Friday, May 02, 2014

Are the Most Intelligent People Libertarians?

Those who join the Libertarian Party of the United States are required to make this pledge: "I certify that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals."  Thus the libertarian or classical liberal position can be reduced to one simple principle--the prohibition of the initiation of force--which protects individual liberty by securing the right of every individual to be free from coercive violence, and thereby securing the conditions for social orders based on peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation.  While the initiation of violence is not justified, the reactive use of violence is justified to prevent or punish greater violence.

To decide whether you agree with this, the members of the Libertarian Party suggest that you take "The World's Smallest Political Quiz," which asks whether you agree or disagree with five statements about personal liberty and five statements about economic liberty.  One of the statements of personal liberty is "Government should not censor speech, press, media, or internet."  One of the statements of economic liberty is "Replace government welfare with private charity." 

If you agree with all ten statements, you're a libertarian.  If you agree with the statements of personal liberty but disagree with the statements of economic liberty, you're a left-liberal.  If you disagree with the statements of personal liberty but agree with the statements of economic liberty, you're a conservative.  If you disagree with both personal liberty and economic liberty, you're an authoritarian or statist. 

Notice that if you disagree with any of these statements, then you believe that it is good to initiate violence or the threat of violence to achieve some political or social goals, and thus you disagree with the libertarian belief that violence is never justified except to prevent some greater violence.

Are people with high IQ scores inclined to be libertarians who endorse both personal and economic liberty, who therefore oppose the initiation of violence to achieve political or social goals?  If so, then increasing IQ scores over the past century (the "Flynn effect") might explain declining violence over that time (the "moral Flynn effect").  That's Steven Pinker's argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Pinker's claim that there is a "moral Flynn effect" favoring classical liberal attitudes must seem strange to James Flynn, because he is a social democrat who rejects classical liberalism.

A few years ago, I wrote some posts on this here, here, and here. 

As I indicated in those posts, the libertarian or classical liberal character of Pinker's argument becomes clear if one compares his book with James Payne's History of Force and notices how much of Pinker's book was influenced by Payne's.  In comparing the books, one notices that while Payne argues that the continuing evolution away from force should lead to the abolition of compulsory taxation as based on violence or the threat of violence, Pinker is silent about this.  Pinker does perhaps drop a hint of this when he identifies classical liberalism with the principled rejection of all assertive uses of violence and with opposition to the coercive redistribution of wealth by government (663).

As I also indicated in those posts, Pinker is a little deceptive in his use of evidence to show the connection between IQ and classical liberal thinking, in that he makes the evidence look stronger in support of his position than it really is--particularly in how he reports the research of Satoshi Kanazawa and Ian Deary.

What exactly is the connection between intelligence and classical liberalism?  Pinker explains: "The escalator of reason predicts only that intelligence should be correlated with classical liberalism, which values the autonomy and well-being of individuals over the constraints of tribe, authority, and tradition.  Intelligence is expected to correlate with classical liberalism because classical liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent in reason itself" (662).

Pinker identifies this rational grasp of the "interchangeability of perspectives" with the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or don't do to others what you would not want them to do to you (182, 291, 647-48, 666).  He also sees this kind of reasoning in Adam Smith's account of the "impartial spectator" as allowing us to see ourselves mirrored in the eyes of others, so that "we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it" (669-70).

The classical liberal principle of equal liberty--that each person has the liberty to do as he wills, provided that he does not infringe the equal liberty of every other person--captures the reasoning of the Golden Rule.  This reasoning is rooted in human nature, in the recognition that all human beings are naturally alike in their not wanting to be attacked or exploited, in their propensity to strike back against aggressors, and in their need for the voluntary cooperation of others to satisfy their nature as social animals.

That the Darwinian science of evolved human nature supports such classical liberal reasoning has been the theme of other posts herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Adam G. Yoksas said...

I get a bit skeptical when I see statements such as "the escalator of reason." These statements bring to mind an old idea, that of scientific idealism.

Indeed, I see within contemporary libertarianism a lot of scientific idealism; with enough technology, education and general enlightenment, we can rid ourselves of the old injustices and reach an "end to history." It is an idea that one can see in the scientific atheism that is fashionable today, as well as in the libertarianism of Silicon Valley.

This end of history, for most libertarians I have seen, involves a withering of the state to what Hannah Arendt called "a well organized police force," and that we'd all be better off for it.

For those who see themselves as more intelligent, technically savvy, or morally deserving, is simply a kind of natural justice that corresponds with their privilege. Of course, the question always remains, "is it the quality that justifies the privilege? Or is it the privilege that justifies the quality?" The problem today is that there's no way to tell and, for many, the question doesn't even matter so much anymore. Privilege itself is a silent witness. It simply is; it cannot disclose whether it was earned, given or stolen.

A far more realistic approach is to recognize that power (be it economic, political or cultural) will always attempt to use what it has to maintain itself and expand its scope, by whatever means are convenient to it. This, coupled with the rather Augustinian notion that worldly justice is imperfect, presents us with a profoundly tragic view of the world that reflects the reality as experienced by human beings. I don't see that the libertarianism we see today fully accepts this tragic view. I may be wrong, but libertarians seem to default to the old liberal assumptions of "a just world" and "a harmony of interests"...both of which can serve as starting assumptions of a biological investigation of human institutions, if we choose to go there.

But when we go there, we seem to discount the observations made by Augustine, Nietzsche, Niebuhr and many others that human nature is, first and foremost, a tragic nature, filled with disharmony and injustice. We might not see it on the daily news. It might be hidden from us in the form of the arbitrary decisions that are made behind closed doors that might be unfair. The major events in our lives don't come with a sign that disclose themselves as fluctuations of random chance, or manifestations of arbitrary preference. And it seems rather difficult, in this day of shrewd public relations, to distinguish between the good, unlucky person and the fortunate person with good public relations.

This is just my realist--perhaps cynical--take on the recent consensus between Libertarianism and the human nature thinkers like Pinker. I think their intentions are good but, as Niebuhr would say, they seem to be "Children of Light" that discount the brutal imagination of human beings at their worst.

Larry Arnhart said...


Do you trust people to exercise coercive power over people in pursuit of what they regard as the social good?

If you do, you're an idealist.

Libertarians or classical liberals don't trust people to exercise this kind of power. So they are cynical realists.