Arnold Kling  

Group Solidarity and Survival

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Bruce Charlton writes,

Libertarians are intrinsically and on principle cowardly and hedonistic loners who will not suffer privation, take risks or undergo personal suffering either for the good of the group or for transcendental goals (unless they subjectively, arbitrarily happen to enjoy doing so!). Instead, libertarians tend to minimize their losses, to cut and run. In sum, libertarian group goals are continually undercut by the selfish-short-termism which is itself the prime directive of libertarianism. Hence libertarianism is unable to generate cohesion beyond the level of a leisure club - not even enough cohesion to run a political party!

This is why so many libertarians are 'pacifists' and isolationists, fantasize about emigration and other forms of personal escape, and consider suicide/ euthanasia as an obvious - first-line - solution to suffering.

He argues that this weakness of libertarians leaves us vulnerable to being taken over by theocrats who do not share our values.

As usual when I link to Charlton, I do so because he is interesting, not because I am much in agreement. I think that ideology and personality traits are more separate than he does. That is, I think that you can be a libertarian and be willing to sacrifice for others. It is just that ideologically a libertarian tries to minimize the sacrifices that can be extracted coercively by the state.

How important is group solidarity for survival? What would happen if the United States lost the sense of group solidarity that enables our government to use military force? One view is that this would bring more peace to the world. Another view is that it would actually encourage more violence in the world. I admit to leaning toward the latter view. I suspect that most people's views on this topic are much stronger than any empirical proof that they can bring to bear.

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Taimyoboi writes:

While this has little bearing on the merits of libertarian political philosophy, I must say that I am sympathetic to Bruce Charlton's position.

Anecdotally, I've found the libertarian position to most often take root among individuals who were an only child.

MikeDC writes:

This foreigner told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum — that he harbored in himself all the worst vices and appetites. And Socrates merely answered: "You know me, sir!"

(I think the charge is largely true)

I consider myself a libertarian, but I'm generally shocked by how casually other libertarians dismiss their group responsibilities. If you're a libertarian, it's generally on either utilitarian or rightist grounds. In either case, our "rights" to do anything ends up being based in large measure on the mutual consent of other folks in a society.

azmyth writes:

This critique makes some sense in regard to war, but only if one were opposed to all wars. Very few libertarians I know are opposed to defensive wars. With regard to self sufficiency and hard work, he doesn't have a case. Libertarians are probably the most hard working and responsible of the political philosophies. It requires that its adherents constantly take responsibility for their actions' consequences.

Adam Smith wrote about circles of moral sentiments. Most political groups put a lot of effort into convincing people that the ideal size of a sentiment circle is the nation state. I am reminded of Dan Klein's "Club Romance", where he encourages people to find meaning and support one another in smaller groups. Humans aren't really designed to care about groups larger than around 150. Group solidarity is important, but many political initiatives work to destroy it, not reinforce it. Consider protectionism - it may help a small group, but it destroys cooperation amoung larger groups.

John Jenkins writes:

I can't believe you even found that garbage interesting. News flash: libertarianism is a philosophy about the proper scope of government power. It doesn't speak to issues of personal sacrifice, greater good, or anything else for that matter. He's smuggling in a bunch of his preconceptions and superstitions, then attacking his own construction.

So many libertarians are isolationists because the government uses war as an excuse to arrogate more power and control to itself. Few libertarians are outright pacifists.

How does he know what other people fantasize about?

What does being in favor of letting people who are suffering end their pain have to do with unwillingness to suffer deprivation themselves?

The common theme in every one of his "critiques" is that they are all instances where government exercises authority over people that libertarians think is excessive and beyond the proper scope (I see a theme). Instead of accepting that simple proposition, he proceeds to psychoanalyze an entire population based on...what exactly?

Libertarians are quite capable of undertaking suffering (e.g., reading Charlton) and working toward goals larger than themselves (like, say, limited government). Charlton's only real issue is they aren't his goals and libertarians don't suffer for what he wants. Well, that's sort of the point.

Doc Merlin writes:

I think he is doing the same mistake as many others and confusing libertarians with Objectivists.

8 writes:

I think he's talking in a sense about noblesse oblige. A secular libertarian society would have none and would therefore collapse. Consider the social freedoms won recently such as divorce and sexual freedom, how the people who fought for them behave in their personal life, and how it affected the whole society.

BZ writes:

I think the forest is being missed for all of our apparant tree-worship. Methodological individualism does not imply hermitism, though I must admit the language we use leans that way. In a similar fashion, liberty is not license, but libertines are well represented amongst libertarians to be sure.

As a big and small-L libertarian, I've seen way too much diversity in our movement to get overly excited about certain characterizations. But I have to admit, some stereotypes feel true enough to make me nervous, including those above.

Lastly, while I'm not so sure about the Theocrat stuff, if the recent influx of Republicans-Who-Like-Pot are the only thing keeping us from recreating Jonestown, perhaps I shouldn't complain so much. :)

Paul Geddes writes:

How then can you explain Marc Emery, currently in prison for libertarian principles?

The food is terrible, it is boring and the separation from loved ones must be excruciating....

To get a feeling for what it is like:

We have libertarian heroes and they should be honored.

david writes:

Nonsense on stilts.

Let's see, individuals that a) believe in self-reliance, b) don't look to the group for support or protection, c) have no sense of entitlement to others' property and don't insist that the state procure that property for them by force, and d) hold unconventional or heterodox views that are usually actively discouraged by society and family are ... cowards?

Nice try.

If by "group solidarity" he means tribalism and coerced (at some level) submission to the group, then yeah, he's probably right that libertarians are not big fans. If he means voluntary cooperation and organization and true benevolence towards others, he's wrong. The crowding out of voluntary forms of organization and cooperation by the expansion of the state (usually in the supposed pursuit of group solidarity and whatever transcendental goals have been prescribed by those who consider themselves our moral and intellectual betters) is well recognized. The cynical exploitation of appeals to group solidarity and transcendental goals by political hucksters of various stripes to acquire power is also well recognized.

All sorts of voluntary organization, much of it aimed at the so-called transcendental goals, is consistent with libertarianism and predated the era of big government - charities, privately funded universities, churches, etc.

Lastly, speaking of goals, is there any more transcendental than individual freedom? For the answer, ask those who live without it.

Jeff writes:

Can I ask what a "professor of theoretical medicine" is?

I'm somewhat sympathetic to his critique of liberals and libertarians, although I'm not sure where the suicide/euthanasia comment comes from, but I think most of the rest of what he wrote ranges from puzzling to just plain silly.

I'm not going to go through the whole thing; I don't want wind up in the GYOB doghouse, but suffice it to say that you'd have a long way to go to convince me that theocracies are somehow more stable than liberal democracies or that they are somehow more expansionary. Which city attracts more immigrants, London or Riyadh?

Yancey Ward writes:

So, it is an unalloyed good thing to draft and send men off to war?

Alex J. writes:

I've known libertarians who went to prison for refusing to serve in the military when drafted. They could've run to Canada, but chose to make an example of themselves.

Every libertarian who runs for office with no hope of winning is undergoing some charitable sacrifice. They're not in it for the bribes, after all. Lots of money and effort goes into petitioning for places on the ballots also.

fundamenalist writes:

The Founders of the US were about as libertarian as you can get, and they sure had a hard time with group solidarity and survival. Clearly he knows no libertarians and is doing what psychology calls "projecting".

Alex J. writes:

Counter example for Bruce Charlton: Karl Hess

Alex J. writes:

The nutshell response is "Just because I oppose the draft, that doesn't mean I think there's nothing worth fighting for."

He has some valid points in there, though. Some organizations work better with its members committed to a centralized command: Russian communists ca. 1932, the blackshirts, Napoleon's field army. A necessary part of Napoleon's success as a general was the obedience of his men. His men in turn obeyed him out of patriotism, and because they believed his leadership would lead to success. Earlier French revolutionary armies had a more democratic organization: when ordered to attack, the units would vote on whether or not to comply. This worked as badly as you would imagine.

Notably, the Germans in WWII outfought everyone on a man-to-man basis with Hayekian tactics. They realized that the modern battlefield had gotten so big and so spread out, that the general in charge couldn't possibly know enough to command in detail. Officers were informed about the intentions of the larger units they were part of and encouraged to use their own initiative. Obviously, they still had to follow orders and this worked because of the loyalty of the officers and men involved. Hitler did not follow this practice. His orders were specified in detail and meant to be followed exactly.

If centrally directed authority were stronger than our more-dispersed society, the Nazis or the Communists would have conquered the world. They were the closest to Charlton's theocracies and they lost.

Taimyoboi writes:

Is there data breaking down fertility rates by political affiliation in the U.S.?

I suspect that, contra Professor Caplan's wishes, libertarians have a lower birth rate than, say, religious and/or conservative individuals.

Nick writes:

"...and consider suicide/ euthanasia as an obvious – first-line - solution to suffering. Libertarians have no compelling reason why they themselves should suffer for a larger or longer term cause."

I would love to know what longer term cause/greater good he thinks Dr Kevorkian's patients could have aided, had he not assisted their suicide.

physEcon writes:

And what a progressive is somebody who thinks so much is worth fighting for, provided other people pay the bill?

Troy Camplin writes:

He gets the Left right, but I agree that he seems to be talking about a certain kind of Objectivist rather than libertarians. Certainly, I did not see myself accurately described there at all. One can be personally communitarian and politically libertarian. Voluntary communities, yes; involuntary ones, no. I wouldn't be surprised if plenty of libertarians died in wars (as an example of willingness to sacrafice). One could point to the Founding Fathers as classical liberals/libertarians who made plenty of sacrafices and were willing to be martyrs to the cause. And many did.

What he doesn't seem to understand is that theocracies have been collapsing under their own weight over the past several hundred years. Whether they be traditional religions or the modern secular one of communism, theocracies -- governments based on teleology -- have proven mostly unstable. Especially in the face of spontaneous order societies, which are complex and robust. They can even take a consider about of b.s. from the Left.

So he can surrender to atavism if he wants. I'm fighting for a more complex, freer society.

Hoover writes:

Libertarians are right until they need an ambulance.

Troy Camplin writes:

I do believe those ambulances are run by the hopitals, which I do believe are able to be private companies (though things are sadly moving in the wrong direction there). Might need to come up with something better than something that has been proven to work perfectly well in the purely private sector.

Allan Walstad writes:

Thanks to John Jenkins and david for their appropriately tart responses. One tires of presumptuous sneers based on mind-reading as a substitute for rational disagreement.

That said, I would also suggest that the adherents of non-mainstream views, not limited to libertarian, do tend to have a personality distribution somewhat shifted from the mainstream as well. It has something to do with being willing to stand alone (usually) against the incredulous furrowed brows, scoffs, and insinuations.

David Friedman writes:

On the empirical question of how well a society works when group loyalties are to small rather than large groups ... .

Italy, in WWII, acquired a reputation for military ineptitude. My understanding, however, is that it was deserved only on the large. The Luftwaffe recruited Italians as pilots, and the Italian navy did well in small scale operations—heroic junior officers doing things with small ships. And, of course, the Sicilian Mafia provides a highly successful example of social organization built on small group loyalties, in part inconsistent with putative large group loyalties

Italy hasn't been very successful at winning wars, but it's a functioning society.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Since Charlton did not provide any supporting evidence, I'll do it for him:

[1] When a Danish newspaper published cartoons in 2005 that made some Muslims very angry, The Economist [which I suppose could be called a mildly libertarian publication] first blamed the Danish government for not apologizing, then blamed other governments for not supporting the Danes. This performance was repeated when the Estonian government made some Russians angry, a few years later.

[2] At the other extreme of libertarianism, Murray Rothbard sang the praises of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, while criticizing governments that would never put him in jail for his opinions (let alone send him to labor camps).

Both examples show that, contrary to some comments, it's not just objectivists. The first example shows that it's not just about war.

There is much more that I could say, but I'll just add a couple of qualifications. First, I take note that there are counter-examples. Second, I am not keen myself to go to war; but the difference wrt Rothbard is that I do not sneer at those who fight against tyranny.

Maciano writes:

One has to understand where BGC is coming from. He believes that high religiosity, and only that (all other things being second or third tier drivers), is what increases birth rates/ feritility -- in modern and traditional societies. He could be right. There may be other thing besides religion, that support natalism. In that case I want to find out about that option, not choose my 'preferred variety of intolerance'. What's the logic here? In order to stop growing pre-modern Islamic influence, we must return to pre-modern religious standards ourselves. How wonderful..

Libertarianism may have its shortcomings, but it does offer us some valuable economic insights. Charlton blames libertarians for having hedonistic impulses. He must be aiming at the Cato-Reason crowd; most web-libertarians I knowor read are social conservatives who advocate for a small (or no) state. And ironically, time preference as a concept is mostly used by Austrian economics theorists. I'm pretty sure such libertarians are aware of the risks of high time preference..

"So many libertarians are isolationists because the government uses war as an excuse to arrogate more power and control to itself. Few libertarians are outright pacifists."

Er, I think most 'isolationists' don't want their country to wage war on innocent people or get their country indebted for wars that don't serve their interest. The past few years I've drifted away from libertarianism and embraced the traditional conservative right. (Main reason: libertarians seem to have a hard time understanding the impact of third world immigration on first world countries.) Reading Charlton and mainstream conservatives, I think that might be a mistake. Libertarianism is one of the ideals that makes the West a nice culture, I'd like to preserve some of that.

ThomasL writes:

I know his assertions are pretty much baiting, but I'll add a quote anyway:

"The same persons, who singly, as solitary individuals are able to will the Good, are immediately seduced as soon as they associate themselves and become a crowd. On that account the good man will neither seek to secure the assistance of a crowd in order to split up the crowd, nor will he seek to have a crowd in back of him, during the time that he breaks up the crowd in front of him." - Purity of Heart, Søren Kierkegaard

There are people, like Kierkegaard, that see individualism not only compatible with, but even necessary for true religion.

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