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The Limits of Libertarianism

by Helen Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 10:16:35 AM EST

We have often criticised in passing the simple-minded economic nostrums of Libertarians and their child-like belief in unregulated free markets. So it was a pleasure to read
 George Monbiot in the Guardian
today with an interesting anthropological analysis of market ideology in relation to the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in the UK. I know that it's not done to take one article and more or less make it into a diary, but i didn't want this to be lost in amongst all the other stuff in Salon.


I used to read Ridley's columns religiously. Published by the Telegraph in the 1990s, they were well-written, closely argued and almost always wrong. He railed against all government intervention and mocked less enlightened beings for their failure to understand economics and finance. The rightwing press loved him because he appeared to provide a scientific justification for the deregulation of business..................

Ridley, who has a DPhil in zoology, is no stranger to good science, and his explorations of our evolutionary history, which are often fascinating and provoking, are based on papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But whenever a conflict arose between his scientific training and the interests of business, he would discard the science. Ignoring hundreds of scientific papers that came to the opposite conclusion, and drawing instead on material presented by a business lobby group called the Institute of Economic Affairs, he argued that global temperatures have scarcely increased, so we should stop worrying about climate change. He suggested that elephants should be hunted for their ivory, planning laws should be scrapped, recycling should be stopped, bosses should be free to choose whether or not their workers get repetitive strain injury and companies, rather than governments, should be allowed to decide whether or not the food they sell is safe. He raged against taxes, subsidies, bailouts and government regulation. Bureaucracy, he argued, is "a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world ... governments do not run countries, they parasitise them".


So, he's pretty much a stereotypical right-wing slash-and-burn economic libertarian. So what happened to him ?

'The little-known ninth law of thermodynamics states that the more money a group receives from the taxpayer, the more it demands and the more it complains." Thus wrote Matt Ridley in 1994. He was discussing farm subsidies, but the same law applies to his chairmanship of Northern Rock. Before he resigned on Friday, the bank had borrowed £16bn from the government and had refused to rule out asking for more. Ridley and the other bosses blamed everyone but themselves for this disaster.

As it happens, Monbiot attended the same zoology department, and so is able to critique some of Ridley's ideologies from the viewpoint of a biological determinist.

Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.

I can offer nothing more than speculation, but Ridley has had the opportunity to test his beliefs. He took up his post in 2004. Under his chairmanship, the Economist notes, Northern Rock "pushed an aggressive business model to the limit, crossing its fingers and hoping that liquidity would always be there". It was allowed to do so because it was insufficiently regulated by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. When his libertarian business model failed, Ridley had to go begging to the detested state. If the government and its parasitic bureaucrats had not been able to use taxpayers' money to clear up his mess, thousands of people would have lost their savings. Northern Rock would have collapsed, and the resulting panic might have brought down the rest of the banking system........So much for the virtues of unregulated free enterprise.

At this point Monbiot expands his analysis to the human tendencies that inevitably need to be checked by regulation for the good of society as a whole.

Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people's resources, they will dump their waste in other people's habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons. Our genetic inheritance makes us smart enough to see that when the old society breaks down, we should appease those who are more powerful than ourselves and exploit those who are less powerful. The survival strategies that once ensured cooperation among equals now ensure subservience to those who have broken the social contract.

The democratic challenge, which becomes ever more complex as the scale of human interactions increases, is to mimic the governance system of the small hominid troop............................

Unless taxpayers' money and public services are available to repair the destruction it causes, libertarianism destroys people's savings, wrecks their lives and trashes their environment. It is the belief system of the free-rider, who is perpetually subsidised by responsible citizens. Self-serving as governments might be, the true social parasites are those who demand their dissolution.

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Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish.

Now I know what's up with Monbiot as well. Explains two things in one article. Excellent. We're both inherently selfish and inherently altruistic, as far as I can tell, and in different degrees in different people.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 11:10:39 AM EST
They're both psychopaths. Neither is aware since they both "discard the science" as suits his immediate, palpable need for a kind of intellectual coherence neither exhibit.

For me this Monbiot moment is an exceptionally shrill, tantamount to tantrum, juvenile demand for sympathy from maladepts at the gate his authority, be that academic or political.

Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people.

At this point, I should like to refer readers to pertinent remarks. These should lead the curious to explore the historical, conceptual conflict that apparently characterizes authority within institutional sociology and evolutionary biology today.

Hamilton's Rule and the 'grand separation' lest we doubt psycopathy is a desirable human behavior in capitalist societies.

Alternatively, follow the bouncing wiki to Williams, Huxley and "spiritual" clansman Fisher  who published at the apex of British empire.


Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 12:39:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Inehrently selfish??? Ughhhh at least he has the courage that it is just a blieve system.. stating that we are "something very complex " by nature is .. let's say..scientifically very risky.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 03:44:42 PM EST
The discovery of greed, in 1987:

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

(See also here.)

What held people back from the best greed before Reagan?

With all respect to the zoology and the selfish evolution view of Dawkins/Ridley/Monbiot, their rhetoric implications are wrong. This is good time to challenge them.

by das monde on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 10:16:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What held people back from the best greed before Reagan?

Lingering shreds of the idea Life consists of more than money-grubbing?

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 02:01:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Heard the BEST definition of a Libertarian recently.

What is a Libertarian?
A Republican with a bong.

There is NO way a Libertarian philosophy will EVER work in a complex, industrial economy.  NEVER

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 05:23:11 PM EST
Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish.

Oh fer ....  this again?  Voltaire ridiculed it to death in the ... 1760s?  1750s? ...  but, like a cabbage, broccoli, and beans dinner - it returns.

Sure some people go around acting like Ayn Rand in a bad mood but some people don't so what's up with this "inherent" stuff?  Saying people can rise above an "inherent"  quality rather begs the question, h'mmmm?  How inherent can something be if it's not inherent, always operative, in practice?  So the adjective "inherent" means nothing and adds nothing -- and I've got Carnap on my side.  So there.  Nyah. -- reducing the sentence to "People are selfish."  But since people are not always selfish, even Monbiot agrees (see above,) the assertion needs to be further reduced to:  "People are sometimes selfish."

A commonplace any 6 year old could cognize.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 03:36:05 AM EST
Or that people are neither selfish nor altruistic but they are the ultimate product of selfish genes which lead to either selfish or altruistic behaviour, depending on the circumstances.

In the Ridley/ Dawkins world view (probably right IMO)it makes no sense to say that a person is selfish or altruistic - a person being "a genes' way of making another gene".

Where Ridley (and Monbiot) are most assuredly wrong is thinking that zoology has anything sensible to say about economics or policy.

by lemonwilmot (lemonwilmot at gmail.com) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 07:51:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a deep problem with associating emotions or thoughts to entities lacking endocrine or central nervous systems.  At its best the process is Argument by Analogy, Anthropomorphism at worst.

 

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 01:58:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Quite, AtinNM.

I'm glad somebody else has made this general point - I got a bit tired of doing so.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice. Blog - Nice Experience

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 04:09:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One can trace the 'inherent evil' motif back to good old Auggie-doggie (the Hippo,) to his source: the Manicheans, and thence to various gnostic sects running around the late Roman Empire.  Thus the darn thing is deeply embedded in Western Thought.

Dawkins, et.al. are only the latest manifestation.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 01:38:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Actually I don't really think Dawkins is amongst the guilty - his views are often over-simplified. But anyway, the general point remains as you put it.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice. Blog - Nice Experience
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 03:05:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Already Adam Smith explained the benefits of regulation for the good of society as a whole...
Project Gutenberg: The Wealth of Nations
Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respect a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as or the most despotical.


We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 31st, 2007 at 05:23:47 PM EST


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