Should the Thoughtful Libertarian Be Rationally Pessimistic?

In 2010, the British science writer Matt Ridley debuted as a classical liberal with his book The Rational Optimist. Ridley’s “coming out” was eventful and exciting for libertarians all over the world. A former staff writer and head of the Washington bureau of The Economist, a successful science author and, more importantly, a gifted narrator, Ridley condensed in his thick book much research and wisdom. The financial crisis appeared to many to have dispensed with free market ideas once and for all. Ridley pointed out that, to the contrary, free markets were actually producing prosperity, food, cleanliness all over the world—particularly for the world’s poor.

The Rational Optimist was chiefly concerned with data and facts, of the kind often gleaned from “standard” history. Ridley’s remarkable new book, The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge, is more focused on human interpretations of the world we live in—that is to say, on ideas. Ridley draws on an impressive and heterogeneous literature, from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) to George Selgin’s Good Money: Birmingham Button Makers, the Royal Mint, and the Beginnings of Modern Coinage (2008), to show that evolution doesn’t work only in biology.

In arguing that evolution can explain the universe and morality, life and culture, personality and the Internet, Ridley is not trying to make a passe-partout word out of it, as had been done with the term “dialectic” a few decades ago, but to outline two fundamentally different ways of looking at things. “The history of Western thought,” he writes, “is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning.” Look about you in search of intentionality and design; that’s a possibility. But there is another way of seeing things: to accept that the world goes on largely on its own, that “great men” are more instrumental than necessary, and that all changes tend to be “incremental.”

F.A. Hayek distinguished between a “French” and a “British” individualism. Hayek wrote about thinkers, but the geographical references to France and England had more to do with a vignette of “national character” than with polar stars in the history of thought. (For consider that Montesquieu and Tocqueville happened to be “British” individualists, and Bentham and Mill “French” ones.) The gist of Hayek’s argument was that you can either see social reality as something a single human mind can design and rebuild, or as a product of the interactions of so many individuals that no one of them can fully master that reality.

Hayek’s “French individualism” is not merely a political theory. Faith in interventionism and mysticism basically answer the same elemental human need: the search for a “visible hand,” to trust or to blame. As Ridley puts it:

The reluctance to accept coincidence lies at the heart of telepathy, spiritualism, costs and other manifestations of the supernatural. The mystical mentality insists that something caused a coincidence; something made things go bump in the night.

The reluctance to accept coincidence lies also at the heart of a faith in government action. In fact Ridley compares social planning to “creationism.” In Human Action (1949), Ludwig von Mises remarked that “The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation.” Ridley wholeheartedly agrees.

In a way, this book can be read as a conversation between Ridley and his scientist friends. They fall prey to an inherent contradiction. Understanding evolution in nature, they have deep admiration for the beauty of self-organized ecosystems. But concerning the human things, they often take a top-down view, under which the human self-organizing ecosystems call for corrections from the bright and the bold.

Can this be done, without paying a price in less economic growth and thwarted innovation? Ridley is skeptical. By the same token, he reveres Charles Darwin but vigorously denounces eugenics as an attempt to forge a new man. Evolutionary thought does not entail forging anything, but rather, pausing and appreciating the achievements that have come about even though they aren’t under our control.

This is true for Darwin’s finches as well as for iPads and wristwatches. Writes Ridley:

Economic development is more than just a growth of income—it is the appearance of a whole system of collaborative engagement among people to drive innovation that cuts the time it takes people to fill needs.

Innovation is a product “of human action and not of human design,” and efforts to explain it by other reasons than increased division of labor are unsuccessful.

Building on the work of Allison Wolf, Ridley explains that “the countries with the most education simply do not show greater productivity growth than the ones with less.” And building on the work of Terence Kealy, he shows that technology isn’t the daughter of science. Perhaps the opposite is true: “Technology comes from technology far more often than from science. And science comes from technology too.” The steam engine “owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.”

In saying so, Ridley is once more at odds with his scientist friends. The latter, taking the top-down view, tend to emphasize their own role and imagine a linear transition from the world of ideas to the world of things: first comes the discovery, then the prototype. Ridley instead suggests that the discovery procedure is less of a neat thing. It may happen by the hand of tinkerers, by trial and error. Yes, innovators are key, but sometimes innovations are the low-hanging fruits of a long series of incremental steps in a certain direction.

Thus social engineers are to him like creationists, basically unable to marvel at the accomplishments of self-propelled spontaneous orders.

When he turns from economics to the evolution of culture, personality, even the mind, the libertarian himself seems to enter into contradiction. In this sphere Ridley seems to incline toward a deterministic approach. The self, he writes, “is a construct, a story told after the fact to bring unity to what is actually a diverse experience.” We humans are “nothing but the neural signals of our brain.” Advances in the neurosciences will undermine the notion of deliberate behavior in many respects.

Will this fact weaken the case for advocating individual liberty? On the one hand, realizing that we are “nothing but the neural signals of our brain” does not necessarily rule out free, purposeful actions. The fact that it needs gasoline to move doesn’t mean that the car doesn’t move. On the other hand,

the history of the Western world shows that, as we have gradually embraced bottom-up explanations, we have stopped blaming people for things that were not their fault. We once blamed ill people for the wickedness that led them into illness; or accident victims for the sins that they were being divinely punished for. As late as the 1960s . . .  we blamed and punished homosexuals for their inclinations, refusing to believe that they were a product of their internal influences—genetic or developmental.

Ridley tries to draw the line in the right place when he says that the drive to understand genetic or developmental inclinations may aid and abet “people who make spurious claims to diminished responsibility to escape harsh sentences.” But then he loses the thread, concluding that society should not hang onto superseded visions of personal responsibility, but rather consider that “criminal punishment” is something we inflict for society’s security, rather than moral blameworthiness. Ridley’s attempt to reconnect social sciences and biology and evolutionary psychology is what makes The Evolution of Everything a most challenging book—and yet, in some regards, The Evolution of Everything may be trying to prove too much.

The review of it in the Guardian by the British philosopher John Gray acerbically makes this point. Gray and Ridley have crossed swords before, on The Rational Optimist. (Ridley’s retort to Gray concerning that book is here.) This time out, Gray argues in a vein that many will find persuasive: that this wonderful evolutionary tale doesn’t take into account that while the 20th century was indeed about scientific progress and technological development, it also saw  genocide, war, and death on a larger scale than ever. Warfare got “industrialized,” too.

Not by chance, Gray compares Ridley to Herbert Spencer. As a young man, Spencer thought he could be rationally optimistic: the Corn Laws were abolished, free trade was proclaimed, industry was advancing fast. “Industrial” societies seemed to him to be taking the place of “militant” societies. But saying that Spencer not only desired but expected the arrival of limited government trivializes his thought. Spencer expected and desired a continuous decrease of coercion in human societies. But that didn’t happen, remembers Gray, and after Spencer realized it, he spent his last years “in baffled gloom.” That was well before Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Shouldn’t a thoughtful libertarian be rationally pessimistic, then?

Ridley can certainly defend himself on this score, but it seems to me that there is a misunderstanding here. He is far from pretending that evolution always overcomes the—indeed powerful—forces that oppose it. Allegiance to the “great man” theory of history, or social engineering of various sorts, has consequences. Ideas have consequences indeed. People can’t see “the evolution of everything” at work. They search for skyhooks everywhere. Ridley doesn’t deny that, but points to other, evolving tendencies in human societies. This book does not claim that history ended. It is built on the premise that many would like to stop or slow evolutionary, spontaneous processes. If this wasn’t case, after all, why bother to write a book?

Libertarians can adopt either a pessimistic or an optimistic attitude toward modern times. The pessimistic narrative is what grounds the ever-growing involvement of government in human affairs. The nation-states of the 19th century may have regulated professions and distributed patronage, but they seldom commanded more than 5 percent of the gross national product. They indebted themselves to wage wars, but balanced the budget every 10 years or so. The most interventionist of politicians back then held a more modest vision of government than do even self-styled conservatives today. After two world wars and decades of Keynesianism, spending skyrocketed and huge public debt became the rule rather than the exception. Liberty, in the concrete sense of people deciding what to do with their own money, seems gone—or at least this is what five minutes with your tax adviser may show you.

The optimistic narrative points to economic growth, for over-regulated capitalism is capitalism nonetheless. In spite of many obstacles getting in the away, the profit motive has been raising people out of destitution as never before in human history. Higher taxes in the West seem bearable (at least to the extent of not provoking social uprisings) because of increased average incomes. On a global scale, living standards went up even as the planet’s population did. If anything deserves the name “progress,” it is feeding more people better than you fed less people before.

Ridley unabashedly champions the optimistic narrative. He knows as well as anyone else that government has gotten bigger and bigger, but he thinks the benefits of worldwide spontaneous evolutionary cooperation have much outweighed the costs of top-down, mostly failing, governmental action. The body is stronger than its parasite. His optimism is based upon an astonishing fact: If purposeful central planning tends to produce misery, producing wealth does not require much more than allowing people to live their lives as they wish. We shall be optimists not because we have a “vision” of the future to implement—but because we don’t really need one.

Alberto Mingardi

Alberto Mingardi is the Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Istituto Bruno Leoni. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Cato Institute and a guest blogger at EconLog. He has authored, edited, and translated several other books, including a monograph on Herbert Spencer and a translation of Antonio Rosmini's The Constitution Under Social Justice.

About the Author

Comments

  1. gabe says

    What???
    You mean there is, or never was, any need for inspirational vision of “HOPE AND CHANGE.”

    Now, now, Sir – we’ll not allow that!!! who will employ all those *expert* state functionaries?

  2. nobody.really says

    [S]aying that Spencer not only desired but expected the arrival of limited government trivializes his thought. Spencer expected and desired a continuous decrease of coercion in human societies. But that didn’t happen….

    Sez who? Certainly not Steven Pinker, who documents an almost unbroken decline in the homicide rate.

    Or should we avert our eyes to every form of coercion that arise from sources other than government? You know, the kinds of coercion for which government is generally regarded as the solution rather than the problem?

    Libertarians can adopt either a pessimistic or an optimistic attitude toward modern times. The pessimistic narrative is what grounds the ever-growing involvement of government in human affairs. The nation-states of the 19th century may have regulated professions and distributed patronage, but they seldom commanded more than 5 percent of the gross national product. They indebted themselves to wage wars, but balanced the budget every 10 years or so. The most interventionist of politicians back then held a more modest vision of government than do even self-styled conservatives today. After two world wars and decades of Keynesianism, spending skyrocketed and huge public debt became the rule rather than the exception. Liberty, in the concrete sense of people deciding what to do with their own money, seems gone—or at least this is what five minutes with your tax adviser may show you.

    The optimistic narrative points to economic growth, for over-regulated capitalism is capitalism nonetheless. In spite of many obstacles getting in the away, the profit motive has been raising people out of destitution as never before in human history. Higher taxes in the West seem bearable (at least to the extent of not provoking social uprisings) because of increased average incomes. On a global scale, living standards went up even as the planet’s population did. If anything deserves the name “progress,” it is feeding more people better than you fed less people before.

    Ridley unabashedly champions the optimistic narrative. He knows as well as anyone else that government has gotten bigger and bigger, but he thinks the benefits of worldwide spontaneous evolutionary cooperation have much outweighed the costs of top-down, mostly failing, governmental action. The body is stronger than its parasite. His optimism is based upon an astonishing fact: If purposeful central planning tends to produce misery, producing wealth does not require much more than allowing people to live their lives as they wish. We shall be optimists not because we have a “vision” of the future to implement—but because we don’t really need one.

    I share Ridley’s optimism, even if I might characterize things differently.

    Want freedom? Let me fill your pockets with gold – and drop you into the middle of the ocean. There you are, wealthy beyond most people’s dreams, and far beyond the power of any government to oppress you. Yet I suspect that you’d rapidly conclude that government oppression is far from your biggest concern.

    Indeed, a life in which government oppression is your biggest worry – not disease, not famine, not flood, not fire, not freezing cold, not suffocating heat, not predators or marauding neighbors – is a pretty luxurious life by the standards of most of history. And a major tool in warding off most of these other threats has been – ta da! – government.

    Do you believe in evolution? That humans evolved from other primates, such as the Great Apes? Then observe how the Great Apes live: One dominant male oppressing everyone else. THAT is the state of nature. To the extent that you live in some different manner, it is because humans have adopted artificial living arrangements to control the dominant males. And no, those arrangements do not arise solely from market forces.

    As a first-order approximation, we might use disposable income as a proxy for freedom. Can you name an era in which the world’s average – or even median — per capita disposable income was higher than today?

    The premise of the pessimist is that government spending is exogenous to this growth in disposable income. Yet the wealthiest societies (e.g., the US, W. Europe) are also the societies with large governments, while societies with anemic governments (e.g., Haiti, Somalia) tend to be poor. People who yearn to live in an area with limited government are free to move there. Yet curiously, the traffic seems to be flowing almost entirely in the other direction. I find this dynamic more persuasive than Mingardi’s argument.

    • z9z99 says

      This post isn’t up to your usual standards. I read it several times and and not quite sure what you are trying to say. Your first sentence is a non-sequitur. The homicide rates and government coercion may be correlated, uncorrelated or inversely correlated. What is the homicide rate in North Korea? Similarly, your second sentence is an example of the fallacy of the excluded middle: “should we avert our eyes from every…?” Are our options that limited?

      The example dealing with gold and oceans is another non-sequitur. You have taken two attributes that by no means are definitive of freedom and created a scenario that extinguishes its own point. If Someone fills your pockets with anything that lacks buoyancy and drops you in the middle of the ocean, the very context is a deprivation of freedom. Gold, cement shoes, whatever, the example does not make a defined point. If you are in such a situation, not only is government oppression far from your biggest concern, so is that spot on your x-ray, the hacker who just put $28,000.00 on your Visa card, or your holiday party video that just went viral on youtube. All of these may be receding concerns when you are drowning; that doesn’t make them good.

      As to the next paragraph, you need to be more explicit about whether or not you are establishing a general proposition, and if so what is it. As it stands, the statement that “a life in which government oppression is your biggest worry … is a pretty luxurious life by the standards of most of history” totters under the weight of two words: Khmer Rouge.

      The paragraph about the great apes is pretty good, but it is a truism. I don’t think there are even many people who call themselves libertarians, at least among those who don’t take Seroquel, that pine for a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

      I don’t think disposable income is even a first order approximation for freedom. I’m open to persuasion on the point though.

      Finally, I don;t find your last paragraph persuasive. Maybe that’s just me. Is North Korea a society with a large or small government? I note that this (large versus small government) is a different point than that at the beginning of your comment (oppressive versus less-oppressive government).

      This is just my take. I know you to be a thoughtful and articulate poster, but this post seems to lack a degree of necessary detail. As a self-professed libertarian, I know government is necessary, but that does not make it inherently good. I think that a libertarian feels optimistic or pessimistic by looking at the relationship between government and due process, or whether the institutions of government are corrupt, or what interests are deemed important enough to require enforcement at gunpoint. A libertarian, pessimistic or otherwise agrees with Jefferson that “governments are instituted among men” to achieve certain things, but also that government can “become destructive of those ends.” Whatever way government seems to be heading at a particular time is what determines optimism or pessimism, not the inherent wonderfulness or awfulness of government itself.

      • nobody.really says

        [S]aying that Spencer not only desired but expected the arrival of limited government trivializes his thought. Spencer expected and desired a continuous decrease of coercion in human societies. But that didn’t happen….

        Sez who? Certainly not Steven Pinker, who documents an almost unbroken decline in the homicide rate.

        The homicide rates and government coercion may be correlated, uncorrelated or inversely correlated.

        But the quoted text did not specify government coercion; it merely referred to “coercion in human societies.” And yes, homicide is a kind of coercion (although, admittedly, not the only kind).

        But the point is this: Why should we judge things as good or bad solely with regard to government coercion, rather than aggregate coercion? I suggest this idea reflects the distorting lens of libertarianism. It creates a self-fulfilling prophesy: It ignores harms arising from any source other than government, and then concludes that government is the source of all problems.

        If Someone fills your pockets with anything that lacks buoyancy and drops you in the middle of the ocean, the very context is a deprivation of freedom.

        Sound fine to me. Yet some libertarians express deep concern about “coercion,” but then deny that drowning reflects an example of coercion. To them, coercion is something only people can do.
        So we could imagine two drowning people. One lives in a world where he is subject to coercive taxes to pay for a life guard, who swims out and saves him. Another doesn’t. Which guy will suffer the greater coercion? The answer to that question reflects nothing about the drowning people – but it may reflect much about your world view.

        [A] life in which government oppression is your biggest worry – not disease, not famine, not flood, not fire, not freezing cold, not suffocating heat, not predators or marauding neighbors – is a pretty luxurious life by the standards of most of history. And a major tool in warding off most of these other threats has been – ta da! – government.

        the statement that “a life in which government oppression is your biggest worry … is a pretty luxurious life by the standards of most of history” totters under the weight of two words: Khmer Rouge.

        Yup, the Khmer Rouge killed a couple million people over the years 1975-79. That’s bad.

        And tuberculosis kills a couple million people each year. And it used to kill vastly more – perhaps a quarter of Europe’s adult population in the 1800s — before governments launched public health programs, nearly eliminating the disease from industrialized nations.

        Libertarians will obsess over how the Khmer Rouge took so many lives – and ignore the how public health programs preserve it. It would be difficult to imagine a more distorting perspective from which to evaluate public policy.

        [O]bserve how the Great Apes live: One dominant male oppressing everyone else. THAT is the state of nature. To the extent that you live in some different manner, it is because humans have adopted artificial living arrangements to control the dominant males. And no, those arrangements do not arise solely from market forces.

        The paragraph about the great apes is pretty good, but it is a truism. I don’t think there are even many people who call themselves libertarians, at least among those who don’t take Seroquel, that pine for a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

        Should people be optimistic or pessimistic about government? This says little about government; rather, it speaks about the conjectures people have about what the world would look like in the absence of government. What is the base line against which to conduct your comparison? I don’t offer the Great Apes as a desirable lifestyle, but as an object lesson to how we’d likely live in the absence of collective (and yes, coercive) action – what we might call government action.

        Whatever way government seems to be heading at a particular time is what determines optimism or pessimism, not the inherent wonderfulness or awfulness of government itself.

        Agreed! I merely observe that this attitude stands in contrast with the attitude that says that larger government is always, or even generally, worse government.

        • gabe says

          ” I merely observe that this attitude stands in contrast with the attitude that says that larger government is always, or even generally, worse government.”

          Perhaps, I have been my usual slow-witted self, but: It was not until reading this last sentence that I was able to find some common ground with you here.

          And yet, I must ask, would it not have been preferable to simply state this at the outset. As Z implies, much of your comments on this topic are simply truisms, yet they have been burdened with a layer of (narrative driven?) complexity not essential to the argument.

          Why not simply declare: “Hey, guys, not all government is bad.” To this, I would certainly agree. As I suspect would all but the most hard-line libertarians. I believe that you also would acknowledge this.

          Do you (or MUST you) suspect that libertarians by definition are akin to proto-anarchists, so forceful / hidebound in their denunciation of any & all government intervention that they are unable / unwilling to recognize that some government coercion / force is essential to public order?
          Has anyone on this site, ever voiced / advanced any argument even remotely approximating that ill-founded and ahistorical position?

          Or do you use this approach to sustain the narrative of the left, predicated as it is upon an unwillingness to acknowledge that the sins of the cultural mainstream, up to, say the 1950-60’s, are a) still being committed and b) are at least looked upon with fond regard by the same miscreants who had preciously exercised them? – and thus require forceful and continuous refutation / challenge.

          Of course, there is coercion / oppression in human intercourse! It is simply the nature of human existence. My 11 month old grandson knows this. Still he will nestle his head into the nook of my neck and listen to the alphabet song as he falls off to sleep. Or should I prefer that he rail against the daily oppression / coercion of existence? There will be far worse coercion than removing his fingers from an electrical outlet during the course of his life. Success or failure in life is determined by one’s response to the daily doses of coercion that one experiences – but we all do experience them. Let us hope that he learns to recognize those coercions which must be borne, those that can be borne and those that ought not to be borne – either government or individually generated.

          If not, then he too will rant against the never ending stream of *micro*-aggressions.

  3. gabe says

    “The premise of the pessimist is that government spending is exogenous to this growth in disposable income. “Yet the wealthiest societies (e.g., the US, W. Europe) are also the societies with large governments, while societies with anemic governments (e.g., Haiti, Somalia) tend to be poor.”

    One must still struggle to imbue this with a cause and effect relationship.

    Could it be that rich governments spend more simply because there is more to be taxed from their citizens?

    correlation is not causation! In any event, British governments of the late 17th and 18th centuries certainly spent freely (ya know, wars and all) – yet it can not be said that the British people lived all that well.
    Then again, Louis XVI also enjoyed spending freely – but i guess the little buggers should have been satisfied with the cake droppings.

  4. nobody.really says

    I don’t mean to obscure my point. Nor do I mean to presume anything about anyone’s perspective. So I try to focus my remarks on what people actually write.

    Why would we be optimistic? Mingardi reports that “the profit motive has been raising people out of destitution as never before in human history.” We have “increased average incomes.” And “living standards went up even as the planet’s population did. If anything deserves the name ‘progress,’ it is feeding more people better than you fed less people before.”

    So what are the causes for pessimism? We no longer live in an era when governments “seldom commanded more than 5 percent of the gross national product,” “balanced the budget every 10 years or so,” and were governed by politicians who “held a more modest vision of government.” And all of that is paramount if you regard liberty as “people deciding what to do with their own money.”

    In sum, the pessimists measure their welfare based the small amount of resources available to government – rather than how large the resources are available to them. They present libertarianism as a philosophy of envy and spite. This is what provokes the hypothetical of a person in the midst of the ocean, utterly independent of any government oppression – yet moments away from drowning. As you drown, you can at least take comfort in the idea that government lacks the resources to rescue you – and that what life’s all about anyway?

    To my mind, the optimistic side trumps the pessimistic on every front. And the feeble effort to bolster the cause of pessimism strikes me as a laughable exercise in fetishizing libertarianism’s symbols at the expense of its substance. It’s as if Jesus descended in glory to stand beside the gates of heaven, beckoning all to enter – as the devote Christians push him aside, saying, “Out of my way, hippy; I’m late to choir practice!”

  5. gabe says

    NB:

    “To my mind, the optimistic side trumps the pessimistic on every front. And the feeble effort to bolster the cause of pessimism strikes me as a laughable exercise in fetishizing libertarianism’s symbols at the expense of its substance.”

    Very well said AND Agreed! Upon reflection: there is all too often a sense of “the sky is falling” – we forget that that the sky, if falling, is falling upon a generally fat and contented (too contented?) people(s).

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