Where ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ Really Come From

If liberals are all heart and no brain and conservatives are all brain and no heart, how would you describe libertarians?

How about, “Clearly libertarians are the perfect balance between the two.”

Here’s why that’s a pretty accurate assessment – – –

Long before history was enabled by writing, like us, our pre-historic small-group ancestors lived primarily by their brains, not their brawn.

Unlike other animals, they — like us — were born pretty much, as Rousseau and others put it, tabula rasa. That is, as “blank slates” with relatively few built-in instincts, drives, and other in-born behaviors.

For example, while hoofed animals can walk within a few minutes of birth and run soon after, it takes us approximately three months to learn to merely crawl.

The advantage to this lack of hard-wired behavior is that it gives us humans an unprecedented flexibility, allowing us to live everywhere from the icy Arctic to the steaming jungles of Ecuador to the burning sands of the Kalihari. And, in the space station, even in “outer” space. Even, perhaps, on Mars, etc.

However, because of our innate “blank slates,” like us, nearly all our ancestors’ key knowledge, skills and behaviors had to be acquired by experience, or, preferably, by learning from someone else, thus avoiding the many dangers of learning by experience.

The fact that we don’t genetically inherit most of our key knowledge, skills, information, and behaviors means that each one of us becomes a depository of different, often unique, information, skills, knowledge — and particularly, experience. And these exist only in our individual brains. This dispersion of unique knowledge and experience means the essential human data-base — and operating system — is spread out among all the individuals around us.

But our ancestors had a problem we don’t have: They were indeed pre-historic — that is, they existed before writing was available to write his-story down in black and white. So, like the book-people in Fahrenheit 451, our ancestors were each-others’ only reference-library and internet.

Madrigal knows which herbs help heal wounds — and how to find and use them. Gaud can always find that hidden water-hole during the semi-annual desert crossing. The loss of either could be catastrophic to everyone. Ditto the loss of other group members and their special knowledge and information.

Mother Nature wasn’t oblivious to this problem and so gave us an appropriate and nearly unique set of behaviors which prod us to keep each other alive. By convention, folks call these behaviors “altruism.”

But altruism creates its own problems. Anthropologist, scholar, and all-around mensch Christopher Boehm puts it this way:

“How can cheerful, altruistic cooperators, people guided by generous feelings and positive expectations about cooperation, avoid being exploited by lazy slackers and outright cheaters, or by opportunistic bullies who take advantage of situations by force?” –Boehm (1999:212)

Lazy slackers and outright cheaters are one thing. Opportunistic bullies who take advantage of situations by force — AKA Wiindigo, Kunlangeta, or as we call them, psychopaths — are a much bigger problem, especially when they morph themselves into permanent “leaders.”

None-the-less — since they all have similar effects — slackers, cheaters, bullies and bullying leaders are all usually called “free-riders” by population geneticists. So the population geneticists rightly ask, “How can altruistic genes survive when beset by free riders?”

In other words, how can altruists — who are intent on keeping the data-base intact by keeping everyone alive — keep from being bled dry and rendered extinct by free-riders — who are only too happy to take advantage of their altruistic tendencies?

Thus our data-dependant ancestors had to solve two competing equations at the same time:

How to preserve the data-base by keeping everyone alive while, at the same time,
Keep opportunistic free-riders from bleeding everyone dry.

Boehm points to the solution with an unusual insight — at least unusual for a non-Austrian economist. He recognizes that, in our small ancestral groups, “vigilant sharing” — rather than “automatic, unambivalent, totally altruistic sharing” is how things are done and posits — even at the small ancestral group level — “actuarial intelligence” as the built-in skill that makes “vigilent sharing” work.

In other words, folks innately keep track of their “sharing” — and rightly expect reciprocity. You’ve almost certianly experienced the result. You know who needs to buy the next round of drinks to balance the books — and which soccer mom needs to drive this week.

Even the handicapped sociological literature calls such transactions “reciprocal altruism.”

When this keeping track becomes explicit, we moderns call it “accounting.” And even before it becomes explicit — or even conscious — it behooves you to keep your accounts balanced. Else you’ll find you’re no longer welcome at the bar — and/or out of the soccer pool.

This is the context where “liberal” and “conservative” — the political caricatures of “left” and “right” — really come from. “Conservatives” have a stronger tendency to guard against free-riders and thus conserve resources while “liberals” have a stronger tendency to keep everyone alive — including free-riders — which conserves the distributed data-base.

Liberals” keep folks alive, “Conservatives” keep lazy moochers — including more dangerous Wiindigo, Kunlangeta, psychopaths and permanent leaders — from weakening the group by depleting its resources.

This tendency probably isn’t either/or: A differing genetic liberal/conservative balance likely exists within each of us. And it’s probably flexible, leading to a different balance depending on our subjective perception of the survival situation. More liberal in times of plenty, more conservative in times of want.

And it’s variations in this balance — and subjective perception — where political differences regularly begin.

Some might suggest that folks with libertarian tendencies are the perfect balance between the two – – –

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