Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Evolutionary Biology and the Libertarian Paradox

Tyler Cowen enunciates what he calls the “paradox of libertarianism”:
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.

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.
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.

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.


Will said...

I think we have a compassionate impulse but we're also lazy. Government is a good, clean and costless (to the individual) way to externalize compassion. We get the warm and fuzzies voting for a welfare program, but those that vote don't actually have to do anything.

Anonymous said...

Man's compassionate impulse is fully borne out in the teachings of Jesus - over and over again Jesus implored his followers to help the poor and give unto others. And the more we have, the more Jesus would advise us to give (hence, backing the article regarding the quandaries of libertarianism).

Jason Ruspini said...

What's more, by pursuing experimental policies in smaller political units, policy itself will "evolve" more quickly. From the beginning, barriers play a central role in evolution.

Perhaps libertarians and liberals can compromise on this: that redistributive policy experiments should be carried out at the state, not the national, level. Success will be duplicated and failure will be contained. As long as the federal bail-out moral hazard issue can be dealt with, this seems like a reasonable entente.