Surviving Libertarianism

I once asked a libertarian his thoughts on what we should do with those that are unable to be productive in our economic system, and he uttered, without hesitation, natural selection.  This response no doubt aroused anger in me, but I too have shared similar sentiments.  When we are thriving and committed to self-interest, then empathy is an empty word until we need it from others.

The libertarian’s comment, however, was a curious one since this system has not worked in his favor, and I would not say that he was thriving but rather surviving. I would like to explore the topic of how anyone, including myself, could be attracted to the ugly in libertarianism by looking at our personality differences and the logic that we use.  Here though I want to talk about social Darwinism.

Artificial Selection 

My understanding of evolutionary theory is that it is about change over time that results in life adapting to its environment.  The idea of “survival of the fittest” is a term coined not by Darwin but by a political theorist named Herbert Spencer.  When seeing how it has been metaphorized, however, I think there is little room to doubt that libertarians are using this because it fits their personality.

Darwinianism was misleadingly metaphorized in terms of “competition,” a competitive struggle for scarce resources in which only the strong and cunning emerge victorious, garnering the goods necessary for life and happiness. [6]

Libertarians, however, are conflating natural with artificial selection.  The mechanism that explains our adaptations is natural selection, which means that some individuals possessed traits that others didn’t that allowed them to reproduce and survive more successfully.  It is artificial selection when we construct our system based on self-interest at the exclusion of other adaptations.

For example, our moral emotions that involve sympathy and empathy evolved to assist with cooperation.  These have a tendency of being looked at as weaknesses within our system since this leads to dependency or even solidarity.  But if we disparage adaptations involved in cooperating, then it is no longer “natural” since we are being influenced by the social norms that we have created.

So-Called Experts

I took a random sample from a search on “capitalism and evolution” and had no difficulty in finding so-called experts on the idea that capitalism is a form of natural selection, but no serious evolutionary biologist believes this.  Below this individual claims that it is moral to weed out the weak and that laziness is a choice, where the former idea is callous and the latter one borders on absurd.

Having gov’t provided safety nets means that even the most destructive, racist, lazy people will receive help automatically. They should face the consequences of their life choices…It may seem harsh to want only the “fit” to survive. I think ignorance, laziness and various other irresponsible attributes/behaviours should die a painful death.

I don’t think that he is irrational because his logic works for his worldview, nor do I think that he is not smart but rather has personality characteristics and past experiences that make him attracted to the idea of “survival of the fittest”.  He seems uninformed on human nature and biology though and should probably stick with teaching Math at his highschool.

Evolution’s Direction

Just because we construct an economic system in which we have to compete to make a living, one in which self-interest triumphs and sympathy is akin to weakness, this does not mean that life is a competitive struggle for survival.  Evolution has no direction, and we have every right to use our moral emotions just as much as our self-interest.  That is, the following is not a law of nature.

The normative implication is that the social order, in every domain, is naturally and optimally governed by principles of competitive self-interest and that anything that interferes with that is unnatural and immoral.  [6]

On the other hand, if our guiding principle in our lives is based on maximizing self-efficacy and self-interest, then life will be a competitive struggle for survival.  If we put productivity and innovation on the higher moral ground at the cost of the well-being of those that can’t keep up, then we are seriously fooling ourselves into believing that we are building a better society.

That said, there are parallels between natural selection and our competitive behavior within free-markets; in fact, natural selection may track economic behavior better than the “invisible hand” [4].  But this explains it at the behavioral level, and we can’t assume that all behaviors are adaptive.  If we want to go further, then we must appeal to evolutionary psychology, in which I am on the fence.


[1] Coyne, Jerry A.. Why Evolution Is True. Penguin Publishing Group.

[2] Frank, Robert H. The Darwin Economy. Princeton University Press.

[3] Frank, Robert H. The Darwin Economy – Why Smith’s Invisible Hand Breaks Down.

[4] Frank, Robert H. The Invisible Hand, Trumped by Darwin?

[5] Gittins, Ross. Darwinian model of economics flawed for firms.

[6] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[7] Meyer, Christopher, and Kirby, Julia.  Runaway Capitalism.  Harvard Business Review.

[8] Ridley, Matt. What Charles Darwin Owes Adam Smith.  Learn Liberty.

[9] Vugt, Van Mark.  Why the Invisible Hand from Biology is Better Than the Invisible Hand from Economics.

[10] Wilson, David Sloan. This View of Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Triabalism Is Rational

I started writing for freethought blogs because I thought that my use of reason made me special, and I identified with those that had disdain for God.  I wanted to share this by way of science, but I did not have a real purpose.  Were these the real reasons for binding?  After researching rationality and self-interest, I realized that my self-interest was behind it all, but I needed to justify it first.

I was reluctant to embrace all of the blog’s principles, namely “an appreciation of human diversity and equality” because I didn’t “get it” until I experienced subordination first-hand.  Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist who studies social hierarchies, articulates what this purpose may be.  I first reasoned that tribalism (i) was divisive and irrational, and I now reason that it is rational and just.

…egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: the weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong.  My thesis is that they must continue such domination if they are to remain autonomous and equal. [2]

Reasons for Tribalism

I was self-righteous and naive because of rationality and so reason itself was a roadblock for me to want to be political.  Rationality, at least my rationality, was that if we are ideologues and don’t use critical thinking skills to look at each issue and stay clear of our biases and in-groups, then we will never build a juster society.  But I was mistaken, in a big way.

We are not rational, and passion guides our moral reasoning – that is, what we decide to be right or wrong is anchored in our feelings and directs us.  And morality evolved to suppress self-interest in one another to allow for cooperation to take place, see below.  That is its function, and this is not a philosophical position but rather a scientific fact.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and innate tedencies that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. [5]

Our culture sets standards that must be met in order to advance in the hierarchy.  But some based on biology or bad luck will not be able to achieve the status they want and become subordinated.  So the anthropologist above is saying that biology justifies everything that liberals use to become more equal, e.g., economic equality, affirmative action, gender equality, and so forth.

The idea of people living morally as political equals is a beautiful one, but in an important sense it seems to go against human nature—a nature that leads, quite naturally, to interpersonal domination and to the formation of social dominance hierarchies, with alpha individuals presiding over them. [2]

We Were Egalitarian

But before twelve thousand years ago, humans basically were egalitarian (Knauft 1991). They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. [2]

I don’t get the impression that all evolutionary biologists believe that we lived as egalitarian tribes for most (95%) of our existence since they have a Hobbesian view of what it means to be human – that is, morality is but a thin veneer that keeps our savage-like self-interest in line.  But anthropologists certainly have a lot of evidence and reasoning to show that we did.

Far from being admired as “clever opportunists,” selfish individuals looking to exploit the generosity of other foragers are viewed as pitiful and potentially dangerous, likely to be nudged off the nearest cliff. Such an individual would be lucky to survive for long in a real-world foraging society, much less flourish. [12]

But egalitarianism is not what we think it is.  Yes, it says that in some respects people are thought to be equal and should have equal opportunities (not outcomes).  But this is a normative statement and by no means is what we actually observe.  On the other hand, real egalitarianism is about domination and that is what freethought blogs does very effectively that I used to be against.

Equality Is a Fight

My thesis, however, is that egalitarianism does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather, egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings. [2]

This is a very intuitive thesis and is something that we all have experienced through the emotions of envy and resentment when we are not included in certain groups or are treated unfairly.  It is so obvious that we have to be reminded of its truth.  The problem is that conservatives and libertarians will immediately say that we are not playing fair.

The argument here is that egalitarian societies constitute a very special type of hierarchy, one in which the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs. [2]

We must keep power in check so that the “strong” won’t weed out the “weak” as this anonymous conservative says below.  This conservative’s reasoning embellishes the folk idea that life is a competitive struggle for survival, while conveniently – since well-positioned people have little use for empathy – ignoring the role of compassion and altruism because he can.

The least immoral path is to honor each man’s freedom, limit governmental intervention, and let each man bear the burden of responsibility for himself.   Combined with personal charity, awarded by the productive to those who they feel are worthy, such a scheme would produce society where everyone was committed to the success of our nation, and sloth was unrewarded, beyond a bare subsistence level of support to those who are worthy in some regard.


(i) Tribalism is defined here as the antagonistic nature of inter-group behavior between the major ideologies of conservatism and liberalism.  Bi-partisanship is largely a myth because these two world-views don’t reason the same about morality and will always be in conflict.


[1] Anonymous. The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics. Federalist Publications.

[2] Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University

[3] Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape. Princeton University Press.

[4] Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Kling, Arnold. The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides. Cato Institute.

[7] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[8] Lakoff, George. The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! . Chelsea Green Publishing.

[9] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[10] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[11] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[12] Ryan, Christopher. Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress. Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster.

[13] Tuschman, Avi. Our Political Nature. Prometheus.

[14] Waal, Frans de. The Age of Empathy. Random House LLC

[15] Westen, Drew. The Political Brain. PublicAffairs.