Capitalism Is Cooperation

page_2012_williamson_square_0Kevin Williamson writes: I wonder if Bloomberg has any intellectual standards at all. (The news service, I mean; we already know about the mayor.) Consider this column from Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu, titled “Libertarians are the new communists.” Thesis: “Where communism was adopted, the result was misery, poverty and tyranny. If extremist libertarians ever translated their beliefs into policy, it would lead to the same kinds of catastrophe.” Attention conservatives: “Extremist libertarian” here means an admirer of Ted Cruz.

The problem with libertarians, according to these gentlemen, is that they misunderstand the human condition: “Like communism, this philosophy is defective in its misreading of human nature, misunderstanding of how societies work and utter failure to adapt to changing circumstances. Radical libertarianism assumes that humans are wired only to be selfish, when in fact cooperation is the height of human evolution.”

But radical libertarians do not assume that humans are wired only to be selfish, nor do they reject cooperation. The opposite is the case. In fact, one of those radical libertarians — me — just this summer published a book arguing that (see if this sounds familiar) “cooperation is the height of human evolution.” (note: I’m currently reading this book, and a fine book it is–Butcher) A taste:

It is remarkable that we speak and think about commerce as thoughcompetitiveness were its most important feature. There is, as noted, a certain Darwinian aspect to economic competition—and of course we humans do in fact compete over scarce resources. But what is remarkable about human action is not its competitiveness but its almost limitlesscooperativeness. Competition is only one of the ways that we learn how best to cooperate with one another—competition is a means to the higher end of social cooperation. Cooperation exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom, but we human beings cooperate on a species-wide, planetary level, which is a relatively new development in our evolution, the consequences of which we have not yet fully appreciated. If you consider the relationship of the organism to its constituent organs, the relationship of the organ to its cells, or the relationship of the single cell to its organelles, it would not be an overstatement to say that the division of labor is the essence of life itself: Birds do it, bees do it, but human beings do it better. The size and complexity of our brains evolved in parallel to the size and complexity of our social groups. The argument for cooperative human action is not just economics, but biology. Our social institutions are just as much a product of evolutionary processes as our bodies are. And it is through our social institutions, not through our individual brains, that we learn to deal with the problem of complexity.

The idea that the libertarian tendency is identical to the sophomoric cult of egotism found in Ayn Rand novels is more than outdated — it was never true in the first place. Miss Rand’s fiction is part of the libertarian intellectual universe, to be sure, but so are Henry David Thoreau and Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and Jesus. Citing as examples of libertarian extremism Ted Cruz, the Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, and Rand Paul, they argue: “It assumes that societies are efficient mechanisms requiring no rules or enforcers, when, in fact, they are fragile ecosystems prone to collapse and easily overwhelmed by free-riders.” Of course societies are complex — that is one reason why you want multiple, competing centers of power and influence rather than a single overgrown Leviathan blundering around your fragile ecosystem. As for the claim of “no rules or enforcers,” I have spent a fair amount of time around Senators Cruz and Paul, have debated Mr. Norquist, and have observed the elusive Koch in its natural habitat, and I have not yet heard one of them make the case for anarchism, which is what is meant by “no rules or enforcers.” Senator Cruz, like most of those with a Tea Party orientation, is intellectually devoted to the Constitution, which is many things but is not a covenant of anarchy. Senator Paul is an admirer of Grover Cleveland. Mr. Norquist believes that our taxes should be reduced. Anarchy should be made of more disorderly stuff.

Mr. Hanauer and Mr. Liu run the gamut from the ignorant to the dishonest. Consider this: “A Koch domestic policy would obliterate environmental standards for clean air and water, so that polluters could externalize all their costs onto other people.” Among the many enterprises that the Koch foundations have supported (though that support is more modest than their fevered critics imagine) is the Property and Environment Research Center, which is explicitly dedicated to the cause of aligning property rights with environmental interests, i.e. precisely the opposite of externalizing environmental costs onto other people.

If these gentlemen would like to have a discussion about libertarian thinking, then they should discover what it is that libertarians think. There are anarchists and near-anarchists among them, as well as constitutionalists, conservatives, and even a few Eisenhower Republicans. Perhaps we could organize some kind of emergency book airlift for the people at Bloomberg.

As for Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu, it would be too generous to call their column an example of deploying the straw man. It is intellectual dishonesty on the part of its authors and journalistic malpractice on the part of its publisher.

Kevin Williamson – National Review Online


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