An “Inclusionist” contra Liberty


In 2011*, Psychology Today presented us with a screed against libertarianism, an absurd array of cliché and error. All this from a man who — to judge by his credentials — should know better. He is an academic who specializes in complexity theory. Yet he seems entirely unaware of the importance that complexity has played in the development of ideological individualism.

It becomes painfully obvious that the author of this sad screed did not do much research. Indeed, the author appears not to understand that his central case against libertarianism was the case for liberty in the classic writings of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer.

Here is the most relevant passage:

We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses (as Darwin himself pointed out in The Descent of Man).

Well, yes. As Adam Smith “himself” pointed out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments over a hundred years earlier, and as Herbert Spencer elaborated in many of his books, most especially the Principles of Ethics. Darwin was not advancing a wholly new thesis. He was developing a theme already well-established among his contemporaries. It was, in fact, “settled science.”

Yes, I know, of course: the word “empathy” hadn’t been coined yet. Eighteenth and 19th century writers used “sympathy.” Smith and Spencer were the leading theorists of sympathy in their respective centuries. Their work was well known, and, if a modern sociologist or psychologist appears oblivious, it is usually the result of never having read Smith and Spencer. Few modern sociologists have bothered with Spencer, for instance, since Talcott Parsons pronounced his reputation “dead” in the first pages of The Structure of Social Action. (Later in his career Parsons revived many of Spencer’s ideas, but without citation, without any recognition of what he was doing.)

Herbert Spencer was the first evolutionary psychologist — though this is rarely acknowledged by today’s EP crowd. They do not need to burden themselves with a reputation declared toxic. But Spencer advanced a very complex theory of complexity. And it encompassed ideas his critics pretend are theirs — but usually Spencer’s treatment is more sophisticated.

Consider the obsession with inclusion, which is now the official focus of campus radical ideology, a watchword of the cult of “social justice.” (Spencer wrote merely of justice, and Hayek later followed in his footsteps to criticize social justice as a “mirage.”) Spencer called the inclusionary and loyalty aspects of human cooperation “the ethics of amity,” in the first chapters of The Inductions of Ethics. What our critic misses is what all modern progressives shield from their eyes: in parallel to this in-group allegiance exists a chthonian out-group antagonism, which is just as much a part of our evolutionary heritage empathy and the general sense of cooperativeness.

Spencer called this contrasting set of historically demonstrated imperatives “the ethics of enmity.”

Throughout the history of human civilization, the ethics of enmity has had a huge part in the foundation and structure of social systems. It is inevitable in eras of vast social conflict. And it has always uneasily existed in parallel to loftier, more charitable-sounding pronouncements of amity. And what the liberal tradition — modern libertarianism, especially, which in a sense grew out of Spencer’s work —always tried to do was solve the problems of human discord by rationalizing the terms for peace, making the standards of justice public and limited to a few tasks, mainly regulating when force can be used in society. And the key contribution of this form of individualism, not addressed anywhere in our critic’s analysis, has become the bedrock position of the modern libertarian position: the same standards that apply to individuals must apply to groups of individuals, including people working in the State.

For it is not just selfishness that morality and law must contend with as criminal, but group frenzy and tribalistic suppression of individuals, as well as group-to-group antagonism.

Liberalism, like libertarianism, is an attempt to minimize and control the impulse to go to war, in part by limiting the number of issues over which force may legitimately be used.

Liberty, in the libertarian system — as, more loosely in the classical liberal order of an extended civilization — serves as the moderating middle-point, a marker of equilibrium, among competing interests. It is a constraint not only on the excesses of egoistic self-serving at the expense of one or all others, it also serves as the rational regulator (in rule-of-law terms, in Weber-speak, it possesses rational-legal authority) of in-group/out-group antagonisms. It constrains communal misbehavior as well as individual misbehavior.

From our critic, no peep about this possibility. He appears to be a utopian, hinting that group action is pristine, placing human sin entirely in the “selfishness” category. Blink after reading, and see: the man has a limited view of human nature, apparently thinking that only selfishness is an evil.

To believe this is to be a fool. And a tyrant, perhaps, at heart.

There is one excuse the man could marshal, to explain his witless and inaccurate take-down: Ayn Rand. She muddied things up with “egoism” and “the virtue of selfishness.”

Combined with the author’s Econ 101ish misunderstanding of the place of Homo economicus in market theory, his calumny makes sense . . . in terms of the filiation of his ideas.

But this set of intellectual errors does not justify — cannot be justified— for Liberty is all about constraining both selfish criminality in the individual and the “altruistic” horrors perpetrated by mass man and his obsession with hierarchies.

And the author’s closing gambit is droll, in the context of debate about liberty:

A more serious concern is that the libertarian fixation with individual freedom distracts us from the underlying biological purpose of a society.  The basic, continuing, inescapable problem for humankind, as for all other living organisms, is biological survival and reproduction.

When Herbert Spencer is acknowledged for his extended analysis in this vein (that our critic suggests), he is derided, declared a Social Darwinist.

The level of cluelessness here is astounding.

This particular hit piece popped into my consciousness as a Facebook posting, a blast from the past. Belatedly, I bite. It is a good example of barely intellectual nonsense that academic folks periodically bring out, to  beat back, if they can, skepticism about the nature and functions of the State. They really dislike skepticism about the State, and basically freak out when confronted with an ideology that encourages resistance to allegiance to the modern state, in part by frankly discussing the perils as well as difficulties associated with collective action. The modish progressive, today, looks at “inclusion” as a solution, not as a problem also meant to be solved by the institutions of a free society.

The original draft of this essay appeared on the Herbert Spencer’s Shade Facebook page.