The Case Against Libertarian Humanism
By Staff News & Analysis - August 12, 2010

Humans: Why They Triumphed … How did one ape 45,000 years ago happen to turn into a planet dominator? … The answer lies in a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals. Even as it explains very old patterns in prehistory, this idea holds out hope that the human race will prosper mightily in the years ahead – because ideas are having sex with each other as never before … But the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody – literally nobody – knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative. … Trade also gave way to centralized institutions. – Wall Street Journal/Matt Ridley

Dominant Social Theme: Progress is all about private collectivism?

Free-Market Analysis: When we read about Matt Ridley and his latest book, The Rational Optimist, we were actually shocked! The level of sophistication that Ridley brings to the subject is far beyond what we traditionally read in the mainstream media – which is more likely to focus on pop singers and central bank manifestos than the history of human civilization from an evolutionary or social standpoint. Ridley actually challenged our perceptions about what constitutes progress in society and how it comes about.

We were not, however, surprised to see that this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Rupert Murdoch has been desperately pushing all his media properties toward libertarian stances to retain his readership and viewership and the result has been a good deal of challenging material. From the bourgeoise radicalism of certain FOX talk-show hosts to articles like this one, Murdoch's editors are obviously on a mission to challenge the alternative media.

The meme that Ridley represents then is both specific and general. On a general level it is metaphorical and shows that the mainstream press can actually deliver the goods on occasion. In other words, he justifies the continued viewership of mainstream media. More specifically, Ridley makes a number of free-market arguments about the evolution of the species and attacks government as interfering with progress. Do Ridley's arguments constitute a dominant social theme? Yes, it is simply, in our view: "The best government is the one we have, but less of it."

Nobody would ever conclude the power elite in aggregate was stupid. They deal in concatenations of promotional propaganda at the highest level. What is going on now is a wholesale search for a reliable meme that can "sell" the system as it is, while lurching toward the libertarian arguments that are in reality winning the day (though that is not reported in the mainstream media either). You can read our reporting on some of these other efforts here: Libertarians Seek Rahn's Ideal State.

The point we have made is that these efforts present libertarian arguments within the context of the current Western Leviathan. One of the arguments (see link) is that there is a rise of state capitalism around the world as represented by China. This must be combated by the freer states of the West. Of course never mind that the West's "freer" states are not so free at all. But compared to the state capitalism of China, they have their advantages. We can see how, in one swoop, the West's regulatory democracies are revivified by comparing them to an even more authoritarian alternative.

The other argument made recently is that there is an "ideal" level of state interference in the economy. This perspective argues for a kind of Laffer Curve of regulation. Again, the implication is that a certain amount of state interference in the market is, if not laudatory, at least tolerable. We are now arguing about the amount of government not whether it is justifiable – or in what form it might be. We are not, by the way, necessarily implying that Ridley is consciously carrying water for the elite, though he certainly is a member of the establishment. Here's an excerpt from his Wikipedia bio:

Ridley was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford where he received a doctorate in zoology before commencing a career in journalism. Ridley worked as the science editor of The Economist from 1984 to 1987 and was then its Washington correspondent from 1987 to 1989 and American editor from 1990 to 1992. Ridley was non-executive chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007, in the period leading up to the bank's near-collapse. He was the first chairman of the International Centre for Life, a science park devoted to life sciences in Newcastle, and served in this position for seven years. He formerly was a governor of the Ditchley Foundation … and a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association.

So Ridley is a humanist. Here's something on humanism from the UK Humanist Society: "Humanism is the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. Humanists seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. We choose to take responsibility for our actions and work with others for the common good …"

And here's a relevant section from the Humanist Manifest II that was promulgated back in the 1970s:

We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We … look to the development of a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government. This would appreciate cultural pluralism and diversity. It would not exclude pride in national origins and accomplishments nor the handling of regional problems on a regional basis. Human progress, however, can no longer be achieved by focusing on one section of the world, Western or Eastern, developed or underdeveloped. For the first time in human history, no part of humankind can be isolated from any other. Each person's future is in some way linked to all. We thus reaffirm a commitment to the building of world community, at the same time recognizing that this commits us to some hard choices.

We can see echoes of this communitarianism in Ridley's work. As near as we can summarize from reading corollary material about his latest book, Ridley's general point is that the individual does not contribute individually to progress except, in a sense, through the group. He is a major proponent of cities, the denser the better and is even an apologist for slums, writing that they actually consist of upwardly mobile people and therefore ought to be looked on as optimistic environments.

His point apparently is that "ideas have sex" and that human progress has intensified as populations have grown larger and the interchange of ideas has grown more complex. Cities are often where such propagation happens. At the same time, however, as merchants created civil society with a plethora of good and innovative ideas, he points out that the bureaucratic class was busy nationalizing them. He is thus no fan of government and sees, as we do, that human "progress" (such as it is) is a product of tension between private creativity and social control.

He writes: "Around 5,200 years ago, Uruk, in southern Mesopotamia, was probably the first city the world had ever seen, housing more than 50,000 people within its six miles of wall. Uruk, its agriculture made prosperous by sophisticated irrigation canals, was home to the first class of middlemen, trade intermediaries. As with traders ever since, increasingly it came to look like tribute as Uruk merchants' dwellings were plonked amid the rural settlements of the trading partners in the hills. A cooperative trade network seems to have turned into something more like colonialism. Tax and even slavery began to rear their ugly heads. Thus was set the pattern that would endure for the next 6,000 years—merchants make wealth; chiefs nationalize it."

As indicated above, we have some issues with Ridley's perspective. It makes us vaguely uncomfortable. (Variations on humanism can be seen in the rise of the Age of Reason, which in some sense spawned the 20th century's totalitarian ideologies.) We do, in fact, believe in individual achievement. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, not a community. The apple fell on Newton's head, not on a colloquium. Shakespeare wrote his poetry (or somebody did), not a committee.

The 19th and 20th centuries are riddled with inventors that stood above the rest in terms of innovation and creativity. New technologies, in fact, tend to be the end result of individual thinking – and such thinking is often discouraged by the larger society and attacked by interest groups. Does what Ridley discusses have more to do with elaborations on inventions than the inventions themselves?

We would also take issue with Ridley's fixation on regionality. Does it really take a city? We would venture that tool-kit elaborations of the pre-Neolithic were based in part on technology shared via trading fairs and informal commerce that took place haphazardly as tribes came across each other. In fact, the problem with cities is that they seem INEVITABLY to give rise to mercantilism, the use of government to advance private interests. And mercantilism often constructs considerable barriers to civil society.

Finally, Ridley fails to grasp one basic point in our humble opinion that we have made before in these pages. The great innovations of civilization have taken place not when there is a city but when there are COMPETING SETTLEMENTS in one area or region. We have pointed out that the Greek City States, the Seven Hills of Rome, the Italian city states of the Renaissance and the 13 initial states of the American union all gave rise to innovative and powerful cultures. But it was the ability of a person to travel from settlement to settlement, still speaking the same language, that restrained governments and kept them from becoming abusive.

Is Ridley's relentless and calculated market optimism a tad simplistic? It is a little bit like Alan Greenspan's insistence as head of the Federal Reserve that the market itself would correct imbalances. This ignored the problem of money-stuff itself, which was (and is) being manufactured without the governor of market competition.

After Thoughts

It is fine to insist that free-markets are innovative and that government should get out of the way as much as possible. But structure matters. To talk meaningfully about greater freedom, one must not merely propose less government; one must also analyze exactly how government interacts with the market and how it might be structured to do the least damage. The devil is in the details.

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