Libertarians, Conservatives and Human Nature

By: Eddie SantoPrieto

Listen — really listen — to the underlying beliefs of many people, and you’re confronted with common assumptions about human nature that really have no grounding in reality (or at least empirically baseless). This is far from an academic exercise; these assumptions drive our economic policies, for example, and are often used as rationales for zero-sum societies, and, most of all, justification for brutal wars that murder, for the most part, innocent women and children.

This false false portrait of humankind feeds both a harmful adulation of dog-eat-dog individualism and a sense of powerless in the face of godlike market forces that must be obeyed no matter the cost in lives, global environmental catastrophe or gross economic injustice.

Its roots lie in the gloomy conservative worldview of an essentially brutish human nature needing to be tamed. Conservative thinkers, looking to rationalize authoritarianism and explain away its social the destruction wreaked by unrestrained greed, simply invented whole-cloth concepts of human nature that made their policy goals seem inevitable.

The irony in all this is that this authoritarian Kool Aid is swallowed whole by so-called libertarians. You hear it all the time that human nature is selfish, war-like, brutal. Of course, the theory that we have a “selfish” gene is just that, a theory, founded upon absolutely no evidence. Yet it is propagated as if it is the gospel truth. As social scientist Riane Eisler, who in her seminal work, The Chalice and the Blade (1990) (and her later work) successfully dismantled this view, states:

I don’t want to lump every single sociobiologist into the same category, but the kind of sociobiological theories that tend to get popularized present what I call a dominator way of relating as the only human possibility. This is the model of human relations, as I describe in my work, in which males are ranked over females; violence and abuse are systemic and institutionalized; the social structure is hierarchic and authoritarian; and coercion is a major element in sexuality. And it’s all supposed to be just human nature.

The ugly, empirically invalid portrait is this: a human is a cold and isolated individual who uses unemotional reason to reach pre-determined ends. This is the widely discredited but still popular “rational actor” model. And there’s another gradation, which some are now calling the “rat choice” model. This tells us those pre-determined ends are always selfish or self-interested. This myth is what is at the heart of so-called libertarian and conservative worldviews, popularized in economic terms by cranks like Ayn Rand and von Hayek.

We are rats, these conservatives say!

As Eisler conclusively shows, however, virtually every field within the human sciences has found that we are nothing like that. Cutting-edge neuropsychological investigations show that because we are hard-wired for empathy, we can (and do) act altruistically. We seek fairness. Our selves are not isolated, but interconnected in many ways. Yes, we are competitive, but we are also cooperative. Reason and emotion are intertwined. There’s no such thing as reason detached from emotion. We don’t coldly follow the rules of logic in making moral decisions.

The notion that there is no such thing as altruism is based on the neo-Darwinian theory of kin selection. In other words, if you do something altruistic, you’re protecting your genes so you can pass them on. Well, what about the people in Nazi Germany who took in Jews, total strangers, knowing that not only they but their whole families would be killed if they were discovered? Where is the kin selection there? This notion just doesn’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

Darwin also wrote a book called Descent of Man, in which he very explicitly stated that natural selection, random selection, survival of the fittest, simply do not apply as the only factors, and certainly not as the primary factors, when it comes to human evolution. There is also the very important factor that he called “the moral sense.”

Despite the overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, the narrative of human nature as intrinsically evil is still the dominant prevailing religious and scientific narrative championing “original sin” and “selfish genes.” These also present male dominance as justified by either God or evolution (talk about irony), though scholars from many disciplines tell us a different story of our cultural origins.

In this alternative narrative, the invention of tools does not begin with the discovery that we can use bones, stones, or sticks to kill one another. It begins much earlier, with the use of sticks and stones to dig up roots (which chimpanzees still do) and continues with the fashioning of ways to carry food other than with bare hands (simple vegetable slings and baskets) and of mortars and other tools to soften foods.

In this story, the evolution of hominid, and then human, culture also follows more than one path. We have alternatives. We can organize relations in ways that reward violence and domination. But, as some of our earliest art suggests, we can also recognize our essential interconnection with one another and the rest of the living world.

In his recent book, The Fair Society (2011), biologist Peter Corning writes:

Contrary to the stereotype about our innate selfishness and greed, most of us share a desire to live in a society where fairness is the operative norm, where everybody’s basic needs are met… where there is a robust sense of ‘reciprocity’ — a rough balancing of benefits and obligations.

Corning’s provocative challenge is this: what if we’re wrong simply to resign ourselves to the notion that human nature is essentially destructive and war-like? What if we have the power — and more importantly, the duty — to change society for the better?

As cognitive scientists such as George Lakoff (2008) have been advising us for some time to grasp the new 21st Century understanding of human nature and thinking. It is impossible to advance a progressive social vision using false frames of reference clothed as unbiased scholarship — assumptions intended to forever rule out a fair, progressive, and democratic society.

Lynn Stout demolishes the concept of human beings as selfish creatures who respond only to punishments and rewards in her book, Cultivating Conscience (2010). She shows that the lonely, selfish, hyper-individualistic creature invented by conservative propagandists is actually a myth. That view, Stout correctly observes, “implies we are psychopaths.”

Rather than lean on the power of greed to shape laws and human behavior, Stout argues, we should rely on the force of conscience. Stout makes the compelling case that conscience is neither a rare nor quirky phenomenon, but a vital force woven into our daily lives. Using empirical studies from social psychology, behavioral economics, and evolutionary biology, Stout demonstrates how social cues — ideas about others’ selfishness and unselfishness, and beliefs about benefits to others — have a powerful role in triggering unselfish behavior.

It should come as no surprise that corporations and the financial elite have funded the multi-decade effort to convince Americans our nature is intrinsically evil. Rational choice theory, a theory that postulates that people working separately to pursue their ego-centered needs creates the ideal society, would hold sway over economics and political science and it would redefine the foundations of public policy by assuming that self-interest defines all aspects of human activity. It was also used to redefine “freedom” as a fundamental aspect of greed (George Lakoff, 2007). When applied to corporations, the theory exempted them from any social responsibility other than that owed to their shareholder. Today, that corporation is considered a legal (if fictitious) entity. Or, as Mitt Romney succinctly put it the other day, “Corporations are people [too].”

As a former scam artist, I have to admit that this has been the greatest scam ever in the history of human kind. The wholesale acceptance of the idea that there is a moral imperative for the pursuit of wealth and power, whatever the consequences for the many and for society at large, is almost too ugly to countenance. But this is what lies behind our current political system — this false and destructive view of our own natures. In fact, this scam has succeeded to the point that many so-called libertarians, “independents,” progressives (many of whom like to make fun of the rest of us unwashed masses) remain content to operate within the frames and narratives generated by the scam.

To paraphrase Einstein, the same consciousness that is part of the problem cannot be used as a solution. A society organized around the values generated by an evolved consciousness look radically different from political and economic structures forced upon us by the greedy authoritarians who sold us a bill of goods about ourselves. But before that can happen, you have to disabuse yourself of the myths of human nature.

Corning, P. A. (2011). The fair society: The science of human nature and the pursuit of social justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (click here)

Eisler, R. (1990). The chalice and the blade: Our history, our future. New York: HarperOne. (click here)

Lakoff, G. (2007). Whose freedom?: The battle over America’s most important idea. New York: Macmillan. (click here)

Lakoff, G. (2008). The political mind: Why you can’t understand 21st-century politics with an 18th-century brain. New York: Penguin. (click here)

Stout, L. A. (2010). Cultivating conscience: How good laws make good people. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (click here)

25 Comments on “Libertarians, Conservatives and Human Nature”

  1. There are a lot of good points in your article regarding many held yet false beliefs on human nature, but you make to many leaps to try to use that to bash people with conservative and libretarian belifs. The idea that humanity is “selfish” isn’t central to libralism, conservatism,or libretariansism. Political idealogies are based on much more than our views on human nature. Yes, there are some conservatives and libretarians who think of man kind as selfish and terrible. But those people are not at all representative of the political idealogy as a whole.

    Be an objective journalist. Don’t try to use facts to convince people of a flawed point of view on the human nature of conservatives and libretatians.

  2. I blame it on those who like easy answers to the enormous complexity of human evolution; most recently, the science community that is driven to look for physical explanations of even the most elusive elements of the human psyche. A gene for selfishness; that’s rich! Let’s scratch the whole psychological profession that examines nurture versus nature, environmental versus inherited tendencies, emotions versus our ability to reason. It’s all in our genes and we are enslaved to our genetic structure so if we are greedy, sneaky, conniving, lying or violence prone, it’s not our fault.

    Give me a break. If this was the case, why is it that in a family with four children, each one of them will show a different package of personality traits? One will be selfish and materialistic, another as free as the wind, still another struggling to find equitable solutions to all their problems, while yet the fourth one sits on a fence, trying to decide whether to be selfish or giving. I believe it was the Russian author Dostoyevski who observed, “in every family there is a saint and a criminal”. He didn’t give much advocacy to the dry rhetoric of science, but he certainly knew how to write stories with deep insight on human behavior.

  3. I agree with Hunter on this one. This article includes many logical fallacies, rhetoric, sophism. You do sound like some one who would be interested in reading a little about praxeology. Many of the libertarians I know are into that.

  4. Libertarian and conservative philosophies don’t require a denying of empathy or compassion, at all. The State is hardly the vehicle of compassion – note that it requires weaponry – and it’s killed more people than all other entities put together and multiplied many times over. (See .) As for Africa, African socialism is a well-documented horror. Africa is hardly a free market zone. Time to look at things with clear eyes and quit riding the old, tired hobby-horses. But then, BushReaganThatcherHoover always did everything bad.

  5. It is my believe that humankind really doesn’t fit any model of “good” or “bad” we simply are. In our pure states we cooperate when we need to and go our own ways when we don’t.

    However our social progression has caused us to be less “natural” and more selfish. It is ingrained through socialization and will be a hard fix.

    I agree with those above who stated that Libertarian and conservative philosophies don’t require denying empathy. However the group think has evolved to be passive empaths at the very best times. We cannot hope to help or change if we philosophically rant about empathy. Empathy needs action.

  6. “” Its roots lie in the gloomy conservative worldview of an essentially brutish human nature needing to be tamed. Conservative thinkers, looking to rationalize authoritarianism and explain away its social the destruction wreaked by unrestrained greed, simply invented whole-cloth concepts of human nature that made their policy goals seem inevitable. “”

    If that’s what you think Conservatism is, you are desperately mistaken.

    With all of your arguments based on that premise, your entire essay is shown to be moot.

  7. [Quote=Article]The wholesale acceptance of the idea that there is a moral imperative for the pursuit of wealth and power, whatever the consequences for the many and for society at large, is almost too ugly to countenance. But this is what lies behind our current political system[/quote]

    This has been true of every state-based political system ever devised – from the time of the pharaohs until now there has always been systems of though devised that justified a certain segment of society being more wealthy and powerful than all the rest! This is not something new that came out of the American political class (what most people mistakenly describe as being “conservative” or “liberal” – there’s no functional differnce between them!): this is a mentallity with very ancient roots and it won’t be going anywhere without a full-scale revolution purging all forms of centralized power from society.

  8. For those who are bashing my view of libertarianism AS IT IS practiced, there’s plenty of evidence that many libertarians do indeed adhere to a conservative worldview regarding human nature. IMO, MOST people who claim to be “libertarians” are actually shamed economic conservatives, championing limited government, deregulation, and von Hayek/ Ayn rand economic scams. The funny thing is von Hayek and that other libertarian quack Mies, never did any work that wasn’t funded by their corporate masters.

    Libertarianism is an affectation — a way to place oneself ABOVE the political fray, in a manner of speaking. If you doubt my take on libertarianism, take your argument to the person I got it from: Robert Nozick, author of the seminal libertarian book, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” It should be noted that he later repudiated almost ALL of his earlier work.

    As for conservatism? Edmund Burke, who adhered to a gloomy view of human nature, has generally been viewed as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism. his debates with Thomas Paine are well-known. That conservationism has a dim view of human nature is neither a mistaken nor radical notion. It’s pretty much mainstream — I mean, c’mon, there’s that whole Hobbesian Leviathan thingee lurking there in the background. Burke went to so far as to say that because of the baseness of human nature, democracy should be limited. Much of the subsequent conservative literature and history since then has reinforced that view.

    I see people here barking at my premises, but I don’t see a good takedown of my points. It’s shoddy thinking to accuse me of logical fallacies but don’t offer any actual evidence for it. I would welcome such a critique, but I don’t see it. show me, with your own sources, how my premises are incorrect. Now THAT would be fun.

  9. Hunter: each and every worldview has as its driving force a basic point of view on human nature. This is not a radical observation on my behalf, it’s actually quite mainstream. In previous articles here and elsewhere, I have shown how at its core, conservatism takes a dim view of human nature. that’s why it endorses of “strict father” model of governing in contrast to the “nurturant parent” model used by progressives (to borrow from the Lakoff studies I cited. At its core, political science is applied morality, and morality has EVERYTHING to do with basic ideas about human nature. My point here, apart from political ideology, is some concepts of human nature are flawed — not backed up by the science — and those flawed perceptions of human nature are often used to create conservative, zero-sum societies. Libertarians, for all of their whining to the contrary do adhere to a dim view of human nature. If you doubt me, read the literature, look at the way they define freedom, and the (mostly failed) economic policies they champion.

  10. Michael: it’s funny that you use Africa as a example for socialism, when you could’ve used MOST of the advanced world, which enjoys the highest standards of living, maybe in ALL of history. Stop it with the socialism-as-evil propaganda, it won’t pass muster with me. Most of the greatest social policies have been grounded in socialism. OTOH, there isn’t one libertarian nation you can point to because libertarianism remains an “idea” not a practical application. That’s why I label it “looneytarianism.” And when libertarian ideals HAVE been attempted, they have failed miserably. See the long series of financial meltdowns in the US and across the globe, Milton Friedman horror with the “Chilean Experiment,” and the “Chicago Boys,” Friedman’s disciples’, debacle in Russia.

    But my point isn’t so much to argue political ideology, but the underlying motivations of those ideologies.

  11. Karlsie: I hear you! The thing is that evolutionary psychology has “captured” the public imagination. And why is that? Because they present myths dressed as “science” excusing everything from rape on down. One of my earliest pieces here for Subversify was how capitalism is often endorsed as an inevitable part of out human nature. Bullshit!

    Grainne: At the risk of sounding nit-picky :;grin:: It’s not about CHOOSING empathy. Cutting-edge neuropsychological research shows that because WE ARE HARD-WIRED for empathy, we can (and do) act altruistically. We seek fairness. Our selves are not isolated, but interconnected in many ways. Yes, we are competitive, but we are also cooperative. Reason and emotion are intertwined. There’s no such thing as reason detached from emotion. We don’t coldly follow the rules of logic in making moral decisions.

    Libertarianism and conservatism both advocate for policies that dismiss the hard science.

  12. Eddie, damaged people have to relearn. IMO most modern people are damaged in one way or another, that is taken away from their natural state. We may be “hard wired” for empathy but it is mostly socialized out. Hence we must choose.

  13. Grainne, actually i don’t think “socialized out” is the correct phrase. Those who have lost their empathy have been isolated out. The first rule of an abuser is to isolate his/her victim from any other nurturing dependency; self esteem leading to the conviction the victim cannot provide for self, ties with friends and family, pain and alienation associated with disobedience; the insulating fabric of our social order has basically done this. It encourages “independence” by defying family structure and pursuing self gain. It interferes with family structures by declaring certain members dysfunctional and unfit to be part of the family network. It produces the illusion that the only way to be economically stable is by pursuing corporate/government policies. It lends pain and punishment to those who don’t comply with their municipal codes and statutes, which have not been ratified and supported by the public.

    This is an isolation from our natural selves, which are actually quite social. Have you ever met a hermit? A hermit will be entirely social for the length of time it takes for him or her to absorb everything that has been happening in the world he’s escaped from, and to communicate everything that has been on his mind since the last time he heard a human voice. This process can take from hours, to several days, depending on the degree of craving for another voice. During that time period, you’ll be treated like a king. The hermit will share everything he owns with you. But once he is satisfied, he sends you on your way.

    People don’t realize they are isolated because they are connected through radio, telephone, television, the Internet. What would happen though, to some of these electronically connected people if each one was given a cabin in the wild, with no electricity, no satellite discs, no cell phones, no vehicles, no means of hearing another voice except by walking three or four miles down a path? How long do you think they would handle the silence before they went visiting? If each cabin was occupied by someone with a different set of skills; farming, medicinal, carpentry, etc.; how long do you think it would take them to realize they would fare much better as a community if they shared?

    We are hard wired for empathy, of this i have no doubt. Nature instilled in us a craving for socialization, which is why, despite governments of the most oppressive manifestations, there are still those who follow an idealistic viewpoint of equality, and concern themselves with matters of fair trade, poverty, disease prevention, and violent resolution.

    There is no gene for selfishness, only the DNA memories of selfish people and the personality constructs influenced by environmental factors. One sibling, carrying the personality manifestations, consequently the compatible memories of that personality, might think, “if i do this, it will satisfy my selfish cravings, thereby granting me utter satisfaction”, while another sibling, faced with the same opportunity but with a different set of personality traits, will think, “if i do this, it’s a selfish act and will bring pain to the individual i’m trying to manipulate”. The one goes forward with the selfish act, while the other, feeling the empathy of pain, with draws. Environmental factors include degree of opportunity (position in society), acceptableness (will others accept the selfish act as morally or culturally valid) and perceived harm. A person campaigning to have a disreputable trailer park in a city torn down, might believe he is doing no harm at all by improving the standard of life for the outlaying residential areas, but doesn’t have an answer for what to do about the evicted trailer owners. The perceived good is measured greater than the perceived harm.

    Throw away all the media enhancements long enough to crave the sound of human company, and i’ll guarantee there will be plenty of people who will find just how hard-wired they are to an emphatic relationship with others.

  14. Grainne: Empathy is part of our neurological make-up. It is natural. It’s so essential to humanity that without we’re sociopaths. Children who are deprived of touch, of caring, of compassion and love become sociopaths. this s NOT a natural state. Similarly, a society that builds a moral/ political system that discourages these very human qualities creates a dysfunctional society. There is a STRONG body of evidence that conservative and libertarian ideologies result in such societies.

    As for “damaged” people? that’s an interesting take, but since I believe the evolutionary process compels us to higher forms existence, I don’t think we’re more damaged here in the States than we were, say, 100 years ago when, for example, women and children perished at sweat shops and black people, and other people of color, had almost no rights.

  15. Karlsie: You just blew out of the water. Your point on empathy is not just a belief, but a fact pretty much borne out of decades of hard sceince.

    I’ve heard it said that conservative emphasize reptilian thinking while progressives emphasize neocortex thinking (synthesizing all parts of the triune brain). I tend to agree, looking at the evidence out there.

    The reptilian brain acts on stimulus and response, and is useful for quick decisions without thinking — the key words here are “without thinking.” The reptilian brain focuses on survival, and takes over when we are in danger, or think we are, and don’t have time to figure things out. In a world of survival of the fittest, the reptilian brain helps keep us alive and at the top of the food chain. The reptilian brain is fear driven, and takes over when we feel threatened or endangered –we don’t have to actually be threatened, just think we are.

    Isn’t this a clear articulation of the mindset of conservatism in general and modern-day conservatism specifically? The constant fear, the constant need for the fabrication of “others” to fight (immigrants, people of color, Islam, and in the past, communists).

    Similarly, libertarian ideals emphasize individual needs over the needs of society. It seeks to isolate people from one another and labels any significant attempt to create a cohesive social structures as “coercion” or some kind of evil.

    Progressive values include: caring for the environment, caring for our fellow humans, making education a priority and available to all, supporting the arts for the sake of the arts, equality for minorities and women, freedom to be religious or not, making health care available to all. These values are meaningless to reptiles. They require abstract thinking, the ability to learn, and critical thinking.

    From the evidence I have looked at conservatism and libertarianism operate from lower, less evolved, levels of moral reasoning. they are immature social schemes not in sync with how human nature actually works.

  16. Eddie, i tend to shy away from political party definitions as the root words so often get mangled in the name-calling process of campaigning. Conservative: to conserve. While i called myself a liberal in my younger days, some of my more politically astute friends pointed out that technically, i was a bit of a conservative. My primary concerns were environmental; i wished to conserve the environment. I had strong family values and chose to conserve family structure and tradition.

    However, your definition of the reptilian brain does reflect the reactionary mindset of a general public that has not yet graduated beyond emotional button pushing. There were two key phrases in your definition: “without thinking” and “fear driven”. The primary reason for keeping the masses frothed in a state of fear is so they will act without thinking. It is the deliberation of every political candidate that steps up to the podium. It’s simply the areas where s/he chooses to focus this empathic channeling of fear that differs. Michele Bachman chooses to whip up fear over a Soviet Union that doesn’t exist.

    Fear gives us quick reflexes, but a true survivalist is not driven by fear. Fear can be smelled. It can be felt. It can be transferred. Many perpetrators of violent crime feed off fear because of the adrenalin rush the empathic relation causes them. In accidents, natural disasters, and other instances of instant danger, the ones with the best survival rate are the ones who remain calm. They appraise the situation and the best way of negotiating it. A person who can’t swim won’t drown if he doesn’t thrash around in the water. He must stifle his fear so he can float.

    The true progressive mind should not see itself as a party, but as a movement to create rational decisions without the intervention of fear tactics. If you fear the environment, you cannot save it. If you fear cultural, ethnic or racial differences, you cannot adequately care for your fellow human. If you fear not being number one in a competition, your views on equality are flawed.

    Fear is healthy in small doses. We can fear for the effects of radiation poisoning, but we can also take steps to battle it. We can fear the collapse of the global economy, but we can also formulate an objective, action based plan to survive it. This plan would have nothing to do with the current corruption pervading our government and everything to do with a people without fear working together to create it.

  17. Eddie-“As for “damaged” people? that’s an interesting take, but since I believe the evolutionary process compels us to higher forms existence, I don’t think we’re more damaged here in the States than we were, say, 100 years ago when, for example, women and children perished at sweat shops and black people, and other people of color, had almost no rights”

    -Exactly so, this is a centuries long process/problem, it’s going to take a while to fix it.

  18. The work of Alan Schore and other brain-based scientists prove without a doubt that human beings from the moment of birth crave connection. The mother (parent)/infant eye contact is essential not merely for psychological life but even physical life. I could go on about this but will not. Infants who form secure attachments are empathic, social, capable of regulating affect and more likely to think before acting. Those with insecure attachments are non-empathic, anti-social, have gross difficulties with affect regulation tend towards impulsivity.

    The “brutish nature needing to be tamed” is the unfortunate paradigm of those who were themselves victimized as children, told they were brutish, and tamed usually in cruel ways. Identifying with their aggressors, they now brutalize others.

    Humans seek connection like plants seek the light. Go to any beach and you can hear “Daddy look at me!” over and over. Liberals want to build and develop these connections and form a society condusive to families and partnerships. Conservatives (maybe Daddy never looked at them) do not wish to nurture intrapersonal connections. They are themselves selfish and clutching, and seek to reconcile this selfishness with a vestige of humanity that may reside within them. Here comes the popular social Darwinists and their faulty DNA model and they are off the hook.

    I won’t deal with Libertarians; I consider them sheep.

  19. Wow, Bennie. the two volumes by Alan shore on affect regulation also blew me away when I first read them several years ago. I’m glad you mentioned him, because, without being conscious of it, his work always informs my thinking on a lot of things.

    Another elegantly written book on all this is “A General Theory of Love,” though not as rigorously written as Shore’s, it encapsulates in (almost) everyday language the incredible amount of hard science that basically devastates the evo. psyh. posers.


  20. Benni wrote: “The “brutish nature needing to be tamed” is the unfortunate paradigm of those who were themselves victimized as children, told they were brutish, and tamed usually in cruel ways. Identifying with their aggressors, they now brutalize others.”


    There are tons of references uncovering conservatism’s dim view of human nature AND empirical research showing that at the core of political conservatism is resistance to change, a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:

    Fear and aggression
    Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
    Uncertainty avoidance
    Need for cognitive closure
    Terror management

  21. Grainne: I THINK I understand what you’re trying to say, but I think that process has occurred ALREADY. It’s called evolution. The neurological hard-wiring and adaptation has already taken place. there’s no need to wait for a slow process of change, the change is already there. What is needed is a realization and respect for the REALITY of how human nature works and a political structure that enhances its flowering. One worldview, faulty and regressive, seeks to exalt the individual at the expense of the whole. This is counter to human nature and creates social structures that are destructive (i.e., global warming, denial of basic needs, etc.). We literally don’t have the luxury of time.

  22. I am late to this discussion, and there is so much I want to comment on. This is a great piece, Eddie, and it’s provoked a terrific, thoughtful discussion.

    I have to say that Karslie and Benni have both impressed the hell out of me; each of them not only said I wanted to say before I got here but said it far better, with greater knowledge, and in Benni’s case, with better sources than I would have provided. Each of them said things I hadn’t thought of but agree with, too.

    And Eddie–thank you for bringing up the neo-Darwinian altruism problem. It has always troubled me that some scientists and social scientists take the stand that, since they can’t point to a gene or an kin-selection reason for altruism (and even that theory is WEAK), it must be some kind of aberration, or something other than what it appears (vide the kin-selection theory). According to their thinking, I’m an aberrant waste of genetic material because I decided not have kids, and anyone who would help a stranger is also somehow defective. FUCK! There is something wrong with a mindset that says frames the whole question around the idea that humanity is inherently selfish and suggests that there’s something wrong with behaving well. Ideas about human nature form the foundation of that kind of thinking, as well.

    What always strikes me as ironic is that the bedrock foundation of conservatism and libertarianism is the idea that mankind is sinful/selfish/greedy/bad/brutal/dominating/power-crazed, most conservatives (and an awful lot of self-identified libertarians) are authoritarian followers. They suspect humanity, but they are completely credulous regarding specific humans. Collectivism is bad, and we can’t come together to help people–but by golly, all of those nice, nice rich people are philanthropists at heart. If we could just get our collective selves (the government) out of their hair and stop *forcing* them to be generous, the largesse wouldn’t just tickle down; it flow in rivers.

    And we can’t trust the rabble and riffraff when they (we) come together in the government or in unions, but we can trust those authoritarian leaders of conservative churches. And, for some, we can absolutely trust the government, too–so long as it’s pro-rich, authoritarian, and exemplifies the dog-eat-dog view of human nature.

    It’s like there is some some kind of cognitive malfunction that causes them to believe that, human nature being the bad, selfish, and brutal thing that it is, what we really, really need is a few human beings–who are utterly trustworthy, good, and paternally altruistic–to take care of us and protect us.

    Even that, though, is an example of extremist, reductive thinking: Human nature, bad. Most people, bad. Bad, natural. A few special human beings, good. It’s like they think life is a jungle, but we’ll all be just fine if we can recruit one of the guides from Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise to see us safely through it.

    I love what you’ve all been saying the instinctive need for connectedness and affective interactions, from our earliest moments on. I do think that most of us have some kind of broken-ness as a result of living in the world, but I don’t think that means we don’t need connection or can’t connect–or even that we can’t deal with the ways in which we are “broken” and heal. And I think a deep sense of connectedness is one thing that helps. Perhaps the reason so many people are traumatized in some way by life is that we live life in a society which has a warped view of human nature.

    I think it was Karlsie who said this first, but the idea that is one, simple “human nature” just doesn’t make sense. We do know, though, that from birth on, every person needs connection to other people. Why would it be our “nature” to abuse and take advantage of what we most need?

  23. Excellent piece, Eddie!

    “We seek fairness. Our selves are not isolated, but interconnected in many ways. Yes, we are competitive, but we are also cooperative. Reason and emotion are intertwined. There’s no such thing as reason detached from emotion. We don’t coldly follow the rules of logic in making moral decisions.”

    Now I am not as informed as those that have commented, but let’s look at the results of the two ideologies. Libertarianism is moot, they are not sheep as Benni stated, and you have given their beliefs far too much credit. They are disconnected wanna be shepherds that take on the role of sheep with their lack of understanding empathy in action creates parameters and rules. Just because the government has failed in its role to protect the people doesn’t infer that removing the government will make things better.

    But conservatism is just a fancy term for oppressive corporatism, plain and simple. For every law or regulation they remove, it weakens the ability to take part in the “marketplace of ideas”. For every law they enact it weakens your ability to be a part of the interconnectedness of life. I have read Hobbs, Burke, Von Mises, Hayek, Rand, and yet to read Shore (Damn! I am so tired of buying shit from Amazon!) but from those that I have read the principles of conservatism reeks of classism, a deep rooted mistrust of the poor, and an overall intent to achieve the very monarchy that permeates the European countries. It’s sad to say but when looking at America and its “damaged” citizens; it’s easy to refer to many of our comprehensive psychosis as just Europe’s “failed experiment”. In the end, Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning was not heeded. We are basically citizens of totalitarianism. Can it be turned around? Of course, but to insist on using the same failed policies that got us here is fool hearty, dangerous, and naïve.

    All in all, to discount the post Eddie has made is short-sighted and defensive of a political structure that demands compassion and empathy to be absent in the face of business, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

  24. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Karen.

    Which reminds me: that’s all I ask from those who comment — thought. I always go by the rule that if I can’t state a writer’s main point, then I CANNOT disagree. In order to disagree one has to UNDERSTAND first. Unfortunately most of the dissenters failed at that.

    In any case, I hope to post a libertarian critique because I find what most Americans identify as “libertarianism” is merely an insidious form of conservatism (at least in economic terms).

    And at the risk of actually posting my critique of libertarianism as a comment (LOL), here is my main beef with libertarians in general:

    When liberty is invoked to stifle our doubts about the free market, libertarianism takes a faith in the individual as an irreducible unit of moral worth and turns it into a weapon of predation.

    A free society is an interplay between a structure of social commitments, and the wellspring of economic liberty that lies within it. The question then is: What risks (to health, loss of employment, etc.) must be removed from the wellspring and placed in the structure (in the form of universal health care, employment insurance, etc.) in order to keep liberty a substantive reality, and not a bullshit academic exercise? When libertarians insists welfare is the road is to serfdom (Hayek), or insist that progressive taxation is coercion (Nozick), they take liberty hostage in order to prevent a reasoned discussion about public goods from ever taking place. According to them, any intervention of the state in economic life would be likely to lead, and even lead inevitably to a completely collectivist Society, Gestapo and gas chamber included. Thus we are hectored into silence, and by the very people who purport to leave us most alone.

    Unfortunately, in our collective silence we have passed through the looking glass. Large-scale, speculative risk, undertaken by already grossly overcompensated bankers, is now officially part of the structure, in the form of too-big-to-fail guarantees made, implicitly and explicitly, by the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the “libertarian” right moves to take the risks of unemployment, disease, and, yes, accidents of birth, and devolve them entirely onto the responsibility of the individual. I find this not just tragic, but morally repugnant.

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