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Spreading the Wealth: An Introduction to Political Biology

President Obama’s commitment to use the compulsions of regulation, tax policy, and individual mandates to “spread the wealth” prompts thinking men and women of good virtue to wonder anew whether Karl Marx and his acolytes were right about communism’s inevitability.

Economic theory predicts that collectivist policies of the sort now being advanced are inherently destructive; Ludwig von Mises early treatise on Socialism (1922) remains both timely and instructive in this regard. Twentieth century history richly confirms the predictions by Mises and others. How is it, then, that Mankind can deconstruct the atom and yet remain unable to grasp and retain the simplest insights of economics and history? The answer, it seems, lies not in our political stars, but in our genes.

Evolution has predisposed Mankind for numerous behavioral tendencies that foster survival and reproduction. Every predisposition benefits individuals privately; evolution could not have selected for them otherwise. Many are publically beneficial as well. But some are not, and therein lies the indelible rub.

Predispositions that are both privately and publically beneficial are those that foster cooperation, reciprocity, and trust among individuals. Biologists term this class of behaviors ‘reciprocal altruism.’ The propensity for reciprocal altruism underlies all of mankind’s innate civilizing virtues, including the golden and silver rules of moral conduct, categorical imperatives of ethical behavior, concepts of fairness and justice, and the intuitive sense of natural law (without which the ‘rule of law’ concept would be empty). Reciprocal altruism grounds Max Weber’s ‘Protestant ethic’ and Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ and it is the source of value in Smith’s moral sentiment of “approbation and esteem.”

Also embedded within reciprocal altruism, however, is a socially destructive predisposition that the biologist Matt Ridley labels “parasitism of reciprocity.” He describes this as:

“a human invention to exploit our pre-existing natures, our innate respect for
generosity and disrespect for those who would not share. And why would we
have such an instinct? Because to be known as intolerant of and punitive towards
stinginess is an effective way to police a system of reciprocity, to extort your share
of others’ good fortune.” The Origins of Virtue (1997), pp. 123-24

Reciprocal altruism fosters social cohesion and wealth-creation through cooperation, voluntary exchange, and the division of labor. Parasitism of reciprocity, by contrast, promotes only redistribution and consumption. It exhorts reciprocity without cooperation, engenders envy, stimulates free-riding, and dulls private incentives to produce.

The law ordinarily restrains individuals from indulging this and other publically detrimental instincts. Where the law is weak or silent, parasitism is suppressed, and cooperation is re-encouraged, through the spontaneous social devices of shunning, excommunication, and occasional violence.

The modern State unfortunately inclines toward indulging parasitism on behalf of its citizens. Neo-liberal politicians project their own parasitic predispositions into feckless legislation geared toward producing conditions that the Nobelist F.A. Hayek pejoratively titled The Mirage of Social Justice (1973). (Classical liberals, by definition, foster social justice by promoting instead the productive virtues of cooperation, reciprocity, and trust.) Cynical politicians of every stripe benefit privately by demagoging resonant collectivist issues in pursuit of electoral support and side payments. Voters, in turn, are encouraged to abuse the democratic process by exercising their own parasitic instincts without regard for the predictably detrimental public consequences.

Individuals are intrinsically parasitic. Mankind, however, is not collectivistic by nature. Asked once to comment on communism’s merits, the distinguished behavioral biologist E.O. Wilson is reliably quoted as having replied simply, “Wonderful theory. Wrong species.” The leveling instinct that we generously characterize as an expression of public morality is essentially a manifestation of private selfishness. Hence the enduring political appeal of collectivist policies despite their predictable public failure.

Classical liberalism once constrained parasitic instincts by limiting the State’s power to take and redistribute property rights. Conversely, it promoted reciprocal altruism’s beneficial public virtues by defining and protecting every individual’s right to associate freely, to enter into voluntary relationships and commitments, to expect that agreements would be kept, and to trust that arbitrary and odious public burdens could not be imposed without voluntary consent.

Politics, both for better and for worse, is an expression of biology. Mankind’s inherent nature has not varied perceptibly over the last century. Our politics, however, have completed regular cycles of production and parasitism. We have re-entered that phase in which politicians eagerly indulge one of Mankind’s most destructive behavioral instincts. We must pay careful attention to the better angels of our nature at this juncture lest the light of national prosperity be dimmed.

James A. Montanye is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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