Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Freiburg Workshop (6): The Evolutionary Science of Classical Liberalism

        At the Freiburg workshop, I restated my argument that we have at least twenty natural desires rooted in our evolved human nature, and that a free and open society as promoted by classical liberalism gives individuals the fullest freedom to pursue the satisfaction of those natural desires.  If the good is the desirable, then we can judge the classically liberal society to be better than those societies that do not allow individuals the same freedom to satisfy their natural desires.

        In his paper for the workshop, Jan Schnellenbach (Economics, Walter Eucken Institute, Freiburg) contended that I was wrong about this, because we must make trade-offs between these natural desires, and the trade-offs made by liberal policies are no more closer to human nature than the trade-offs made by illiberal policies.  “In general,” he wrote, “our many natural dispositions need not be mutually consistent, and the weights between them are likely to differ between individuals."  He claimed that “evolution likely endows individuals with a variety of heterogeneous traits and dispositions, which in turn implies a variety in policy preferences.” 

        But here he misses my point that it’s precisely this heterogeneity in how individuals rank their natural desires that makes liberal policies superior to illiberal policies, because while illiberal policies impose coercively a single ranking of desires, liberal policies do not impose a single ranking of desires on all.  In a liberal, largely open society, individuals are free to choose how to rank their natural desires, as long as this respects the equal liberty of others in their ranking.  Thus, liberal policies respect the natural heterogeneity of individuals, while illiberal policies do not.

         As indicated by Victor Vanberg at the workshop, Hayek makes this same point when he distinguishes between two kinds of “social planning.”  Illiberal planning organizes society by “a system of specific orders and prohibitions,” while liberal planning establishes “a rational system of law, under the rule of which people are free to follow their preferences.”

         I largely agreed with what Vanberg said about Hayek and the need for “evolution within constraints.”  I also agreed with him in criticizing Hayek’s suggestion that the market order requires a suppression of our natural human desires.  This is what I have identified as Hayek’s Freudian theory of human evolution, in which civilization requires the repression of our evolved human instincts.  Here is where Hayek’s argument for liberalism becomes incoherent. 

         If a liberal society is so painful because it requires the suppression of our deepest natural instincts, why does it succeed?  And if a socialist society satisfies our deepest natural instincts, why does it fail? 

         As I have indicated in some previous posts, I see the same incoherence in the “mismatch theory” of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.  Last June, at the meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in the Galapagos Islands, Cosmides and Tooby indicated their agreement with Hayek on this point.  At times, they seemed to say that Karl Marx was right about the “primitive communism” of hunter-gatherers, but at other times, they seemed to say that Marx was wrong, because even hunter-gatherers show only conditional sharing or reciprocation, and therefore their sharing is not indiscriminate.  Moreover, Tooby and Cosmides seemed to agree with John Locke and Adam Smith in seeing trading behavior in hunter-gatherers that would provide the natural basis for the modern commercial society.

         Understanding our evolution as moral animals requires that we understand the complex interaction between our moral nature, our moral culture, and our moral judgment.  This interaction of nature, culture, and judgment was a theme in the paper presented by Margaret Shabas (Philosophy, University of British Columbia).

         Schabas said that John Stuart Mill “believed that some of our traits are instinctive while others, our moral sense for example, are acquired.  But they emanate out of our intrinsic nature and in that sense are organic to our species.”   She then quoted from Mill’s Utilitarianism: “Like the other acquired capacities above referred to [speech and reason], the moral faculty, if not part of our nature, is a natural outgrowth from it; capable, like them, in a certain small degree, of springing up spontaneously; and susceptible of being brought by cultivation to a high degree of development.”

          In his Descent of Man, Darwin quotes from this same passage in Mill’s Utilitarianism, which Darwin finds contradictory.  Darwin argues that human morality is rooted in evolved social instincts.  He finds Mill confusing on this point, because Mill seems to say that morality both is and is not naturally instinctive. 

          Darwin and Mill are actually in agreement, I think, in seeing that natural moral instincts are necessary but not sufficient for the full development of moral life.  For Darwin, the first step in the evolution of morality is to have the social instincts that “lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.”   But this is only the first step.  The other steps include the mental capacity for deliberation, language that expresses social praise and blame, and social habituation.

While we commonly separate nature and nurture or nature and art, animal nature—including human moral nature—must be nurtured if it is to reach its natural completion, and this nurturing of our nature includes both cultural learning and individual judgment.  That’s why I say that Darwinian anthropology moves through three interacting levels.  Human nature constrains but does not determine human culture.  And human nature and human culture jointly constrain but do not determine human judgment.
The issue of whether liberal democratic regimes conform better to the constraints of evolved human nature than do illiberal authoritarian regimes is an empirical question.  Albert Somit and Steven Peterson have argued that liberal democracies require an egalitarian social structure that is contrary to our evolved human inclination to a hierarchical social structure in which the submissive many defer to the dominant few. 
Gregory Levit (History of Science, King's College & Jena University) criticized this argument in his paper for the workshop.  I agree with him.  But he doesn’t see the fundamental problem with the position of Somit and Peterson.
They assume that liberal democracy must be completely egalitarian, with no hierarchy at all.  If this were true, then the record of history would show that there has never been a liberal democracy, because every society has some differences in social rank.  And, indeed, I have argued that there is a natural desire for social ranking.
Levit cites Christopher Boehm’s book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.  But he doesn’t notice that Boehm argues against Somit and Peterson in claiming—rightly I think—that even in foraging societies, there is a hierarchy, but it’s an “egalitarian hierarchy,” in which subordinates use sanctions to restrain those with propensities to dominate.  Boehm then shows how modern liberal democracies can be interpreted as egalitarian hierarchies, with a formal or informal system of checks and balances that allows for “a moderate degree of leadership” without exploitative rule of dominants over subordinates.  Here, then, modern liberal democracies conform to the natural human dispositions shaped in the evolutionary history of hunter-gatherers.
In the evolution of hunter-gatherers, we can also see the evolution of social order as based on sympathy, which is rightly understood by Adam Smith as “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.”  Smith shows us how the moral order of society can be explained through our natural desire for a mutual sympathy of sentiments. 
In his paper for the workshop, Alain Marciano (Economics, University of Montpellier) made a good argument for how Smith’s sentimentalist psychology of sympathy supports the liberal understanding of how social order can emerge as a largely spontaneous, self-regulatory order.  
Marciano also showed, however, that Smith recognized the limits of sympathy as extended to strangers or people outside one’s own group, and so he saw that economic exchange might need to depend mostly on self-interest rather than benevolence.
Modern evolutionary psychology has largely confirmed Smith’s understanding of how our nature as both self-regarding and other-regarding animals supports the social orders of moral and economic cooperation. 
And, thus, once again, we see , as I argued at the workshop, that Darwinian science supports classical liberalism by showing that Adam Smith was right about almost everything.


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