Friday, October 26, 2007

In defense of naturalist green libertarian social democracy...or something like that

There was quite a remarkable essay by George Monbiot at the Guardian a few days ago that manages to combine zoology, libertarianism and the near-collapse of Northern Rock Building Society.

In particular, he discusses one Matt Ridley, who was not only chair of Northern Rock but is also a well known author of several fascinating books on human nature.

Silly me, I've never made the connection before. (But, then again, I have a difficult enough time remember whether it's Matt Ridley or Mark Ridley, let alone checking on the political allegiances and possible bank chairmanships of the zoologists I read.)

Monbiot gives Ridley's (quite astoundingly radical) libertarian philosophising a good drubbing, but the more interesting bit is where he brings up evolutionary psychology:

I studied zoology in the same department [as Ridley], though a few years later. Like Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. He believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another.) If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You'll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.

Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.
In general, I tend far more toward Mobiot's arguments on this issue, even if I think he should avoid the use of the word 'determinist', particularly since so many evolutionary psychologists have been struggling to free themselves of that label and have rightly emphasised interactions between genetics and environment in describing behaviour.

But the larger point that becomes clear is the utter diversity of political views that can emerge from taking human nature seriously.

I note this aspect of Monbiot's reply partly because I have more than once run up against an assertion that evolutionary psychology more or less automatically entails some version or other of radical laissez-faireism and/or the creation of social policy that is 'conservative' in all kinds of undesirable ways. ('Undesirable' from the perspective of the generally liberal people with whom I have had these discussions.)

This is, as I think Monbiot nicely demonstrates, not the case, and I think he is right that the bulk of the evidence on human nature does not lead us to the conclusion that people -- left to their own devices -- will necessarily act in ways that are good. He is right that, for instance:

Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation.
Precisely what the parameters and means of 'mutual scrutiny and regulation' should be is, of course, the tricky bit. Nevertheless, I think there's enough evidence from enough quarters to suggest that what is arguably the most successful form of human social organisation so far (with all its faults and shortcomings) -- i.e., liberal social democracy -- is not Homo sapiens's default state.

There are a lot more things that could be said on that, of course, but just to be brief, Monbiot's article has gotten me thinking about libertarianism again since it's something, actually, with which I have a not entirely hostile but somewhat conflicted relationship.

On the one hand, there are many ways in which I find libertarian thinking and commentary to be very insightful. For a while, for instance, I became a regular reader of Reason, with which I typically found myself in, alternatively, nodding agreement and seething disagreement. (In many ways, they're interesting for asking the right questions if not necessarily coming up with the right answers.)

And there have been various other places where I've found some intriguing thinking from the libertarian corner, particularly by those who seek to develop that thought humbly and consistently (i.e., not just screeching about low taxes and free-enterprise but advocating the passing of liberal immigration laws, the ending of the intrusive legislation of morality and the increased protection of civil rights).

Indeed, I would say that, along with social democracy and naturalism (by which I mean recognising our animal natures and connection to the ecosystems in which we live), libertarian principles of freedom form an important source for my -- admittedly perhaps somewhat ramshackle -- worldview.

Unfortunately, many (though not all) of my personal encounters with real, existing libertarians have tended to be rather negative. They have often held strangely simplistic (ranging to naive and fundamentally ahistorical) perspectives on the world and a relentless (ranging to bug-eyed and ranting) distrust of any concept of social or community good beyond (typically very narrowly conceived) individual interests. Libertarianism in these cases seems to only be an ideology for successful entrepreneurs: what it offers for people don't fit that category -- either because they are not entrepreneurs or because they are not successful -- tends to remain either unclear or be quite obviously vicious.

These, furthermore, have often been accompanied by two things.

1) A tendency toward hyperbole (e.g., 'all taxation is theft', sensible gun control laws are 'oppression' and the UN/EU/WTO/IMF/ATF -- and their fleet of black helicopters -- are plotting a tyrannical world government) and a slightly shouty form of unpleasantness


2) Almost limitless self-aggrandisement (i.e., seeing themselves among an extraordinarily creative and productive self-sufficient elite that, obviously, would thrive in the radically privatised world they envision creating). (The latter I blame partly on excessive reading of Ayn Rand, but that's another topic for another time. Or, preferably, for never).

Strangely enough, I have also encountered precisely these same two characteristics in many discussions with the radical left (mainly Trotskyists for some reason I'm not interested enough to speculate about). So, rest assured, I'm quite capable of being equal opportunity with my scorn.

Oddly enough, just about all the libertarians I've met have identified themselves as right-wing, even though a lot of the things that dominate right-wing parties (whether in Europe or America) these days -- xenophobia, religion, militarism, a strong desire to regulate morals -- are anathema to what I would see as 'real' libertarian thinking.

There's not, of course, anything inherently 'right-wing' about the notion of 'freedom' or about being suspicious of the state, or of emphasising forms of voluntary self-organisation to provide mutual assistance. These have long been elements in anarchist and some socialist thought, and the European green movement ('neither Left nor Right: Green' being one of their early slogans) has also long had the libertarian notion of decentralising power as one its core principles as well, even if at times it has been emphasised rather less than more. (Just to note one of the more obvious practical examples: green thinking on energy focuses on decentralised, even household, power production, freeing people not only from the centralised power of the state but also from the concentrated power of large corporations.)

Of the two general strands of thought that emerged from the 60s (and which have in various ways been around for long, long before that of course) -- i.e., 1) making a new world and 2) being left alone to do your own thing -- my own emphasis has been shifting toward the latter: partly because it's increasingly clear to me that the first -- whether in its left or right-wing form -- generally leads to Very Bad Things. (NB: Making a better world is, I think, still on the table though.)

Now, I know there are a lot of reasonable and very insightful libertarian ideas out there. (And I know that the Left has its own ideological silliness to answer for.)

Thus, it is encouraging to see, as Dale has pointed out, a thoroughgoing libertarian argument for tackling global warming published recently at Black Sun Journal.

In response to what seems to be a rather unhinged critique of the science of global warming, the journal notes:

Actually, it is the AGW [Anthropogenic Global Warming]-deniers who are the collectivists. They support allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to keep engaging in practices that essentially levy a heavy tax-burden on the rest of us. By depleting natural capital, the extractive robber-barons are externalizing their costs to other citizens and future generations. A true individualist libertarian would insist that everyone pay their fair share in the present-day rather than sloughing it off on their children, right? If you want to refrain from sounding completely ignorant and backward on this subject, you need to read and understand the concepts of Natural Capitalism, Externalities, Sustainability, and the Tragedy of the Commons. If you don’t, you have no business claiming to be a true Capitalist.
This article follows another (here), which contained the following:
Let’s look at the nature of our situation: Aside from radiation coming from the sun and other parts of space or the occasional meteorite coming in, and whatever heat is reflected or re-radiated into space going out, Earth is a closed system. Each of the 6.5 billion people who live here therefore have the right (an inherent human right as opposed to an arbitrary legal right) to fully use 1/6,500,000,000th of its resources and atmosphere, which are decidedly finite. If Stelene or Matt Drudge or Michael [Crichton] want to use more than that share of atmosphere or non-renewable resource, they need to purchase it from the people whose share they are consuming. That’s the free-market, right? It’s a classic problem of the commons, and even smart libertarians recognize this.

I imagine there are a lot of things that the writers at Black Sun Journal and I would disagree about. (I'm far from a 'true Capitalist', and they have that Strange Affection for Ayn Rand that I mentioned before and that I Just Can't Comprehend....)

The longer I spend blogging, however, the more I find it is difficult to find anyone with whom I completely agree anyway. But I'm also coming increasingly to the conclusion that, given the enormous decline in the civility of political discourse on the internet (described well, if with a certain justified incivility, at Whiskey Fire here and here) that I have come to see even a reasonable disagreement as, somehow, something precious.

And I am pleased to see the folks at Black Sun Journal take on crackpot irrationalism masquerading as secular, rational and libertarian free-thinking.

There are enough serious discussions to be had, after all.

[Update:] Just after posting this I found (via Pharyngula) a link to China Miéville's recent critique of libertarianism in In These Times. Worth reading. (As is his science-fiction novel Perdido Street Station, which I read recently on vacation.)

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