Great Idea, Wrong Species

Various Ants

The best pithy response about Marxism comes from E. O. Wilson, the entomologist, who responded to a question about that system with “great idea, wrong species”. I would say that Libertarianism, certainly in its current American manifestation, also falls into that category. Wilson’s point is that to a more eusocial animal, say ants, Marxism would be workable and would make great sense but not for us. Libertarianism, in a primate less social than we like, say, orangutans, would make perfect sense and likely be a very workable system.
We are simply too interdependent, particularly living in highly technological societies, for that kind of hyper-individualism to work out. Both systems are Utopian and both ask humans to be something we are not. We are not completely selfless members of communities but neither are we monads. <

I decided to do a post on this because of a conversation I had recently with a man who is a Libertarian but believes that abortion should be made not just illegal but perfectly so in that he has the courage of his convictions and would like a woman who gets an abortion to go to prison.  It struck me that for some subset of Libertarians, there seems to be an element of ‘for me but not for thee’ going on.  In other words, these are folks who would actually like to engage in this or that socially proscribed behavior and ‘liberty’, in this construction, comes down to being able to drive a gas guzzling Corvette or own a .50 caliber sniper rifle.

Back in 2010, Rand Paul, precious issue of that Libertarian icon Ron Paul, commented to Rachel Maddow that he opposed the portions of the Civil Rights Act that prohibited businesses from discrimination.  In his (and many others, it seems) view liberty includes the freedom to exclude whole classes of people based upon race even if that exclusion happens on a very widespread basis such that it is de facto law even though it may not be codified as such.  The liberty of the people so targeted seems not to enter into this calculation which betrays a certain kind of blindness.

I’m old enough to be in that position of black Americans who were born just as the changes were really starting to pick up steam.  I missed being consciously aware of most aspects of segregation by less than a decade.  Yet, my childhood was profoundly impacted by it.

Every year, when my parents had finished grading papers, they would pack my sister and I in the car and drive us from Sacramento to Louisiana, Alabama, and parts east to visit the home folks.  We would usually make the trip in four days with my parents driving in shifts until they got too tired and then we would sleep at a rest-stop for a few hours.  Rest stop?  Why not a motel? Because my parents had done enough road trips across segregated America that they knew it was a crap shoot whether there would be a vacancy.  My father, an intensely proud man, had been humiliated enough times stopping at a motel only to find out that, the sparse parking lot notwithstanding, there were no vacancies.  What was meant, of course, was that there were no vacancies for the likes of him and his family.  According to Rand Paul the very essence of liberty lies in the ability to turn away a patron because of the color of their skin.

The other incident that illustrates the kind of bad behavior that Libertarianism has no answer for is what happened when my parents attempted to buy a house in one of the tony neighborhoods in Sacramento.  My parents, as people would do pre-Internet, would get Sacramento papers and eventually found themselves a realtor.  They had decided on a neighborhood north of the one we actually grew up in.  When the real estate agent got a look at them, the cost of the house jumped $15,000 in 1968 dollars.  That was real money at the time.  Now, true enough, my parents ended up buying another house in Sacramento but that kind of discrimination was just the way things were  in 1968.  My parents were both tenure-track professors at local universities by this point and were well able to pay the price that the real estate agent quoted them. But they didn’t want to live in the neighborhood that much.  Again, Libertarians have no answer for this.  How was this supposed to change since, even though my parents didn’t buy that house someone more racially ‘acceptable’ did?  The market cannot be expected to handle these situations and to expect it to do so is Utopianism of the most idealistic sort.

This, ultimately, is why Libertarianism as a political philosophy looks much better on paper and sounds much better from the hustings than it actually works.  It, like Marxism, is Utopian.  If people were actually rational actors and if prejudice or socially-sanctioned bigotry were not part of the human behavioral repertoire and if free riding weren’t a viable strategy then perhaps it could work.  But that’s just not who we are.  For most social interaction we can trust on an internal sense of something just not being done to get us through.  Free riders and bad actors can’t just be hand-waved away and to pretend that somehow we’ve made some kind of ontological leap wherein we need no longer worry ourselves about bigotry in our society is to ignore not just history but the living memory of millions of Americans.

We aren’t ants, we aren’t orangutans and we’re not amnesiacs.  The idea that you have no more laws than is needed to protect property and life is a wonderful idea but we are the wrong species to implement it.

Orangutans in trees

Adrienne J Davis

Adrienne Davis is a 40-something grandmother of two beautiful children. Mother of a wonderful son and his girlfriend. Wife of an amazing woman A former soldier and freelance reporter, she now works in the software industry while trying to decide what she wants her third act to be. She lives in Portland, OR, where she and the missus live with a bearded collie, three cats and a bearded dragon named after one of the witches from Discworld. "All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others. " Douglas Adams

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  1. Thanks for this post and for telling your story. Two thoughts:

    I think we as a species are much more flexible than we think we are. The variety in societies throughout human history has been enormous, and some of them have resembled the Marxist ideal, with no private property. That doesn’t mean we can get there from here in any reasonable sort of way, but I’m wary of mistaking cultural imperatives for biological ones. We are products of the society we live in, and it’s that flexibility that makes us human.

    And I agree with you about libertarianism. There’s no such thing as a free market, and absolute freedom for everyone necessarily involves impossible contradictions. “My rights end where yours begin” is a good rule, and it doesn’t seem like it ought to be that difficult, especially for people who are trying to think rationally.

    1. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I think humans go along grooves or anything like that. There are certain libertarian arguments that I think are very persuasive and powerful. It’s not small ‘l’ libertarianism that is unworkable, it’s the more large scale Libertarianism that would create a dystopia as complete as any Marxist nation.

      Yes, we are part of our cultures and our cultures do shape us. My arguments, my defense of scientific method and rationalism generally are completely informed by my experience of being raised by my parents in a particular context. We are not *infinitely* malleable, however. There are no human populations where, if you gave the people any choice in the matter, they would say “that’s okay, we can be property and treated as means to an end and disposable ones at that”. There are no women who, given a choice, would *actually* be subjected to sexual assault. No sane people would voluntarily be subject to Jim Crow laws. Given a chance some people will try to exploit any kind of social safety net. Our laws, policies and social contracts should take all of that into account if they are to be both flexible enough to allow change but stable enough to be durable.

    2. The thing about Marxism is that it was a response to a very specific set of technological and cultural circumstances in Europe in the late 19th century. Indeed, much of Marx’s point was that a) in preceding years it would have been literally impossible to have a Communist system, and b) in future years it would be impossible to have a non-Communist system.

      In other words you’re ignoring most of Marxism when you equate it with no private property.

      As for a lack of private property in some cultures, actual examples are pretty thin on the ground. In most claimed cases there is private property in the form of personal effects, and there’s nothing else in the culture that needs property laws. They’re hunter-gatherers, what you gather is yours, and the population density is low enough that nobody demands the right to exclude others from his favorite fishing spot.

  2. Yeah, I’d say purist libertarianism is fucked, because as you an idealist position fails to address many realities.

    I think however, implementing some of the libertarian principles would be good for at least the United States.

    1. And there are many that are bad too.

      I think building a society requires pulling out the ideas that are GOOD for it and trying to apply those.

      What makes me weep is that there’s a lot more emotional and personal-interest-influenced decision making in politics than there is logical assessments of what would solve national problems.

    2. I absolutely agree that some libertarian principles are sorely needed in the States. But as a general political system, it just doesn’t appear to take actual human behavior into account enough.

  3. Yes these were basically the two exact challenges which have led me away from Randism and Voluntaryism (hardcore libertarian anarchism), though I was always pro-choice (minus an early bout with that infectious devotion to that certain carpenter which I kicked around 14) and so were most of my Libertarian friends at the time, pro-life libertarians have always confused me O_o seems like a contradiction in terms and Rand was militantly pro-choice, Murray Rothbard supported legalized abortion, and the Libertarian Party platform seems to contain a defacto pro-choice position given that it simply says government should be kept out of the argument altogether.

    While I was trying to apply my system of thought to these issues I had a basic line of reasoning that problems such as these (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) were all systematic and institutional problems which were also ingrained in a large majority of the population. My anarchist mind immediately eschewed any potential government solutions to this problem because I reasoned that in a democracy, representative or direct, any prejudice or negative quality held by the vast majority of the voting public is almost guaranteed to be reflected in the government which is, supposedly, picked by this same public. Basically, the problem is institutional because it originates with those that choose the leaders.

    The solutions given by Voluntaryism were basically along the lines of raising better children, creating cognitive dissonance through forced exposure to the given out group (like out campaigns and attempting to simply engage directly with prejudice individuals), and reaching out to aid marginalized groups and socially ostracizing prejudice individuals.

    As I’ve grown older these just don’t seem workable as solutions on their own anymore and I don’t consider myself a Libertarian or a Voluntaryist and especially not a Randist anymore but I thought I’d post this response to give some insight into how a thinking Libertarian might try to answer these questions… just realized how long this was… srry

    1. The thing is some of what you speak about do work, specifically,

      “The solutions given by Voluntaryism were basically along the lines of raising better children, creating cognitive dissonance through forced exposure to the given out group (like out campaigns and attempting to simply engage directly with prejudice individuals), and reaching out to aid marginalized groups and socially ostracizing prejudice individuals.”

      Where I think Libertarians miss the boat is that in order for those things to work, the social groundwork must be done. When my family moved to our neighborhood in Northern California we had our house egged, a cross burnt on our lawn, my sister and I were chased home from school and teased on campus. By the time I had left home, my parents had more or less recreated their social position in the neighborhood. They were the ‘go to’ people for how to raise kids because my sister and I were high achieving students, delivered papers, did babysitting and, in general, were those obnoxious kids parents compare their own kids to.

      In order for that to happen, however, we had to be able to buy the house in order to live in the neighborhood. Something very similar has happened around gay rights. Again, the stage had to be set, however. Until one could be out at work without being fired, it was real risk so coworkers might not understand why you never spoke of a husband or wife. Now, with job protections or, at least, with company non-discrimination clauses people can be out and that changes the calculus of straight people who may not have known a gay person (or knew someone but didn’t know they were gay).

      1. Right and I more or less agree with you on that and the two reasons I would’ve been and a Voluntaryist or Libertarian might be against government programs that would set the stage as you said is that one, we figured the populace is racist therefore the government is too. Secondly, Voluntaryism does in fact allow for non-violent discrimination and racism (ie refusing service and such) but I realized that a community could come together against a marginalized group in a way that was toxic and lost faith you might say in the Voluntaryist system of thought for that reason. But I just hope my comments give you an idea of where some of these peoples heads are at with regard to these issues.

    2. “pro-life libertarians have always confused me O_o seems like a contradiction in terms and Rand was militantly pro-choice, Murray Rothbard supported legalized abortion, and the Libertarian Party platform seems to contain a defacto pro-choice position given that it simply says government should be kept out of the argument altogether.”

      I must say that I’m also a bit surprised by that. I’m also surprised that this comment thread hasn’t already been infested with fire-and-forget “rebuttals” by libertarians seizing on that single point. Soon enough I expect to see plenty of “No True Scotsman” comments that completely ignore the larger point of the post, that the real result of a libertarian utopia is simply redistribution of bullying. Rather than being a monopoly by the federal government, the power of coercion would instead be given to small, local, private entities.

      Google “The Liberty of Local Bullies.”

  4. As a white boy I’ve never experienced any of this first-hand, but I did go to the Detroit Public Schools and I’ve lived almost my entire life in black neighborhoods. So I understand this pretty well.

    But many white people don’t. They cannot conceive of a world where the #1 threat to freedom is the actions of ordinary Americans, the #2 threat is the local cops, the #3 threat is the state government, and the only people who can protect you are the US Army and an activist Supreme Court.

    This is the exact opposite of the lesson libertarians draw from history, so obviously Libertarianism isn’t gonna be very popular in the black community.

  5. The problem with libertarians is that they completely fail to acknowledge that there are sources of oppression other than the government. As a result they embrace this completely nuance-free worldview where there is never a need to balance one locus of power against another in order to maximize freedom, because the only illegitimate power is democratic government; and power disparities created by social prejudices, differential possession of government-issued legal currency, physical size, etc. are either legitimate or completely ignored.

    It’s like they managed to get through life without ever encountering high school cliques. Which I find pretty ironic, considering it’s the philosophy of the isolated high school egotist.

    I think this essay does a great job of highlighting the fact that there are plenty of other sources of oppression besides the governmental. Hopefully it can lead to the maturation of some libertarians’ thinking — to acknowledge that all concentrations of power are bad, but sometimes it takes one source of power to create space for freedom from another one.

    A good skeptic would keep eyes open to see whether the libertarian hypothesis is supported by lived evidence. Continuous appeals to “but no, it *would* be different” should be treated like the astrological retcons they are.

    1. It’s like they managed to get through life without ever encountering high school cliques. Which I find pretty ironic, considering it’s the philosophy of the isolated high school egotist.

      If they were in a privileged position (e.g. clique leaders, well connected or physically strong) libertarian attitudes would probably serve them well.

  6. I am reminded of someone describing the basic problem with designing security, since it pretty much also covers the same issues. A decision was made to have a card to scan, to get in the front door of a building. The “assumption” was that everyone would use their own card, to unlock the door, and access the building. Aside from the fact that I have also read articles on people figuring out where the magnetic lock was, and how to trip it, without the scan card (in their case) registering who entered a secured lab, what was found in this specific case was that some people would help others get in, if they where:

    a) carrying heavy loads.
    b) seemed injured (wheel chair, crutches, etc.
    c) didn’t have their own card.
    or even
    d) claimed to work there, but had misplaced it/left it inside, etc.

    Basically, everything from people cheating the system, by faking their way in, to offering assistance, to people they knew, derailed the whole damn thing. I suspect, even with Marxist/Libertarian “species” such a design would go wrong, very quickly.

    The lesson, according to the author describing this failure was, “You don’t try to design people into fitting a system, you design the system to fit people.” Libertarians flat out deny their own biases, in most cases, failing to recognize when their own actions would be considered legitimately infringing on other people’s liberties, then turn around and say, “However, if everyone else was re-designed/educated to follow this grand system, it would all be great. The real problem is all those people out there that have learned not to think enlightened like us!”

    Given the sort that show up in many threads, when ever a subject they find is a sore spot comes up, like.. discussion of what libertarianism is, for example, their views, once they finally get backed into a corner far enough to be pinned down on details, have been described, far too often, as, “I’ve got mine, so screw you!” Whether or not this is a valid description can be argued, but, its usually the defense of last resort, when you try to pin down why one of them thinks some specific sort of discrimination is OK, or some social imbalance, or financial imbalance, etc., and the question gets asked, “So.. How do you fix the real problems that are not just imagined, but *do* exist?”

    I remember reading a long conversation between an atheist, and a religious person, a few years back, which somehow failed to devolve into hair pulling, name calling, etc., which, in similar fashion, eventually resulted in these two statements (more or less), Q: “So, you admit that you have no evidence of any of it, and that a lot of it seems to contradict reality?” A: “Yes, I base my entire assertion about what is true, completely, and totally, on faith that I am right, and nothing else.” I can’t help but see an unfortunate parallel.

  7. This Libertarian man who believes abortion should be illegal and that women who have them should go to prison? It only follows that he also believes that men who father children and are not prepared to take responsibility for them should be sentence to prison work farms so that their wages, such as they are, can be put towards supporting said children, yes? Is that not perfectly logical now that we have the technology to be sure who is father and all? Hmmm? Of course, of course!

    I do hope you see him again so you can ask him this. We would like to know.

    1. Awesome point. I keep laughing thinking about the faces of all the big L Libertarians who are anti-choice, hearing about this idea.

  8. From what I have heard of much of what thenPaul’s say, I am not thoroughly ready to embrace their brand of libertarian. I do like much of what the Libertarian Party stands for. I was and am particularly impressed with the candidacy of Gov. Gary Johnson, and with the Sr. Paul’s retirement my pick for the torchbearer for the liberty movement is Gary Johnson, NOT Rand Paul.

    Having said that, I’m going to go way out against convention and say that I am primarily a fundamentalist. Not in the sense of “religious fundamentalism” but in the sense of our founding fathers. It seems to me, that the reason our system of government has worked as well as it has for as long as it has is that our founding fathers put a lot of effort into delineating the fundamental principles of government. Legitimate government derives its power from the people. We believe that in this country. All government should have limits. I think we still have a majority of people in this country who believe this, and the current repeated efforts by our Government to constrain our freedom is much of the reason for the
    growth of the libertarian movement. But in my “fundamentalism” I am not an “extremist”, as in, the extreme of liberty is anarchy, and the extreme of government control is communism. At the liberty end of the spectrum society breaks down, at the control end of the spectrum there is no motivation for the individual to excel. So we, (our forefathers) developed a system of checks and balances, and I think many of our current problems as a nation derive from the fact that many of the laws/programs enacted/developed since our founding have not followed this principle of having checks and balances built into them. There are many, many things which to some extent are good, but they need to be kept in balance. As in our bodies, Iron is essential for life, it serves various functions, but too much is poisonous.

    Where would I begin to fix things? Well, It seems to me that the lifeblood of the nation is the economy, and that our current inability to balance the governmental budget is a symptom of our poor economy. I also do not believe the government EVER fixes the economy, it can only create the proper environment in which it can grow. (More like how you teach your child the rules for crossing the street, rather than either allowing them to run into the street at will, or telling them that only you will ever be able to guide them across the street.). And it seemed to me, of the Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians, Gary Johnson had, by far, the best ideas on fixing, (allowing to grow), the economy.

  9. Unfortunately, you’re quite right that too many libertarians have romantic fantasies about rugged individualism. I may be a libertarian, but I’m an economist first, and I know that humanity does our best work as a group.

    Although I have to say anti-abortion libertarians are pretty rare in my experience, and most of them are actually conservatives.

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