Libertarians vs. Human Nature

I believe that humans in large societies have two natural desires that frustrate libertarians.

1. A desire for religion, defined as a set of rituals, norms, and affirmations that are shared by a group and which the group believes it is wrong not to share. Thus, rooting for your local sports team is not a religion, because you realize that it is not wrong for someone else not to root for your local sports team. But if you are against GMO foods, then you believe that those who disagree with you are wrong.

2. A desire for war. I think that it is in human nature to fantasize about battles against tribal enemies. War arises when those fantasies are strong enough to drive behavior. People who have recently experienced war have mixed feelings about it. Some want revenge for defeats. Others are sick of war. The sickness of war often dominates, but not always. If there has been no recent experience of war, there is a gradual loss of the aversion to war, and war becomes more likely. Peter Turchin takes this view. Incidentally, Robin Hanson recently binge-read Turchin. I think that the way to read Turchin is to view his thought as 95 percent intuition/theory, 5 percent empirical analysis. Turchin himself would prefer you to believe that he is much more driven by empirical analysis.

If these desires were to disappear, I believe that humans could live without a state. However, given these desires, the best approach for a peaceful large society is that which was undertaken in the U.S. when it was founded: freedom of religion guaranteed by the government, and a political system designed for peaceful succession and limitations on the power of any one political office.

At the moment, I fear that the anti-Trump resistance strikes me as having the characteristics of a religion whose followers are fantasizing about war. Perhaps there is a symmetry on the other side, but it is dampened by the fact that when you hold the Presidency you can get your way peacefully (if coercively).

I think that it is fine for libertarians to warn of the dangers of religion and to oppose war. That is what I am doing here. On other other hand, when libertarians assume away the desire for religion and war, their thinking becomes at best irrelevant and at worst nihilistic.

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48 Responses to Libertarians vs. Human Nature

  1. Robin Hanson says:

    Yeah, there’s an increased taste lately for uncompromising conflict to further positions emotionally held by communities. And since this isn’t aligned with national conflicts, it might lead to internal conflicts, vindicating Turchin’s warnings.

  2. Andrew' says:

    But without states there would be no war. Then two people would get together and start a state and steal the guy next door’s stuff. The catch-22s are what frustrate me.

  3. konshtok says:

    For my money (and yours) the chief anti-libertarian human tendency is the wish to minimize risk by distributing it which leads to all the “too big to fail” and social security and regulatory boondoggles.
    the bigger and richer the society the easier it is to fulfill this wish
    at least in the short-medium run

    religion and war are more flashy but they are not the reason for unfunded public employees pensions

  4. collin says:

    At the moment, I fear that the anti-Trump resistance strikes me as having the characteristics of a religion whose followers are fantasizing about war.

    Wasn’t the Trump a characteristics of religion against the coastal liberals, minorities and immigrants? Again listen to his rallies that rich liberals are using trade agreements and illegal immigration to hurt the WWC in the Rust Belt. Californians using illegal Mexicans to install solar panels to purposely stop buying coal!

    Anyway, I always thought the problem with libertarians was they view the party of image of Laura Ingalls and John Galt. In reality the John Galts throw the Laura Ingalls off their land. Also, the John Galts of the world then become the Taggarts in 10 years. (Fred Trump was once a ‘Galt’ and his son became the Taggart by 1990.)

    • collin says:

      And isn’t one of the problems of libertarians is how to enforce the poor to remain hard working and moral? Companies can enforce the behavior with money but a libertarian government has such means.

    • Butler Reynolds says:

      “In reality the John Galts throw the Laura Ingalls off their land.”

      When I read comments like that, I have to wonder if the writer ever actually read Atlas Shrugged. Even more disturbing is if the answer is yes.

  5. Warren Meyer says:

    I would have recast your second bullet point into a predilection for tribalism rather than a fondness for war. I think it is more all-encompassing. It is tribalism that leads to war, but it also leads to any number of other dysfunctional practices, like protectionism, immigration restrictions, etc.

    In addition, tribalism is making it more and more difficult for basic politics to work, particularly for libertarians. As a libertarian, I used to make common cause with the Left on things like gay marriage and the Right on things like regulatory reform. This is increasingly hard to do — if one does not hold all the group’s other beliefs, they don’t want to work with you on a narrow issue. Several years ago I was uninvited from co-chairing an effort on gay marriage because others in the group did not like my stances on unrelated issues like education choice.

    A few weeks ago there was a bizarre spectacle of a woman who supports the imposition of Sharia law in the US helping to lead the women’s march. What the hell? Countries with Sharia law often look like apartheid but for women rather than blacks. Why is is a leading women’s advocate supporting such a thing?

    This seeming contradiction makes sense, though, in the context of tribalism. The “other” tribe (the Right) opposes sharia law and is skeptical of fundamental Islam so our side must fully embrace it. There is no longer the possibility of any subtlety, like “I don’t traffic in gross generalizations about Muslims and welcome them to this country but Sharia law (at least as practiced in some countries, I don’t have the religious history chops to know if it is being interpreted correctly) has many things in it that are an abomination to individual rights and Muslims coming to this country are going to have to leave parts of that behind.”

    • Handle says:

      This comment has a good insight into the group dynamics that are making ordinary give and take politics impossible. Part of the reason that the “whole platform or get out” insistence is increasingly present and severe is because the political issues have become so moralized.

      But it isn’t the impulse to identify with a subgroup that by itself causes conflict. Those are more attributable to zero sum disputes over power and resources, and the urge to impose social rules and dominate. When tribes mind their own business and don’t try to coerce the others or threaten their fundamental interests, then peace and friendly dealings can emerge and be sustained.

      Unfortunately, some prevailing group ideologies have as their central principle the need to bring about social reform specifically by eliminating beliefs and behaviors valued by the other tribe.

      That is, the coercive intervention is the main point. The conflict is not avoidable through ‘live and let live’ mutual tolerance, because instead, the whole point of the basis for group identity has become a commitment to not letting the other group do as they wish. That makes clashes both inevitable and self-perpetuating, self-escalating, and increasingly nasty and vicious.

      Tribalism has benefits and risks, and one of those risks is a group identity being subsumed in just such an ideology. Unfortunately no one seems to know any acceptable way to stop this process and step back from the brink.

      Have a nice day.

      • asdf says:

        “Why die for Danzig?”

        Ultimately, pragmatism and live and let live have their limits. Even the anti-tribal need to be able to understand and effectively fight hostile tribes as a tribe. A man that decides he will never join a tribe under any circumstances is simply easy pickings for those that do. Tribalism is an evolutionarily successful adaptation to the competition for resources, and even those that dislike it need to be able to use it when needed.

      • Fielding says:

        I used to describe my political philosophy as militaristic libertarianism: leave me alone or I’ll blow up your house

        Unfortunately, one “prevailing group ideology” insists that “I will be made to care”

        Which renders libertarianism a nonviable option.

      • Rick Hull says:

        > That is, the coercive intervention is the main point. The conflict is not avoidable through ‘live and let live’ mutual tolerance, because instead, the whole point of the basis for group identity has become a commitment to not letting the other group do as they wish. That makes clashes both inevitable and self-perpetuating, self-escalating, and increasingly nasty and vicious.

        It sure seems that way sometimes, but isn’t this an ice cream sort of explanation? Can we steelman it some more, make it Turing-palatable?

        One interesting wedge I have encountered is the desire to impose rulings on fundamentally ambiguous questions like those of abortion[1] and gay marriage[2] at a national level. It’s a warlike mentality where battles are fought and won, territory achieved with little or no consideration for the conquered. It’s clear that it’s much better to let states or even more local jurisdictions answer these questions, and that way citizens can exercise their exit vote and assemble harmoniously. But this idea is horrifying to many on both sides.

        1. is abortion murder? it depends on fetal development, there is no right answer, and there are at least two modal answers that are mutually incompatible at say 5 months into pregnancy

        2. should government even be involved in a church marriage? clearly we need spousal unions involving legal privileges, tax considerations, medical decisions etc. these can be entered by any two majors under the law

        National decisions about rights to abortion or gay marriage are designed to rankle.

  6. Ben Paris says:

    I’m a little confused as to how libertarians fear/dislike war and religion. While they are opposed to the public sector enforcement of war and religion, it seems to me they are fine with these on a personal level (think gun rights and religious freedom). I would argue that their biggest enemies in human nature are a natural social sentiment (the desire to have a tribe and to have the security that comes with it) and a fear of the future (especially change in the future). Both the right and left foster some form of communalism (think social democrat “wealth sharing” and right-wing “family values”) and some form of hedging against the future (the welfare state, American interventionism abroad, and now with Trump, trade restrictions/immigration law.).

    It’s my contention that libertarians should recognize these two things and work with them; consider allowing greater power to state/local govt’s, and worry about the economic consequences of technological development (especially if/when AI gets beyond human intelligence)

  7. Nate says:

    I think you’re overthinking it and that there’s is a simpler explanation for why the “anti-Trump resistance” seems so strong/kind of like a religion to you.

    Any major candidate can count on some portion (at least 25% ish) of the population supporting them no matter what they do. Try asking a group of Trump supporters what he’d have to do to lose their support. I did this myself recently, and the answers were pretty enlightening. Most people refused to answer the question, of those that did I got: “stop being himself”, “appoint Nancy Pelosi VP and resign”, and “pardon Hillary”. In other words, these people would support Trump no matter what. Not really surprising if you think about it, because people with limits and caveats to their Trump support blew by those a long time ago.

    Note, I don’t doubt Obama (or Hillary) would have at least as many unconditional support backers either. But most politicians don’t get anywhere close to the point Trump is at, where the hardcore supporters are all that’s left.

    Now you have the left, the media, mainstream republicans etc watching Trump, who can’t go 20 minutes without bringing up his election, who is getting in fights with the Australian PM, and generally melting down before our eyes, and everyone is just flabbergasted at how he’s acting and how people can continue to support him. I get less of a make war on Trump supporters vibe and more of a, “this is like watching a car crash and I can’t look away” vibe. Many of the anti Trumpers I know (myself included for a while) are very curious what Trump supporters are thinking, and constantly pinging the ones they know as things come up. “what about russia? what about free trade? what about goldman sachs? do you still like trump now??” This becomes a lot less interesting when you realize Trump’s current supporters literally will support him no matter what.

    • Andrew' says:

      What about Russia, free trade, etc.?

      Trump is the moderate on all those things, in fact everything. Even enforcing immigration laws that already exist is the definition of moderate.

      • Nate says:

        The point isn’t whether they’re moderate or not. It’s that Trump’s positions (or a change in position) on those things has no impact on whether or not his supporters support him.

        • Andrew' says:

          But you are assuming they should. Therefore I assume you assume something about them.

          What do you think his supporters assume about Russia, free trade, etc.?

          I think there is no there there on Russia. If I change my opinion on that, then my opinion on Trump will change accordingly.

          • Andrew' says:

            He is going to pardon Hilary in all but name. I don’t think his supporters will care.

          • Andrew' says:

            I don’t know if that proves or disproves your point, though.

            As long as he doesn’t turn into the enemy I’m their minds, they will support him because he is on their side, they think.

    • Harun says:

      Obama got in fights with the Israeli PM.

      Therefore Obama was as wild and out there as Trump?

      or is it just the media made that feel “safe”

  8. Gary Steinmetz says:

    Point (2) is an excellent one. Even for people (men) in their twenties, playing fantasy video games as a hero who slays orcs is fairly popular. Saying that this is just video game entertainment is the point, people unproductively spend time on the activity and genuinely enjoy it. The desire to rescue damsels in distress and slay orcs appeals to one’s vanity, as is the desire to be the recognized good guy who defends his tribe. But this fantasy isn’t possible unless a bad guy/tribe has been identified (correctly or not).

    • Weir says:

      Is there anything less productive, or more entertaining, than battling the media? For Republicans and independents, anyway. If you’re a Democrat, the orcs are concentrated at Fox News specifically.

      But this is why people become journalists in the first place, to slay orcs. And it’s a vicious circle. You think the orcs are other people, and those other people think the orcs are you.

      • Fielding says:

        People become journalists because they don’t have any saleable skills and they need to do something to fill the rice bowl.

    • Harun says:

      Supposedly, Afghans are so warlike because of boredom. So, they fight neighbors or Americans or whoever.

      If they had play stations, they might stop physical fighting.

      Ancient warfare also sometimes seems like “gaming” where phalanx battles over “territory” had few losses, and not very catastrophic results. The farmer-soldiers would often like the battle to be done quickly, so as to get back to work, even if it meant “losing.”

  9. Ben Kennedy says:

    Point 1 is just “morality”. We have built-in brain plumbing around the concept of external rules that inform us on the way things ought to be that are independent of our own personal desires. It’s a useful survival adaptation for society. However, Libertarians are just as susceptible, just try saying taxation is not theft!

    • asdf says:

      Point 1 is just “morality”.

      Yes, we need more then a very flimsy interpretation of the harm principle to run a society. Even “founding fathers america” was full of moralizing, on a scale that would be off the charts today. Could you imagine a libertarian having a discussion with someone from any part of the USA in 1776?

      Libertarians don’t understand this, so they are surprised when the absence of morality is nothing more then a moral vacuum into which any kind of bullshit can take up residence.

  10. bret says:

    Kling wrote: “I think that it is in human nature to fantasize about battles against tribal enemies.”

    Really? Not once in my life have I sat around to “fantasize about battles against tribal enemies.” And no, playing video games (which I don’t do either) is not the same as fantasizing about battling potential enemies that exist in the real world.

    I’m not saying that nobody does that, but for that to be inherent in human nature? Got any proof?

  11. Maximum Liberty says:

    Where the two intersect:

    As a Texas Longhorns fan, I fully support nuking the Oklahoma Sooners. Twice. Just to be sure.

  12. JK Brown says:

    The whole section represented by the quotes below from Mises’ ‘Liberalism’ gave me perspective to see beyond the Dem and Rep dissembling. It does appear that in recent years, the Democratic party has gone full bore special interest with little residual liberalism view toward the whole. This may be starting in the Republican party.

    “The parties of special interests, which see nothing more in politics than the securing of privileges and prerogatives for their own groups, not only make the parliamentary system impossible; they rupture the unity of the state and of society. They lead not merely to the crisis of parliamentarism, but to a general political and social crisis. Society cannot, in the long run, exist if it is divided into sharply defined groups, each intent on wresting special privileges for its own members, continually on the alert to see that it does not suffer any setback, and prepared, at any moment, to sacrifice the most important political institutions for the sake of winning some petty advantage.

    “To the parties of special interests, all political questions appear exclusively as problems of political tactics. Their ultimate goal is fixed for them from the start. Their aim is to obtain, at the cost of the rest of the population, the greatest possible advantages and privileges for the groups they represent. The party platform is intended to disguise this objective and give it a certain appearance of justification, but under no circumstances to announce it publicly as the goal of party policy. The members of the party, in any case, know what their goal is; they do not need to have it explained to them. How much of it ought to be imparted to the world is, however, a purely tactical question.

    “All antiliberal parties want nothing but to secure special favors for their own members, in complete disregard of the resulting disintegration of the whole structure of society. They cannot withstand for a moment the criticism that liberalism makes of their aims.”

    Mises, Ludwig von (1927). Liberalism (pp. 175-176).

    “It [classical liberalism] promises special favors to no one. It demands from everyone sacrifices on behalf of the preservation of society. … Because of this, liberalism finds itself, from the very outset, in a peculiar position in the competition among parties. The antiliberal candidate promises special privileges to every particular group of voters: higher prices to the producers and lower prices to the consumers; higher salaries to public officeholders and lower taxes to taxpayers.”

    Mises, Ludwig von (1927). Liberalism (p. 179).

    “To be a liberal is to have realized that a special privilege conceded to a small group to the disadvantage of others cannot, in the long run, be preserved without a fight (civil war): but that, on the other hand, one cannot bestow privileges on the majority, since these then cancel one another out in their value for those whom they are supposed to specially favor, and the only net result is a reduction in the productivity of social labor.”

    Mises, Ludwig von (1927). Liberalism (p. 187)

  13. mike shupp says:

    I don’t think it’s “religion.” There seem to be general notions of “fairness” and “equality” built into most humans. So it’s not unreasonable that Democrats and liberals, looking back at the treatment they received from Republicans and conservatives over the past eight years, might feel a desire to respond to Donald Trump and his supporters with the same sort of open handed respect and admiration and sense of cooperation.

    Having fun with your health care plan? Would you like some Benghazi with that? How about some nice warm email?

    • Fielding says:

      The Tea Party folks didn’t riot and the Republicans didn’t sic the IRS on OFA. I assume you’d support those actions in the interest of fairness and equality?

      • mike shupp says:

        I’m happy with the Tea Party. I don’t know that I’d agree with all or even many of their stands on various issues, but they’ve provided inspiring examples of citizen activism.

        As for IRS examination of conservative-oriented political organizations …. I’d like more data. My impression is that after the Supreme Court gave its blessing to 503(d) funded campaigning, about 10 conservative PACs popped up for each liberal PAC. I can see how that would provoke scrutiny, Beyond that … I’d just as well pleased to go back to pre-Citizens United days, before such PACs were legal.

        • Fielding says:

          >I’m happy with the Tea Party. I don’t know that I’d agree with all or even many of their stands on various issues, but they’ve provided inspiring examples of citizen activism.

          Great, so which is it? Should Hilllary supporters stop rioting and comport with the example set by the Tea Party or should the Tea Party start rioting nationwide? Because fairness and equality.

          Same on the PAC front. Either fairness and equality demands that the IRS takes years of invasive investigation to determine the bona fides of supporters of whoever is out of power in the executive branch or both sides are allowed to marshal whatever funding they can with speedy and consistent oversight.
          [Though, based on some quick googling, it’s ironic that Trump spend half of what Clinton did ( And number of PACs isn’t the same as total spend…from the same article: “On Clinton’s side, Priorities USA — which raised and spent more than any super PAC in history — landed $16m in the final weeks of the campaign. That brought its total haul to about $192m.”]

          • mike shupp says:

            Hillary Clinton had about 63 million supporters — voters, anyhow; That term “supporter” seems to suggest more enthusiasm than many of those voters actually displayed. The number of voters who have passed into “rioters” is surely far less, even by strange definitions of “rioting.” I doubt you’d regard it as fair if I were to claim all of Trump’s voters were KKK members. Let us both show some constraint here.

            Getting back to the Tea Partiers, I like that they showed a group of voters could form an alliance within a state, could settle on objectives for themselves rather than accepting willy-nilly what some politician wanted them to take, could determine on candidates to support in primaries, and carried out plans successfully at the polls. This was a marvelous example of citizens taking political action into their own hands.

            Liberals, on the other hand, are all too prone to think marching about and waving signs and making speeches through bullhorns is the highest form of political action. I assume it feels good at the time and leaves participants with pleasant memories, but it’s not an effective method of producing political change.

            Tea Party 1, Occupy Wall Street 0.

            On the IRS and PACs.. I’ll quibble a bit that the issue wasn’t the treatment of all PACs, but of the new PACs formed in accordance with the Supreme Count ruling on Citizens United. The status of Clinton’s PACs is totally unknown to me, and to be honest, isn’t of much interest

            I’ve already stated I’m not in favor of the section 503(d) PACs. I’d be equally happy to make all of them illegal, whether they support liberals or conservatives.

            I think I’m being even handed here.

          • Fielding says:

            I’m going to squelch my spergy point-by-point response and boil it down to a few key points:

            (1) There’s a fair amount of overlap between our positions (what constitutes “good” citizen advocacy, lack of real interest in the vagaries of campaign finance)

            (2) I reject the notion in your original post that violation of ‘general notions of fairness and equality’ is the issue. I think ‘religion’ actually captures the fundamental concept well. Dems are every bit as guilty of ‘magical thinking’ and adhering to arbitrary moral frameworks as Repubs. They react every bit as violently (or more) when their religions are slighted. They work just as hard to implement their religions in law and culture.

            (3) I suspect we’d have a hard time agreeing on a characterization of who’s-done-what-to-whom…at least if you want to argue the KKK has as much influence with the Repubs as BLM does with the Dems. For every violation of fairness and equality by the Repubs there’s one by the Dems. And vice versa. Since that way lies the never-ending cycle of violence it’s not productive to try.

            (4) One implication of the above: it will be difficult to make libertarianism work unless the polity either shares a religion (secular or otherwise) or ALL the religions within the polity are tolerant ones (i.e., adherents of one religion can interact cheek-and-jowl with adherents of a different one). Perhaps ‘fairness and equality’ may enter as the lubrication between adherents of different religions. But there has to be a pretty high degree of consistency between the various religions for them to agree on common standards of ‘fairness and equality’.

            (5) If the polity includes intolerant religions, either the intolerant religion takes over (which the left has been doing a good job of over the last 50 years), the intolerant religion is broken or excluded, or the polity allows for self-segregation so that mutually incompatible religions can exist in proximity without much interaction.

            (6) Thinking through (4) and (5), it occurs to me to frame war as the mechanism whereby (5) occurs. The civil rights campaigns of the 60s, the 30 Years War and other protestant/catholic battles, the dissolution of Yugoslavia. So Arnold’s two desires are more linked than was immediately apparent to me.

  14. Tom G says:

    ” A desire for war. I think that it is in human nature to fantasize about battles against tribal enemies.” << not quite. This is a desire to WIN in battle, for a GOOD cause.
    A very few are willing to die in battle for a good cause.
    The tribalism is what needs to be identified that you're missing.
    The GOOD cause is very much your point #1, "religion" is one of the few areas which provide a cause GOOD enough to fight for.
    Religious wars are, to a huge extent, fighting over what is GOOD.

    The second part of the desire for "war" is a desire for a significant achievement, which is difficult and "proves manhood" — this is especially true for men.
    Sports competitions DO provide some vicarious achievement feelings, so do provide an alternative. In a peaceful world, there would be lots of sports, which would be followed by more folk.

    A related desire for most is the desire to Dominate. Winning at war is just one way.

    In Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael (from Mars) sees a medium sized monkey get a peanut; then a bigger monkey comes over, hits him, and takes the peanut; then the medium sized monkey sees a smaller monkey so goes over and beats the smaller.

    This desire to beat someone up, usually "justified" by some injustice, is a superset of the desire for (winning at) war.

    Libertarians need to focus on fairness – where life, the world, reality, are NOT fair; and on "justice", which only applies after an injustice. The injustice is based on human actions, and such actions can be stopped in the future. Part of the justice system is to punish those doing an injustice, so as to stop future injustice.

    The Dems want to claim, wrongly, that "unfair" is equal to "unjust", so as to make justice the GOOD reason they have for what they're fighting for. The failure of the intellectuals of the West to clearly differentiate between unfair and unjust means all Lib arguments will fail over this conflation.

  15. charles w abbott says:

    Libertarians often have a keen analytical view of political economy. This viewpoint often co-exists with an impoverished understanding of human nature.

    I think we are making progress with books like _The blank slate_, etc, etc.

    Man is a rational animal (who said it?)
    Man is national animal (walker connor)
    Man is a political animal (aristotle?)
    Man is a tribal animal (just look around you)
    Man is a sanctimonious animal (steven pinker)
    Man is a moral animal (james q wilson)
    Man is a religious animal (who said it?)

    Most of these are partial understandings, but they all add value. I’m not sure that the libertarian viewpoint really understands…groks? these understandings.

    For every libertarian who is a Hayek or a McCloskey, there are 10 or 50 who are sophomoric sophists.

    Probably the greatest value of libertarianism is it supports a Bayesian prior against expanding the role of the state. And if you must expand the state, think subsidiarity. In the USA, don’t expand federal programs, expand state or municipal programs.

  16. charles w abbott says:

    Dennis Prager likes to quote something from the Talmudic tradition:

    “Religion is like the spring rain which brings forth both beautiful flowers and noxious weeds.”

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