Every one should read The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker’s book in which he documents the decline of violence in our world. This decline started with the Enlightenment and accelerated in the past 70 years. We often think of the century just past as the culmination of violence of man against himself, with two world wars, a Holocaust, and a Cold War. Pinker, however, presents the evidence that the chances of an individual dying due to violence was much less in the past century than ever before in human history, and way less in the 70 years since the end of World War II.
How is it that the world has become less violent? Pinker alludes to several factors, among them a rise in the appreciation of individual rights, as opposed to adherence to the group. We have become less violent towards our neighbors because we have come to appreciate our own, and our neighbors’, individualism. By being less violent we have become better people and formed better societies.
Mark David Ledbetter has written a trilogy of a libertarian history of the United States, America’s Forgotten History. In his books he traces a divergence in our nation’s history from the core principles of our Founding Fathers and our Constitution. Most notably, he holds that it is because we have become better people, and in capitalism have a better economic system, that we can have a nation founded on libertarian principles. In political philosophy, he harkens back to the great leap forward in human self-organization which came about with the ideas of the Enlightenment, which insisted on “shackling government so we could do for ourselves”. In economics, it was Adam Smith, writing, when our nation was forming, his Wealth of Nations, and launching Capitalism. The prevailing economic system in Europe at the time was mercantilism, which required the heavy hand of the state. Capitalism required a lighter touch, and enabled limited government.
A lot of young people supported Ron Paul’s quest for the presidency, more one supposes for his opposition to foreign wars and strict drug laws than for his opposition to the Federal Reserve. In colloquial speech, libertarian usually means the right to live and let live, to grant others the liberty to lead their lives as we wish to have the liberty to lead ours. It is then odd to read about the cult which grew up around Ayn Rand, still the doyenne of libertarianism, and her insistence on complete submission to her every thought and whim. This from Radicals for Capitalism, a history of libertarianism from Brian Doherty. In spite of his affection for libertarianism, the history he writes describes how dysfunctional the libertarian movement seems to have been. Its proponents tend toward purity of belief, which leads many libertarians to a philosophy of anarchy. And when libertarians form groups in order to influence the world and its politics, they often descend into infighting over violations to this sense of purity.
Hayek is known for saying that he “leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.” And it was somewhat of a surprise to find Ayn Rand ruling over her subjects like a dictator, dismissing them both for the slightest deviation in thought, and for the slightest retreat from Rand worship. If the ‘libert’ in libertarianism doesn’t mean individual liberty, the right of individuals to their own political and social, as well as economic, views, what does it mean? Perhaps the answer lies in the title of the book, “Radicals for Capitalism.” Is libertarianism merely an adherence to a particular economic philosophy?
Elliot Berkman does not believe that we have evolved enough to be homo libertus, a species capable of living together advantageously in accordance with libertarian principles. In Studying human psychology turned me into a political liberal, he notes his evolution from libertarian to political progressive as he studied social psychology. In his telling, “A perfect libertarian society wouldn’t need laws to protect the environment, for example, because each homo libertus would consider the impact on the environment of every decision that he or she makes. Society’s care for the environment would be reflected automatically in the choices of its citizens.” Addressing gun laws, he notes that people’s perception of threat and from it the right to use arms to defend oneself comes not only from objective reality, but also subjective interpretation (as he notes, we are more likely to shoot an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man; just having a gun primes us for violence). We require society to provide constraints because we don’t have objective self-control (being poor, or having been abused or neglected reduces self-control and increases the risk of substance abuse). Berkman does not believe that man, nor his political/economic systems, has advanced enough for there to be a successful libertarian society.
I do find it odd that during the hey day of 60’s radicalism it was the ultra-liberals who fought for the right to break free of society’s strictures in order to “do your own thing,” while conservatives sought to impose social norms. Now it’s Bernie Sanders who wants to reinforce our sense of obligation to each other by, for instance, promoting government intervention for a more expansive health care, and tuition-free college, and the Tea Party who wants to do away with the ‘nanny state’. (It is, however, uncertain that this conservative view is libertarian. John Terrell writes on Evolution and the Myth of the Individual, that science and history teaches us that we are social creatures, and that the libertarian and Tea Party faction belief in individualism is contrary to reality. However, I suspect that most of what motivates the Tea Party element among conservatives is not at all the promotion of the individual, but the promotion of a particular set of social values to which individuals should adhere. And much of what motivates progressives is a libertarian-like belief in letting individuals run their own lives, as in their support for gay rights.)
Even if libertarianism is about economic freedom, getting the government out of the way to unleash the free market’s ability to create vast amounts of wealth for everybody, Phillip Longman will have none of it. In Why the Economic Fates of America’s Cities Diverged, he recounts the history of how U.S. public policy from the late 19th century through the 1960’s and 70’s created prosperity and a geographic equalization of wealth, while deregulation since then has led not only to poorer results for the middle class, but has also concentrated wealth in a few large cities, specifically New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, to the detriment of the wealth of the rest of the country.
On top of an over-optimism in human nature, and a decline in prosperity from the kinds of policies libertarianism endorses (deregulation), we also add a fear of bad faith on the part of those providing support for libertarian causes. Recently, the Democratic administration had surprisingly teamed up with groups backed by the Koch brothers to institute prison reform and lessen the numbers of individuals incarcerated. This collaboration hit a snag when it was realized that one of the policies the Koch team was advocating would make it “significantly harder to prosecute corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and other white-collar criminals.” In other words, they want to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Add to this the blatant violation of their professed belief in the free market as they use their influence with state legislatures to hinder the adoption of alternative energy, which would compete with their fossil fuel empire.
The better angels of our nature have led us to an increased sense of individualism which has improved our lives and our societies; libertarianism promises another step forward in that direction. It is attractive, but in spite of our progress as a species, we don’t seem yet to have arrived at a place where the libertarian society will serve the best interests of the greater part of our citizens.