Libertarian ideas also have improved the quality of government. Few American politicians advocate central planning or an economy built around collective bargaining. Marxism has retreated in intellectual disgrace.There is something to this. Human beings seem to have some kind of built-in compassion gene that leads us to want to help others in times of abundance. There are good evolutionary reasons for that to be the case, a point that Paul Rubin emphasizes in his book Darwinian Politics (which figured prominently in a Liberty Fund event I attended recently). What is not so obvious is why this biological impulse should cash out in terms of policy – especially national policy. The human desire to help others was born of our origin in small groups and clans, most likely consisting of no more than a few hundred people at most. And notably, it’s in small-group contexts that charity is most effective, because it’s much easier in a small group to monitor the recipients for signs of shirking and moral hazard. It’s at least odd, then, that the compassionate impulse would manifest itself in modern society as a desire to help a “family” consisting of millions of people.
Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.
I suspect that while the compassionate impulse is innate, its zone of application is malleable by culture. We have “nationalized” our compassion only because of historical factors that have aggrandized the nation-state over smaller political units, communities, churches, extended families, and so on. If I’m right, then it might be possible to redirect those impulses back toward the smaller groups where they are both less damaging and more effective.