Two recent studies in evolutionary biology (discussed in Scientific American) concern the problem of why not all individuals cheat: “A key problem when trying to understand the evolution of cooperation has been the issue of cheaters.”In other words: cheating helps the cheater, so why doesn’t everyone cheat?
One finding (“Generalized Reciprocity”) has been that to the extent that individuals in a culture trust and help strangers, the culture itself thrives, but that to the opposite extent, in which it’s common to take from strangers without giving proportionally in return, the culture suffers and declines.
This means that cultures in which cheating is prevalent decline; that’s one reason not everyone cheats – the more cheating there is, the weaker the culture is.
Another finding is that “cooperation could be a viable evolutionary strategy when individuals within the group collectively punish cheaters who don’t pull their weight.”
In other words: The only type of culture that can thrive is one in which there is prevalent trust, and in which there is also prevalent contempt and rejection of cheaters.
But what happens when the person who is held in contempt is not the cheater, but the cheater is instead more often admired because cheaters (by definition) avoid the barrier, to their personal success, of adhering to the rules of decency and fairness – the rules against frauds and against all other types of theft from others? It’s by avoiding those barriers that cheaters win.
When success itself is admired, regardless of how it is won, then the result becomes what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the state of nature,” in which there is “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
This is what results when everyone places success above fairness or any other ethical objective. Some people call this “state of nature” “libertarianism,” or “anarchy,” and they think that this might-makes-right society is the ideal form of “government” (no government at all), towards which the world should strive.
However, the recent studies in evolutionary biology show that there is actually evolutionary benefit in “the state of nature” only if the culture happens to be one of trust of strangers, and of contempt for cheaters. But how can there continue to exist trust of strangers, and contempt for cheaters, in any “state of nature”?
It’s too dangerous to trust strangers in such a society. Furthermore, contempt for cheaters imposes ethical rules that remove the state of nature, and that replace it with the imposed ethical order.
This is the problem that libertarian believers must wrestle with, if they are at all serious, instead of just ideological kooks.
So, rejecting government solves nothing. It’s like rejecting food: The real issue isn’t to reject food, it’s to eat healthful food, and to avoid poisonous food. Similarly, the real issue isn’t to reject government, it’s to support good government, and to oppose bad government.
And so, too, the issue isn’t whether government should be “small,” or “big,” but rather that it should be the best size to serve the public, who must bear its costs.
In other words: Libertarianism entirely avoids the real question, which is: What type of government is good? As an “ideology,” libertarianism doesn’t even make it to first base: it’s fake, from the get-go. That’s why libertarianism fails.
Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.
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