Monday, September 07, 2015

Hoppe's Libertarian History of Evolving Intelligence

Hans-Hermann Hoppe's A Short History of Man: Progress and Decline is a statement of Darwinian libertarianism in which capitalism is seen as a product of progressively evolving intelligence.  (Hoppe's book can be found at the Mises Institute website.)  He argues that the three great revolutions in social order can be explained as emerging from the genetic evolution of human intelligence. 

In the Human Revolution, about 50,000 years ago, our earliest human ancestors became hunter-gatherers when the genetic evolution of the primate brain gave them the capacity for language.  In the Neolithic Revolution, about 11,000 years ago, genetically evolved increases in intelligence allowed some of our human ancestors to invent agriculture.  In the Industrial Revolution, beginning around 1800 in Great Britain, further genetically evolved increases in intelligence allowed for the explosion in inventive productivity that led to the massive increases in per capita income and in human population of the past 200 years.

This is a history of progress, and yet, as Hoppe's subtitle indicates, it's also a history of decline, in that the invention of the modern State as a centralized monopoly power for legislation and taxation over a territory creates an exploitative governmental authority that attacks property rights and thus reduces individual freedom and productivity.  The invention of the State is, Hoppe declares, an "intellectual error" (18).  But Hoppe never gives a coherent explanation for how the evolution of increasing intelligence leads to this great intellectual error.  He sometimes suggests that the intellectual elites are those who invented the State to use it to exploit the less intelligent people.  If so, then it's not clear that the evolution of superior intelligence always serves the common good.

Hoppe presents his history as based on "Austro-Libertarianism," in that he embraces the economics of Ludwig von Mises and the ethics of Murray Rothbard.  He rejects Mises, however, in rejecting the limited-government liberalism of Mises in favor of Rothbard's anarcho-capitalism.  And he corrects both Mises and Rothbard, who thought that the Industrial Revolution required only the institutional protection of private property rights, because Hoppe (following the argument of Gregory Clark) thinks that protecting private property was not sufficient, and that the critical change leading to the Industrial Revolution was the genetic evolution of intelligence leading to an explosion in inventive thinking and low time preference (deferred gratification).

With the evolved capacity for language somewhere around 50,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors could cooperate more effectively, and they could more easily teach and learn from one another, which explains the archaeological evidence for improvements in their prehistoric tool kit and the complexity of their artistic symbolism.  Their productivity was limited, however, because hunter-gatherers live an essentially parasitic life-style, in that they merely appropriate what nature provides them--by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals--without controlling nature to produce new goods.

As the human population of foragers grew, they would find that there was not enough food for all.  When this happened, Hoppe argues, they had three choices.  They could fight over the scarce resources.  Or they could migrate to uninhabited areas.  Or they could invent new productive technologies.  They engaged in all three, but their capacity for invention was limited to simple tools for hunting and gathering.

It took at least 40,000 years of genetic evolution of human intelligence before some human beings were intelligent enough to invent herding and farming.  It takes a lot of intelligence and foresight to figure out that instead of capturing and eating whatever plants and animals happen to be immediately available to us, we would be better off to manipulate the growth of plants and animals so that we can harvest domesticated plants and animals sometime in the future.  But once human beings learned how to do that and also had the self-control to defer their gratifications to the future, they were able to settle into agrarian communities and to produce enough food to sustain growing populations. The greater intelligence required for agrarian societies should be evident in the cognitively challenging literacy, numeracy, and monetary calculation shown in such societies.  But throughout the history of agrarian communities, population growth fell into a Malthusian trap, in which shortages of food forced a drop in population, and per capita income could not grow.

Sometime around 1800, beginning in the Dutch Republic and Great Britain, for the first time in human history, there began a massive growth in both population and per capita income.  World human population grew from around 800 million in 1800 to over 7 billion today.  Per capita income grew to over 12 to 18 times today what it was in 1800.  The institutional protection of private property is a necessary condition for this, as Mises and Rothbard saw, but it was not sufficient, because such institutions of private property have existed throughout history in many parts of the world.  The Industrial Revolution could not occur until the breeding of intelligence over thousands of years reached a critical threshold around 1800 in a few parts of the world to make possible an unprecedented explosion in human inventiveness.

Much of this is persuasive to me.  But at some critical points, Hoppe's argument is either implausible or incoherent.

First of all, Hoppe agrees with Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Lewis H. Morgan that our prehistoric hunting-gathering ancestors did not live in families with pair-bonded couples.  Instead, they were utterly promiscuous in practicing "group marriage," in which anyone could have sexual intercourse with anyone else (59-65, 77-78).  Marriage and the family were cultural inventions of agrarian societies.  Remarkably, Hoppe quotes from Engels and Morgan without even mentioning the critique of this view by Charles Darwin and Edward Westermarck.  Nor does Hoppe mention the evidence indicating that hunter-gatherers are not utterly promiscuous, and that, in fact, pair-bonding of husband and wife is the distinctively human trait in evolution.

Similarly, just as Hoppe endorses the Marx/Engels/Morgan thesis while remaining silent about the criticisms of their view, he also endorses Gregory Clark's thesis about the genetic evolution of the Industrial Revolution while passing over the criticisms in silence.  Moreover, Hoppe does not note that Clark is vague about his argument, in that he never specifies the genetic basis for the intelligence and psychic propensities that he attributes to the British in 1800.  How exactly were the British genetically different?  He never says.  Is it possible that the difference was not genetic but a cultural difference in ideas--in that the British had been persuaded (by Locke, Smith, and others) to adopt the "bourgeois virtues," as Deirdre McCloskey has argued?  Hoppe is silent about all of this.

Moreover, in stressing the genetic basis of intelligence, Hoppe is also silent about all of the evidence for the environmental factors shaping intelligence.  He never mentions, much less explains, the Flynn effect--the steady increase in average IQ scores over the last 100 years in the United States and elsewhere.

Hoppe defends early medieval monarchy as superior to modern liberal democracy.  But then he never explains how this is compatible with the fact that liberal democracy is correlated with the Industrial Revolution and with increasing intelligence.

Throughout much of his argument, Hoppe assumes that increasing intelligence brings better social order that benefits everyone.  But then when he criticizes liberal democracy, he says that the more intelligent people will use the liberal democratic state to exploit others and benefit themselves.  He writes:
"While the redistribution from rich to poor will always play a prominent role and is indeed a permanent feature and mainstay of democracy, it would be naïve to assume that it will be the sole or even the predominant form of redistribution.  After all, the rich and the poor are usually rich or poor for a reason.  The rich are characteristically bright and industrious, and the poor typically dull, lazy, or both.  It is not very likely that dullards, even if they make up a majority, will systematically outsmart and enrich themselves at the expense of a minority of bright and energetic individuals.  Rather, most redistribution will take place within the group of the non-poor, and it will actually be frequently the better off who succeed in having themselves subsidized by the poor" (121).
So now it seems that far from being more inventive and productive, the more intelligent people invented the modern State so that they could be intelligent parasites (see also 19, 114-15, 132).

Hoppe's alternative to the State is a "private law society," in which law would be provided by private profit-making security and adjudication firms that would compete for clients who would pay for these services.  (A video of Hoppe's lecture on "State or Private Law Society" can be found here, the written text here.) Hoppe does not provide any historical examples of a "private law society."  Some anarcho-capitalists have pointed to medieval Iceland as an example of anarcho-capitalism.  But it's not clear whether this was a case of anarchy without government or whether it was rather a case of decentralized government.

Hoppe's "private law society" sounds like Gustave de Molinari's proposal for "The Production of Security."  But Molinari said that he was not an anarchist but a governmentalist.  This points to the central obscurity in anarchist thought.  Sometimes anarchists seem to be arguing for no government at all.  But at other times, it seems that anarchists are arguing for stateless government--there is government, but it is highly decentralized.  That seems to be where Hoppe ends up at the end of his book.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts here, here, here, herehereherehere, hereherehere, here, and here.

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