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Left, Right & Center

July 7, 2009

Liberals, Conservatives & Libertarians

In last week’s post I mentioned my trip to Santiago, Chile, for a conference on evolutionary economics hosted by Alvaro Fischer, in conjunction with the year-long series of celebrations of Darwin’s 200th birthday.

The three main speakers at the conference were Ullrich Witt, a liberal economist from the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany (part of the old Iron Curtain East Germany), Kevin McCabe, a conservative economist from George Mason University, known for its free market leanings (unlike most universities and colleges in America), and myself, a “radical for liberty” (pace Ayn Rand’s self-description as a “radical for capitalism”). Our talks were formal, professional, and technical, but the lively action was in the table talk over meals. I very much enjoyed hearing the opinions of these learned economists, even while vehemently disagreeing (mainly with Witt). Since McCabe and I mostly agreed on everything, I’ll briefly summarize Witt’s lecture, which I think explains how he and I differ on the issue of the collective v. the individual.

Witt’s Lecture

Ullrich Witt’s talk was entitled “Animal Instincts and Human Sentiments: On the Origin and Evolution of Economic Institutions.” What is an institution? Do institutions have something in common? How similar/different are the post office, the government, or the law? Does a Darwinian perspective help us understand the origin and evolution of institutions? Yes. Proto institutions arose in early hominids: instinct based and subject to natural selection and adapted to the environment. How do we know? No fossils! Observe higher animals to infer what most likely developed in early hominid bands.

For example, hunting requires cooperation, and many mammals employ joint chasing tactics (conventions), have a set of rules about feeding dominance/subordination, show rules for food sharing, and the like, and these are all examples of proto institutions (genetically fixed, shaped by natural selection, adapted to survival conditions similar to those of early hominids).

The scope of cooperation in social situations is constrained by social structures. Proto institutions in proto humans probably began with coordinating hunts, uniting to fight against rival clans, etc. Observational learning is a way of transmitting knowledge and cultural adaptations in interactions and these proto-institutions. Genetically based forms of proto-institutions emerged in human evolution to ease the coordination (when conflict is absent) through recognizing self in others as well as the intentionality of others.

Cultural success accrued to populations when we needed to settle down and make the transition to agriculture. It was here, during the Neolithic Revolution, that informal institutes spontaneously emerged from our genetic architecture for cooperation. Formal institutions must be purposely created for the coordination of behavior in interactions. Natural domination leads to proto institutions as a way of preventing others from contesting domination (thereby preserving the domination rent from competition).

Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” is an institute grounded in a social contract that legitimizes authority and enforces constitutional constraints on personal power. This governmental leviathan was necessary as populations grew too large for informal institutions to be effective in governing behavior. The concept of human rights is a radically new social model deviating from inherited dispositions and yet presupposes nonetheless formal institutions with coercive power.

At Wit’s End with Witt (and other liberals)

At the core of our disagreement, I think, are several fundamentals: Witt emphasizes the institution, the society, the collective. I emphasize the individual, the person, and the fundamental rights of the individual from abuses and usurpations of the collective—what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of the majority” and for which our founding fathers brilliantly constructed the Bill of Rights. The danger of collectives is mob psychology. It is so easy to convince ourselves, especially when we are in a group, that we are right and “they” are wrong.

Most liberals would agree with me on this point (I’m socially liberal myself, agreeing on free speech, separation of church and state, pro-choice, etc.), but would differ on what the individual has a right to. Here I make a distinction between liberty rights and benefits rights. Liberty rights are the rights we have not to have our liberties taken away from us: the right to believe what we want, the right to free speech, the right to protest, the right to practice whatever religion we want (or even not to practice any religion at all!), the right to own private property, the right to a fair trial, etc. At the core of liberty rights is what I call the Principle of Liberty: the freedom to think, believe, and act as we choose so long as our thoughts, beliefs, and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.

Where I (and most conservatives) disagree with liberals is on the issue of benefits rights, that is, the right to have certain things given to individuals by the state: the right to an education, the right to a living wage, the right to paid vacations, the right to three square meals a day and a roof over our heads, the right to retirement pay (Social Security), the right to healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid and whatever is coming next), etc. I think people should have the liberty to procure these benefits themselves without interference from other people or the state, but the problem with the state granting them as “rights” is that someone has to pay for all these benefits, and that someone is all of us, adding the always inefficient government as a middle-man to deliver these goods and services, which can almost always be done more efficiently through the private sector.

A Solution to the Left-Right Dilemma

One conceptual solution to this left-right difference has been nicely outlined by the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt through his model of morality that allows us to avoid being trapped by what he calls a “moral matrix.” Haidt argues that there are 5 foundations of morality:

  1. Harm–Care (do not harm others, people should be cared for)
  2. Fairness–Reciprocity (justice for all)
  3. In-group Loyalty (we live in a dangerous tribal world so we need group unity)
  4. Authority–Respect (a free society depends on the rule of law and law-and-order)
  5. Purity–Sanctity (conservatives: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll; liberals: food, environment)

In a study encompassing over 23,000 subjects from countries all over the world, Haidt found:

  • Liberals are high on the Harm-Care and Fairness-Reciprocity dimensions, low on Loyalty, Authority-Respect, Purity-Sanctity.
  • Conservatives are about equal on the 5 dimensions (slightly less on Harm-Care and Fairness-Reciprocity, much higher on Loyalty, Authority-Respect, Purity-Sanctity.
  • Liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, keep your hands off my body. Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.
  • Conservatives emphasize institutions and traditions; they want order even at the cost of those at the bottom. Edmund Burke: “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”
  • Liberals and conservatives both bring something to the table. Libs and Cons as yin/yang.
  • Vishnu the Preserver (stability–conservative) and Shiva the Destroyer (change–liberal).

Haidt cites a study by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter, (“Altruistic Punishment in Humans,” Nature, 415, 137–140, 2002), employing a cooperation game in which people can give money into a commons. When there is no punishment for “free riding” (not giving but receiving the benefits) they discovered that cooperation decays fairly quickly within the first 6 rounds. But in the 7th round Fehr and Gachter allowed the subjects to allocate some of their money to punish free riders, and this they did, which immediately triggered a rise in the levels of cooperation and giving. Conclusion: it helps to have some sort of punishment to encourage people in big groups to cooperate.

One of these sources of control and authority and punishment is religion. The other is government. Conservatives prefer the former, liberals the latter. The problem we libertarians have with both institutions is that our moral minds evolved to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and convince ourselves that we are right and the other group is wrong. And that has dire consequences, from 12/7/41 to 9/11/01.

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