Is That Your True Rejection?

When people ask me about my politics these days, I sometimes describe myself as “a very small-‘l’ libertarian.” I am—like many libertarians, in my admittedly skewed Silicon Valley experience—just another pot-decriminalizing, prostitution-supporting, computer-programming, science-fiction-reading, Bayesian-statistics-promoting, mainstream-economics-respecting, sex-positive, money-positive, polyamorous atheistic transhumanist government-distrusting minarchist.

Would I change my mind about the minarchist part and become a “conservative,” if tomorrow it was revealed that measurable variance in traits like IQ, Conscientiousness, Openness and so on seemed to be 90% hereditary rather than 50% hereditary?

Would Michael Shermer change his mind and become a liberal, if these traits were shown to be 10% hereditary?

There’s a technique we use in our local rationalist cluster called “Is That Your True Rejection?”, and it works like this: Before you stake your argument on a point, ask yourself in advance what you would say if that point were decisively refuted. Would you relinquish your previous conclusion? Would you actually change your mind? If not, maybe that point isn’t really the key issue. You should search instead for a sufficiently important point, or collection of points, such that you would change your mind about the conclusion if you changed your mind about the arguments. It is, in our patois, “logically rude,” to ask someone else to painstakingly refute points you don’t really care about yourself. Imagine someone went to all the trouble to look up references and demonstrate to you that those traits were 90% hereditary, and then you turned around and said that you didn’t care.

What would it take to get you to change your mind about libertarianism? What are the arguments such that, if they were decisively refuted, you would actually change your mind?

When I ask myself this question, I think my actual political views would change primarily with my beliefs about how likely government interventions are in practice to do more harm than good. I think my libertarianism rests chiefly on the empirical proposition—a factual belief which is either false or true, depending on how the universe actually works—that 90% of the time you have a bright idea like “offer government mortgage guarantees so that more people can own houses,” someone will somehow manage to screw it up, or there’ll be side effects you didn’t think about, and most of the time you’ll end up doing more harm than good, and the next time won’t be much different from the last time.

I think if you sent me to an alternate universe where politicians were honest, bureaucrats cared, and voters weren’t so irrational—a world where good-idea policy initiatives tended to actually accomplish their stated goals without unexpected negative side effects—a world where the clear and visible end result of getting governments to do more and more was that economies grew faster and faster and people became happier and happier—then, in that world, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

And I think it would genuinely rip the heart out of my libertarianism, if you showed me that I already live in that world today. I just find that proposition hard to square with Google News and history books.

During its heyday, the Soviet Union held that human beings were a blank slate, that selfishness was a matter of being raised selfish, that human beings were perfectible—not by actual genetic engineering, mind you, but just by being given the right schoolbooks. But rather than saying, “The Soviet Union believed human beings were perfectible, therefore they mistakenly believed that communism would work,” I should sooner guess that the order of causality was, “The Soviet Union mandated political adherence to communism, and if humans are perfectible then communism would work better, so human perfectibility seemed like a politically allied belief.” If the belief “humans are perfectible” had been unfashionable for whatever reason, they would have mandated some other belief instead, and things would have gone much as before, I suspect. Even in the days of Marx and Engels, I have some degree of prior skepticism that empirical beliefs about the plasticity of human nature were truly the cause of belief in communism, rather than its effect. But then I don’t consider myself a student of that history, so I am willing to be corrected on this point.

My main point where I feel like I want to object to Shermer’s presentation on scientific grounds is where he implies that because variance in IQ seems to be around 50% genetic and 50% environmental, the Soviets were half right. And that this, in turn, makes libertarianism the wise, mature compromise path between liberalism and conservatism.

The idea of variance is mathematically subtle. If predictable variance in IQ seems to correlate around 50% with variance in genes and around 50% with variance in environment, this doesn’t mean that genes have half the causal power and environment has half the causal power. Suppose we put everyone in the best possible environment that exists today, IQ-wise, sent everyone to the most advanced and adaptable schools and gave them all interested parents with large book collections and so on. Then the amount of variance in IQ that seemed driven by variance in environment would go down, because everyone would be in the same environment—it wouldn’t vary from person to person. But that wouldn’t mean the environment had no causal effect on IQ.

By the same token, if we sequenced the DNA of everyone on the planet, got a statistical picture of which genes seemed to correlate with IQ, and genetically engineered everyone in the next generation to have the “best” alleles at each location—not that I’m saying this would be a good idea, it would imply a tremendous decrease in cognitive variety, just bear with the thought experiment here—then the amount of variance in IQ that was due to variance in genes would drop to zero, because everyone would have the same genes. It wouldn’t mean that those genes had no causal power to produce intelligence.

Once you look at things from this perspective, you realize that if you take a bunch of puppies and try to put them through the best human schools, then nothing you can vary in the puppies’ environment will make up for the fact that all humans have certain genes which these puppies do not.

The logic of sexual reproduction demands that complex adaptations be universal, or nearly so, within a species. If gene B depends on gene A in order to work, then gene B is not a significant fitness advantage until gene A has already become prevalent within the gene pool. Complex genetic machinery does not evolve all at once. It starts with a gene A that is advantageous by itself, all on its own. Gene A spreads and becomes widespread in the gene pool; and then gene B comes along which depends on the presence of A; and then, when gene B has spread enough, gene A* comes along, with dependence on the presence of B; and then C comes along which depends on A* and B, and this goes on for thousands of generations. Eventually you end up with powerful, complex adaptations composed of many interdependent bits of machinery—like your hand, which is made of muscles and tendons and bones shaped exactly right to let your thumb and forefinger grasp an object.

But if you have a complex adaptation with 20 interdependent parts, and each of the 20 parts are only at 50% prevalence in the gene pool, the whole adaptation will only assemble itself one time in a million. If it took merely 100 genes to make a hand, and every one of those genes was independently at 90% frequency, nobody would ever have a complete functioning hand. At any given point in time, only small variants on a complex piece of machinery will be selected on within a sexually reproducing species—slightly longer fingernails, or whatever—because other genes can’t depend on that variant until it wins the evolutionary contest and becomes widespread. Thus complex adaptations must be universal, or nearly so, within a sexually reproducing species. All of this is standard biology, and should not be confused with a creationist fallacy, the argument that a whirlwind cannot assemble a 747. This argument overlooks the fact that interdependent machinery can evolve incrementally via the path described above.

This same evolutionary logic applies to that incredibly complex bit of biological machinery we call the human brain. In every known culture, humans experience joy, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, and surprise. In every known culture, these emotions are indicated by the same facial expressions. This empirical observation, which is predicted and mandated by the structural logic of evolution, is known as the psychic unity of mankind. (I prefer the term “psychological unity of humankind,” but I didn’t invent it.)

Complex adaptations like “being a little selfish” and “not being willing to work without reward” are human universals. The strength might vary a bit from person to person, but everyone’s got the same machinery under the hood, we’re just painted different colors.

Which means that trying to raise perfect unselfish communists isn’t like reading Childcraft books to your kid, it’s like trying to read Childcraft books to your puppy.

The Soviets were not 50% right, they were entirely wrong. They weren’t quantitatively wrong about the amount of variance due to the environment, they were qualitatively wrong about what environmental manipulations could do in the face of built-in universal human machinery. Having said this, though, I now feel no particular impulse to vote Republican.

Also, it’s quite possible that someday you could create perfectly unselfish people… if you used sufficiently advanced neurosurgery, drugs, and/or brain-computer interfaces to engineer their brains into a new state that no current human brain occupies. Whether or not this is in fact possible isn’t something that ideology gets to decide. The reasoning errors of past communists can’t prohibit any particular future technological advance from being possible or practical. Having said that, I feel no particular impulse to turn “liberal.”

What makes me a small-‘l’ libertarian isn’t that I believe it’s impossible—or easy—to reconfigure human brains using sufficiently advanced technology, or any other method.

What makes me a libertarian is that the prospect of having that reconfiguration done by the same system that managed to ban marijuana while allowing tobacco, subsidize ethanol made from corn, and turn the patent system into a form of legalized bludgeoning, makes me want to run screaming into the night until I fall over from lack of oxygen.

I’m out of room in this reply (and then some), but I can’t end without mentioning that there has been some empirical work done on investigating which cognitive features make people libertarians. The main example that comes to mind is Philip Tetlock’s investigation of taboo tradeoffs. Roughly, if you present subjects with a dilemma about a hospital administrator who has to choose whether to spend a million dollars on buying a six-year-old child a kidney, or spend the same million dollars on hospital equipment, doctor salaries, et cetera, what you discover is that most subjects, liberal or conservative, want to punish an administrator who even thinks about the question. People who identify as libertarian don’t get angry at the administrator for thinking about it. And the first obvious interpretation of an experimental result isn’t always the correct one, but sometimes, you know, it is. I’ll end on that.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Liberty and Science by Michael Shermer

    Michael Shermer discusses scientific findings about belief formation. Beliefs, including political beliefs, are usually the result of automatic or intuitive moral judgments, not rational calculations. One cluster of those intuitions presumes that human nature is malleable; these usually produce a liberal politics. Another group of intuitions presumes that human nature is static; these tend to produce conservatism. But Shermer argues that humans really fall somewhere in between — malleable, within some important limits. He argues that this set of findings should produce a libertarian politics.

Response Essays

  • Should Libertarians Trust the Monkey Mind? by Joe Carter

    Joe Carter invokes an argument by philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If purely naturalistic evolution created the human brain, then we should expect our brains to be tuned for survival, not for truth detection. Michael Shermer appears to agree, at least so far. But if this is the case, then we have no reason to consider the theory of purely naturalistic evolution, or for that matter any other set of propositions, to be true. Under this rubric, truths are at best possible; they can never be necessary. Indeed, the monkey mind can never know that it knows the truth.

  • The Evolution of Liberty by Ronald Bailey

    Ronald Bailey argues that the freedom envisioned by classical liberals is congruent with science and democracy, and that the progress of all three together has enriched much of the world in the last two centuries. The enemies of this libertarian project hearken back to tendencies from mankind’s evolutionary history; for much of that history, experiment of any type could often be fatal, and therefore we find within us what may well be an evolved resistance to experiment. This resistance manifests politically as either conservatism, or a yearning for a purer, more primitive time, when noble savages walked the earth. It is a vice found on both left and right, Bailey argues, and one for which the antidote is libertarianism.

The Conversation