David R. Henderson  

A Strange Critique of Libertarianism

McKenzie on Tullock... Who to Fear...
Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.
This is from John Edward Terrell, "Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual," New York Times, The Opinionator, November 30, 2014.

Seriously? I know some libertarians who are anti-social and many libertarians who lack basic social graces, but I don't think I know any (and I've been in this game for almost 5 decades) who deny that our survival depends in thousands of ways on our relationships with others.

I bet that if Terrell heard the title "I, Pencil" and also heard that most libertarians love that article, he would assume, without reading, that the pencil is celebrating its independence of others.

OMG. I just now looked at the author's bio. I don't know what I was expecting to see, but it wasn't this:

John Terrell is the Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

HT2 Steve Horwitz.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Julien Couvreur writes:

I see. So according to him, we are stuck with two options: no cooperation, or society organized by means of a State...
Voluntary cooperation is out of the picture I guess. It's not like libertarians make their position clear when they celebrate specialization and the division of labor ;-)

MikeP writes:

The article in its entirety is much worse than what is excerpted here and is damning to far more people than the indivisibly labeled "libertarians and Tea Party conservatives."

It is essentially a long missive arguing that humans have evolved to be slaves. There is no mention who the evolved slave masters might be.

Each plaintive assertion that prior political or philosophical arguments to the contrary were not meant by their authors to be taken literally is more amusing than the last.

Nathan W writes:

I think there are roughly analogous misappropriations of the atomized individual from all sides of all spectrums. Those who would look to history and pretend that we lived in some specific social structure without even bothering to open the front cover of some history or anthropology text, and then claim that it is natural for us to (insert whatever their favourite philosopher said here for the purpose of claiming "nature" as the winning stroke of the argument).

On the one side, a world where our nature is to fight tooth and nail from the beginning to end of every day in order to impose our will and superiority on other, on the other, a worldly compassion whereby we do anything in our capacity and according to their need for those in the IN group because they will do the same and we are all better for so doing).

Anarchists and libertarians I think fall into the same philosophical traps and share many of the same underlying aspirations and views, with just a few minor differences in their assumptions with regard to human nature leading them to very different social prescriptions, one of which is centered on ridding ourselves of the tyranny of a social system and the other centered on ridding ourselves of the tyranny of a capitalist police state.

brendan writes:

Oh, don't be surprised. Cultural Anthropologists are bonkers. As Greg Cochran quips, they "...at times seem to have no reason for being other than refurbishing the reputations of cannibals."

Pick any fundamental topic- Marxism, sex differences, the hereditary basis of certain behaviors, the desirability of innovation- and you'll find a plurality of cultural anthropologists making stupid sounds.

To their credit, they're almost forthright about this:

"The American Anthropological Association decided in 2010 to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. The change was favored by members who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights."

Daublin writes:

Indeed, much of the argument *for* libertarianism is that we have plenty of social tools without needing a government to force us into working together.

Nodnarb the Nasty writes:

In defense of cultural anthropologists, Hayek noted their importance for better understanding humanity.

They just need a lot of help getting out of the philosophical rut they are in, and some are laying the groundwork for that shift as we speak.

kingstu writes:

Is it that hard for "libertarian haters" to distinguish between voluntary and state mandated cooperation? I don't know any libertarians who claim anyone can succeed without voluntary cooperation.

awp writes:

EXACTLY AS IN libertarian BELIEF, human FLOURISHING is and always has been the individual plus his or her VOLUNTARY relationships with others.

fixed it.

nl7 writes:

It's because people are so well suited to cooperation and coordination that we don't need excessive meddling in other people's affairs.

Almost everything government does is about limiting and dictating the ways in which cooperation is allowed to happen. Vast amounts of regulatory effort are expended trying to enforce compliance with these prohibitions on cooperation. The black market is nothing more than unauthorized cooperation.

It is somewhat telling that Terrell quotes Rousseau most extensively as his example of individualist thought. On this we could note that Hayek also opposed Rosseau's individualism, as for example:

"I can give no better illustration of the prevailing confusion about the meaning of individualism than the fact that the man who to me seems to be one of the greatest representatives of true individualism, Edmund Burke, is commonly (and rightly) represented as the main opponent of the so-called "individualism" of Rousseau, whose theories he feared would rapidly dissolve the commonwealth 'into the dust and powder of individuality' ...."

(Hayek, "Individualism: Right and Wrong," reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, at p. 5.)

No doubt had Terrell relied upon Adam Smith (or Adam Ferguson, or David Hume, or F.A. Hayek) he may have come away with a somewhat more nuanced view of libertarianism.

BC writes:

The critique is especially puzzling since Terrell is arguing that humans are *naturally* evolved to be a "social species". Progressives are usually skeptical that voluntary cooperation will produce socially desirable results, whether such voluntary cooperation involves markets or private charity. They believe that government must often intervene to overcome human nature. "The Science" though, as progressives like to say, suggests the opposite: that useful social cooperation arises from humans' natural evolution to cooperate voluntarily, not from a government Intelligent Designer's coercion.

Ken P writes:

I encounter this type of argument a lot. So strange. Evolution does not require planning and neither does cooperation.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The State is the supreme example of human cooperation. To live in particular, self-ruling morally authoritative units is natural to men. Mankind has never existed otherwise.

Libertarianism is defined by the rejection of moral authority of the community. Lacking this, the libertarianism can not give satisfactory account of things such as the nature of property, the nature of government etc.

Pajser writes:

The evolution is important but not essential. I guess we evolved to have instincts suitable for social structure similar to chimp tribe. So, yes, Terrer and Ilaci are right. But we don't have to keep social structure we evolved to. Maybe we really evolved to kill the members of other tribes, as chimps regularly do. The wars are not isolated accidents of history. They are as regular as chimp tribe wars. It doesn't mean we should continue to organize wars.

James writes:


What people have traditionally lived under is submission to the strong.

Even if I accepted the moral authority of the community, I wouldn't be able to act on it because too many people would try to take advantage of my willing submission. Everyone who wanted me to do something would claim to be speaking for the community.

JKB writes:

Nice denial of modernity by an anthropologist no less. Yes, we did develop in family, clan, tribe, caste, region, nationality, ethnicity, etc. With our relationship to the group defining our relationship to those outside the group. But we 'evolved' beyond the need for the defining group relationship with strongman leaders to function as individuals within a market of relationships. The individual is now not limited by the group membership defined at birth but rather enters into many voluntary, and often transitory, relationships and group memberships in cooperation with others. The individual will have many of these relationships for separate goals that are often isolated from each other. I'm not sure what could be more libertarian?

One might suspect that those who go about trying to refute what they determine is "libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric" might just be attached to the pre-modern world where a person is defined by their birth-created group membership and controlled by a strongman or 'group of elders' who define the individuals relationship with those outside the group?

Clay Garner writes:

"Natural Law" was the basis for ethics from roman times. This idea believed that human law could be deduced from nature. Jefferson's 'natures God'. How one understood nature impelled a understanding of human life.

Aristotle's teaching led to Alexander and horrible war. Roman understanding led to stoicism and genocide. Materalism impelled a view of human society that led to WWI and scientism.

To value human freedom and life needs, in order to protect them from destruction, a legal, metaphysical foundation. Chaos cannot provide that. All ideas have a metaphysical part, acknowledged or not.

If humans are animals, the death of anyone is unimportant. The love of an idea, the state or group, can and has become the goal that provides meaning to living for many. Humans desperately seek meaning. See Herder

LD Bottorff writes:

JKB: Nice point. Terrell's piece appears to indicate a world view that doesn't understand this natural progression from bondage to the group into voluntary cooperation with multiple groups of our own choosing. There was a time in human history when we were defined by the group and our loyalty to its leader. Farm workers were expected to stay on the farm (and be loyal to the landlord). Skilled workers were expected to remain loyal to their guild as today's laborers are expected to remain loyal to their union. The move away from tight group loyalty is the kind of trend that I would expect anthropologists to understand and celebrate.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Archaeologists not saddled with villains to fell can determine the social structure, the gods, and the history of ancient societies just by pawing around in midden piles. Today, geeks, hackers, and venture capitalists have coordinated through an unprecedented range of voluntary interactions in order to produce a miracle of transparent communication, where libertarians (and many others) are daily engaged in communicating the subtleties of their worldviews, and our cultural anthropologists can't seem to get a handle on what a libertarian is.

When friends refer to these sorts of articles, and I tell them that I consider myself libertarian and that the article doesn't describe anything I recognize, they sometimes reply that, while I call myself a libertarian, I'm not really a libertarian, because libertarians are villains. And, they always seem to have some friend from college or something who was a libertarian and whose worldview was defined as "I earned everything myself, and nobody's going to take it away from me." Oddly, I never seem to run into that guy myself.

Slate had a piece today that also was hampered by this sort of villain-chasing, which I posted about here.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

What people have traditionally lived under is submission to the strong.

So all those Hebrews, Greeks,Romans, Hindus, Babylonians, all those people that left written records of their laws were writing fiction?

It used to be well-established that primitive people are defined by their adherence to Custom. And what are laws but Customs formalized?

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

social structure similar to chimp tribe.
Not at all.
Man is not merely a social animal but a political animal.
The difference is crucial and not explainable by theories of evolution.

Chimps do not have laws and the chimp community does not have moral authority over its members.

Jukebox writes:

Mr Terrell knows a lot, but understands very little.

John Scott writes:

Socialists missed this point, even back in Bastiat's day. Here are excerpts from Chapter 7: Middlemen from What is Seen and What is not Seen.

"The modern socialist factions ceaselessly oppose free association in present-day society. They do not realize that a free society is a true association much superior to any of those that they concoct out of their fertile imaginations."

"If society were not a very real association, anyone who wanted a suit of clothes would be reduced to working in isolation, that is, to performing himself the innumerable operations in this series, from the first blow of the pickaxe that initiates it right down to the last thrust of the needle that terminates it."

"Is association as I describe it here any the less association because everyone enters and leaves it voluntarily, chooses his place in it, judges and bargains for himself, under his own responsibility, and brings to it the force and the assurance of his own self-interest? For association to deserve the name, does a so-called reformer have to come and impose his formula and his will on us and concentrate within himself, so to speak, all of mankind?"


Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top