Empirical Problems with the Hobbesian Account

In two recent posts, my co-blogger Michael Tontchev has been criticizing some of the theoretical underpinnings of Hobbes’ “state of nature”. I would also note the empirical evidence against the notion that property and organization is impossible without a centralized State.

In “The First Property Rights Revolution”, Samuel Bowles and Jung-Kyoo Choi claim that individual property rights emerged thousands of years before States did (p. 1):
Hobbes’ state of nature is a valuable thought experiment, but taken as history (which Hobbes did not) it is deficient…. First, individually-held property rights in land, its produce, and other sources of people’s livelihood emerged with the domestication of plants and animals starting around 11,000 years ago, while in most cases states developed many millennia afterwards. Recognizably modern property rights existed in these newly agrarian societies without the assistance of states. Among fishing people and other sedentary foragers, individual or family-based property rights appear to have existed even before the advent of domestication.

They continue, describing the alternative mechanisms usually employed to secure property rights by pre-State humans (p. 1-2):

The second historical shortcoming of the Hobbesian account is that it is quite unlikely
that Hobbes’ state of nature ever existed. For most of our history as biologically modern humans – roughly the 100,000 years prior to the advent of agriculture – social interactions were organized without the aid of institutions even remotely resembling contemporary states or private property in land or the other sources of people’s livelihoods. They apparently did not, however, suffer the chaos of the Hobbesean [sic] state of nature. Rather, in all likelihood, beginning as early as 100,000 years ago in Africa and later in other parts of the world, these groups were organized in a manner similar to a subset of the modern mobile hunter-gatherers described in historical and ethnographic accounts, their lives regulated by social norms enforced by collective punishment of miscreants.
Indeed, much of the motivation for recognizing property norms is likely genetic, as Jeffrey Evans Stake argues in “The Property ‘Instinct’ “:
Evolutionary theory and empirical studies suggest that many animals, including humans, have a genetic predisposition to acquire and retain property. This is hardly surprising because survival is closely bound up with the acquisition of things: food, shelter, tools and territory. But the root of these general urges may also run to quite specific and detailed rules about property acquisition, retention and disposition. The great variation in property-related behaviours across species may mask some important commonalities grounded in adaptive utility. Experiments and observations in the field and laboratory suggest that the legal rules of temporal priority and possession are grounded in what were evolutionarily stable strategies in the ancestral environment. Moreover, the preferences that humans exhibit in disposing of their property on their deaths, both by dispositions made in wills and by the laws of intestacy, tend to advance reproductive success as a result of inclusive fitness pay-offs.
Of course, evolutionary behaviors also guide the State’s legal rules, but it is still significant that humans (and other species, for that matter) possess instincts leading them to behave with greater ingrained respect for property ownership than Hobbes might suppose they would.
On a similar note to Stake’s arguments, Bryan Caplan discusses Herbert Gintis’ “The Evolution of Private Property”, and notes that black markets are a significant example of property rights existing not only without government enforcement, but with active government opposition.
Finally, it is worth noting that Bowles is a neo-Marxian, and Gintis has Marxist leanings. One need not be a classical liberal to observe problems with the usefulness of Hobbes’ model in the real world.

Things that Make Us Cry

Steve Horwitz had an interesting post over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians back in October that I just noticed now, where he addresses once again research that came up some time ago that purported to show that libertarians tend to be focused on logic at the expense of emotion.

Horwitz challenges this conclusion, pointing to a video male libertarian friends of his have told him drives them to tears. I watched it and I had the same reaction. I suggest you check it out:

To Horwitz’s observation, I will add my own about media that drives me to tears: Google’s yearly “zeitgeist” videos (“spirit of the times” – see 2013, 2012, 2011, for example), the “I, Pencil” video (explanation of spontaneous order), images of Christians joining hands to protect praying Muslims in Egypt, and Niemöller’s “First they came …” poem, off the top of my head.

For the zeitgeist videos, the moments that set me off most were the shots of the artificial hand, artificial leg, kid with cerebral palsy walking to greet his father returning from the war, various brief shots of amputees achieving their goals, the Red Bull space jump landing with the man holding up his fists, the US soldier coming home early to his mother, Steve Jobs’s advice to stay hungry, stay foolish, the 29-year-old hearing for first time, and the solider high-fiving a local kid.

From these experiences I can extract what I believe are the moments which affect me most:

Overcoming conflict with other humans – rejecting war and accepting cooperation

Spontaneous, unplanned order – voluntary cooperation that builds magnificent things we do not expect but we’re all part of

Overcoming conflicts with nature – fighting back the scarcity constraints of the world, fighting against the cold, uncaring universe and carving out a place for ourselves

and, maybe most importantly,

Unchaining of the individual to achieve his or her potential

I say that the last one is perhaps the most important one specifically because of my reaction to the 29-year-old hearing for the first time in her life. I felt that the moment represented the opening of an entire new door for an individual that she thought would be closed forever. The sheer intensity of the feeling of overcoming what you thought would be a handicap for your entire life – and the overwhelming emotions when tasting this entirely new sense – hearing- for the first time in your life is simply astonishing.

Can the bolded points above somehow be connected to libertarianism?

– Overcoming conflict with other humans – replacing coercion with voluntary cooperation (see self-ownership)

– Spontaneous, unplanned order – emergent properties of market systems – in the tradition of Hayek

– Overcoming conflicts with nature – pushing back the limits of scarcity – see the libertarian emphasis on capital accumulation and innovation

– Unchaining of the individual to achieve his or her potential – libertarianism places a strong emphasis on the individual as the centerpiece of society. This point is also a little strange, since libertarianism doesn’t specifically say that individuals must be required to achieve their potential, but could very well choose to do nothing with their life if they so wish. However, it’s possible that people tend to be drawn to libertarianism because they value the individual so much already, and also happen to understand that all rights are individual rights.

I would even argue that the above points can be folded up into two main points. The overcoming of conflict with other humans and nature are both an unshackling of the individual – free from both human coercion and the limits of nature. We are then left with a free individual and the result of this free individual – the spontaneous order of social cooperation through the market.

If I may make the unfounded assumption that I am a decent representative of libertarians, I can see that the elements that set us off most are indeed ones libertarian emphasize – on the moral side, emphasis on the voluntary and on the individual. On the pragmatic side, emphasis on innovation, capital buildup, and emergent order. If we examine the condensed case I made in the previous paragraph, then we have the moral side, the free individual, and the pragmatic side, the result of the free individual.

Perhaps it’s not the case that libertarians aren’t very empathetic, but instead that they can openly make emotional connections when they are presented with situations aligned with the spirit of libertarianism. It is then that the libertarian can place himself in the shoes of the character in the story and appreciate the beauty of the situation as if it were his own. If, on the other hand, we see situations that emerge out of coercive action, we do not emote as easily, because there is something at the back of our minds that reminds us that there’s a zero sum game being played, with hidden losers in the background we’re not being shown.

I also want to point out what I consider to be a fantastic quote from Horwitz’s article – one that I believe is strong competitor for being one of the best that combine practical and moral arguments:

Critics of markets sometimes say “you can’t eat GDP.” What they miss is that you can’t eat, or learn to read, or go to school, or leave a bad marriage, or do pretty much any of the basics that we might see as required for a flourishing life without the wealth and time created by the market economy.

This relates to the washing machine, as the invention and its adoption opened up time for women to both gain more education and educate their children more easily, and education unchains people and allows them to do anything up to… well, we don’t know the limits of our imagination and our creativity yet. Hopefully, we won’t ever know them.

Good job to the BHL for a solid post. Now I need to get some water – I’ve somehow gotten very dehydrated after those videos.