Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Darwinian Classical Liberalism at Cato Unbound

There has been an interesting discussion over at Cato Unbound. The first article is by Larry Arnhart, who argues for a Darwinian Liberalism. This is followed up by P.Z. Meyers' Evolution is Far Freer than Classical Liberalism, Lionel Tiger's Much Work Left to Be Done in Connecting Politics and Evolution, and Herbert Gintis' Reflections on Arnhart's Darwinian Liberalism.

Arnhart touches on several ideas I've been thinking about, including ideas for a paper I am writing for one of the Advances In Austrian Economics series on Hayek's philosophical psychology, where I talk about the relationship between Hayek's spontaneous order theory of the mind and the moral order. I am of the opinion that spontaneous order theory is the true foundation of what libertarians want, which is a society of liberty. More, we can see how supporting a moral order (in the form of the spontaneous moral order) is not inconsistent with a libertarian world view. This is a place where many libertarians get themselves in trouble.

P.Z. Meyers' followup to Larry Arnhart's article connecting Darwinism with classical liberalism does not address the specifics of Arnhart's article -- in fact, except that both are about evolution and politics, I would be hard-pressed to point out how this refers to Arnhart's article at all. His arguments are vague, rambling, and inconsistent. Myers argues that "evolution" is no defense of classical liberalism, but Arnhart never said it was. He was arguing that humans evolved in such a way that classical liberalism is the best social organization for humans to thrive. If this is the best criticism of Arnhart's position (and I don't think it is -- we still have Herbert Gintis' to come), then Darwinian liberalism is in good shape. Of course, a good criticism will actually strengthen the position, so I always look forward to good criticism of his position. This just wasn't it.

Lionel Tiger gives a very entertaining rejoineder to Arnhart's essay though, again, I think it falls far short of Arhnart's essay. This is not to say that he doesn't raise some interesting questions, which libertarians need to address. He also brings up the (horrifying, in my opinion) observation that the new family (abut 40% of births) consists of a mother, a child, and a bureaucrat. Considering that bureaucrats are the parasitic class of modern society (not just failing to create wealth, but in fact actively destroying it), this cannot but necessarily have a negative effect. A true single parent household is to be much more preferred!

All in all, the first two responses were disappointing. Herbert Gintis', on the other hand, is a great response. Well-informed and thoughtful. The first thing I would note, though, is that at the end, Gintis is talking more about a certain kind of libertarian who is so libertarian that they won't criticize anyone's actions or beliefs than he is Arnhart, who explicitly says he is a conservative rather than a libertarian precisely because he thinks virtue is necessary for a free society.

Another big argument I have with Gintis is his statement that, "The notion that mutual tolerance and adjudication of moral differences emerges spontaneously in civil society is implausible." With all due respect to Gintis, he needs to familiarize himself with the history of civilization, which shows precisely this happening. More, there has been actual scientific research proving that this phenomenon actually occurs. People actually do spontaneously treat each other better and fairer in denser, wide-ranging societies with market economies. I suspect that this is as much a reflection of modern liberal pessimisim (an irony, since golden-age thinking is reactionary, not liberal) as anything. Darwin himself notes this occurance, and even provides an explanation for it. From this perspective, this idea is as Darwinian as one can get. On the other hand, it is also likely to be a reflection of his not really understanding the nature of the spontaneous order. If he is expecting such behavior to emerge "spontaneously" from people living their lives as islands, then he is right. But that is not what spontaneous order says happens. First, spontaneous order theory requires humans be social mammals, interacting with each other. It in in and through those interactions that "mutual tolerance and adjudication of moral differences emerges spontaneously in civil society." Gintis (and everyone else) needs to familiarize himself more with the spontaneous order literature.

I will say this, though: Gintis is right that evolution does support many forms of governance. But network theory and complex adaptive systems theory, combined with human universals/evolutionary psychology demonstrate that only a spontaneous order -- democracy, catallaxy, and even virtue ethics in the Aristotlean tradition -- allows people to live freer, more prosperous lives. It may not be the only political-economic system, but it is the best one for a social mammal with a population as large and dominant as ours -- the one in the end most suited for a species such as ours to live the best life possible.
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