threat system. Rules are enforced by threat of retaliation by leaders and peers. This is the prevalent system in certain specialized institutions such as the police, the judicial system, and the military.
2. The exchange system. Relationships are based on favors and other good deeds performed in expectation of monetary or non-monetary compensation. A market free of outside pressures exemplifies this system.
3. The integrative system. Activities are motivated by such altruistic feelings as love, friendship, and solidarity, without any apparent promise of reward, except for feelings of fulfillment and happiness. A well-functioning family can serve as an example.
All societies employ some combinations of these three systems, their character being determined by the predominance of one or another such method of persuasion. Our primitive ancestors were strongly bound by family ties. The biological urge to protect one’s kin was paramount. The world was young with a lot of empty space open to all; in case of a strong family disagreement, the aggrieved parties could part without bloodshed. The integrative system probably prevailed.
Things changed when humans developed agriculture. Increased production allowed the barter of excess food and trade started in earnest. A leap in productivity and wealth occurred when first cities were built, allowing for the division of labor. Tax collectors could not be far behind as the ruler wanted his share. The community’s modus operandi changed dramatically in favor of the rule by threat. At the same time, mobility of the producing class decreased dramatically because free land was not available any more. Except for a small class of skilled workers, working the land was the only way of earning a living and to abandon one’s field meant starvation. Ordinary producers were now trapped in the system of coercion and personal liberty practically disappeared for most.
Fast forward to the industrial revolution, which released millions of people from agricultural labor, so they could fulfill the needs of rapidly growing industries. Workers’ material fortunes might not be better at first, but due to their freedom of movement and ability to withdraw services, they could advance economically and grow their political power. The unrestrained system of rule by threat shifted toward the system of voluntary exchange of services for goods and money.
This shift continues and even accelerates as barriers to personal mobility keep falling. What used to be a major inconvenience, and a substantial risk, for an 18th-century immigrant to America has become a pleasant seven-hour flight. National borders are porous, and people with skills in high demand can walk in through the main door. Governments fight rear-guard battles to retain the control over the movement of people and money, but confronted with the labor mobility, efficiencies of exchange and allure of personal freedom, the threat system loses rapidly.
The exchange system, best exemplified by the libertarian concepts, becomes a possibility as people learn to cooperate in their broadly defined self-interest. The pressure of threats is not necessary as long as the participants are self-motivated by their own needs. It has to be noted, however, that cutting the linkage between one’s needs and their corresponding efforts would result in failure of the system, as victims of the communist experiment witnessed.
Able to offer their services to this or another competing organization, the skilled mobile workers are gaining unprecedented power. National and multinational organizations find themselves under significant pressure to accommodate the high-value workers who vote with their feet. Countries and institutions incapable of shifting from the oppressive threat system to the voluntary exchange based regime, are likely to be shunned and left lacking the best talent. The authoritarian states are likely to be stuck with a low-quality workforce, falling behind in a global competition, losing international significance and domestic peace.
What about the integrative system? What about the societies built on love, based on the promise of equal sharing and solidarity? The grand-scale experiments of communism and fascism have been condemned by their outcomes. In practice, the social structures based on patriotism, class or ethnic brotherhood rapidly degenerated into totalitarian, terror-based societies, bringing nothing but cataclysmic failures and catastrophic defeats.
And yet—who knows—-perhaps the integrative way of life will work better in smaller communities when coupled with the exchange system? After all, the kin-selection principle works well within families and small groups. A society based on the libertarian (exchange system) principles, but incorporating integrative attitudes might succeed in small communities, while the unrealistic socialist states failed miserably.
When could we hope for the enlightened political system to emerge where threats are no longer necessary? It’s a tall order to predict such an event, but let’s try to consider the history of human species from the perspective of biological and social evolution. The rapid changes of the past 300 years dwarf the slow advance of many previous millennia. For millions of years, the unhurried genetic accumulation of new features proceeded in tandem with the inefficient transmission of cultural heritage. Like all mammalian species, Homo sapiens used the inter-generational instruction (parents to children).
In the unknown moment of our history, a new revolutionary device appeared, a symbolic thought. Then, a few hundred years ago the abstract thinking had been combined with a practical method of retaining and disseminating the accumulated wisdom, a printing press. Our cultural evolution took off on a moon-shot trajectory. A vertical, parents-to-children, transmission has been supplemented by innumerable modes of information transmission: formal education, peer group exchange, solitary book reading, etc. Extended by the 21st-century means of information storage and broadcast, the amount of current knowledge is now limited only by one’s brain capacity to absorb it.
Accordingly, the ratio of genetic to cultural change (nature vs. nurture) in our evolution has dramatically changed in favor of cultural transformation. This should be the last nail in the coffin of any notion concerning genetic superiority or purity. Genetics are now responsible for only a small portion of disparity between individuals. In fact, genetically, we all are not that much different from our root-hunting ancestors. Currently, any given population’s intellectual prowess reflects mostly its access to the available sources of knowledge, as well as its willingness to utilize the resource.
As access to the information base is increasing due to the proliferation of the world-wide-web, the participation in the evolutionary advance might be stalling. A casual look around is enough to conclude that the new wonders of technology are mostly used for entertainment. The true hunger disappeared as a motivator in America, leaving more subtle incentives as drivers of progress: power of consumption, social status and esoteric pleasures of learning for fun. People are free to use their time and resources to advance their personal growth, but just as easily, they may chose the intellectually deprived amusement.
Due to a torrid pace of the culturally based evolution, choices made by individuals may change a population very fast. Societies dominating the world for hundreds of years may transform into strugglers when their citizens lose interest in learning, while new leaders emerge. People who choose an “easy life” devoid of personal effort will pay stiff price along with their countries. The evolutionary losers will not be able to hide behind national borders in a global economy. Supported and protected by welfare institutions for now, the un-ambitious slackers are being slowly relegated to the bottom of economic pit. Intellectually backward and unable to compete, they are likely to remain there as permanent clients of their increasingly weak and stingy state.
Is such an outcome fair and politically acceptable? Fairness is not a biological term and it will have little impact on our future, at least until we become more like angels. The evolution never stops and it will not wait for elections. The winners will thrive and the losers are likely to disappear, as it has always been.
Social Darwinism got itself bad press because of the suspicions that we might have to abandon the weak or fight our neighbors for survival. That is an extremely narrow and unreasonable interpretation of our biological destiny. We will always have certain percentage of disabled persons who need our protection and this is hardly a burden for any advanced society. As for the image of humans fighting each other like dogs over an economic prize, it is a dramatic misrepresentation of reality. In fact, the voluntary exchange principle specifically forbids initiation of an armed conflict. Apart from any ethical consideration, the prize always come cheaper bought in a free market than won in a war. Indeed, it were the proponents of a strong state based on threat and nationalistic propaganda who waged all wars, big and small.
The great majority of people, who are sinking right now into the underclass, could be helped immediately. More than anything, they need to have their motivation restored by regaining ownership of their fate, as libertarians propose. The cause-effect relationship between one’s effort and quality of his/her life should be restored; the productive use of one’s mental power must be again in everybody’s best self-interest.
Readers who cannot bear the thought of reducing a state support for able but disinterested individuals might want to look at the fate of intellectually impaired people. Despite all the well-meaning declarations, such individuals do not own their lives. At best, they are rigidly controlled in special needs institutions; at worst, they populate prisons. Genetically intact but culturally backward persons will follow the same path. In biological terms, what counts is the level at which the organism functions, not the origin of deficiency.
Once we use the term broadly enough, the evolution favors organisms and organizations displaying selfish behavior. Are we so much ahead of other forms of life that it does not apply to humanity?
Yes, we might answer, if political propaganda is our exclusive source of information. No, could be a better answer for those who admit evidence of their own eyes. The evolutionary processes do not follow ideologies or human aesthetic notions. The biological reality may be deceptively disguised for public consumption and political benefit, but we all would be better served by its full representation.
I believe that a society based on a voluntary cooperation among individuals who pursue their enlightened self-interest fits best into our biological destiny. Through the free exchange system, such a society could maximize economic benefits and encourage more members of our species to earnestly climb the evolutionary ladder. Among political movements, Libertarianism seems to fulfill these postulates best.
Will we ever see a society govern by libertarian principles? I believe we will, as the social development is heading toward the increased freedom and power of productive individuals. At first, it may come into existence only in modestly sized communities, outliers in the vast stretch of humanity still controlled by propaganda, intellectual stupor and fear. Cities floating in the international waters, as proposed by the seasteading movement, come to mind, and they might become models for new political arrangements. Eventually, the biology will win. It always does. The stars are aligning for a libertarian experiment.