Garry Reed combined a professional technical writing career and a passion for all things libertarian to become The Libertarian Opinionizer.
Commentary From Your Libertarian Opinionizer
It’s frequently said that the Libertarian Party fails because Libertarians don’t understand human nature. It’s also common to generalize that the libertarian philosophy itself fails for the same reason.
But the Libertarian Party fails because it isn’t their time yet. However, that’s a separate issue. More on that later.
It’s generally considered that every individual being shares a universal human nature even as it’s equally true that every human being has a uniquely individual human nature.
For libertarians, understanding their own individualist human nature may have derived from reading Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or Reason Magazine or even from Russ Roberts’ book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, subtitled “An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness” that belongs on every thinking libertarian’s bookshelf.
While Smith is best known for his seminal Wealth of Nations less economically-oriented and more-socially-focused libertarians should not overlook, as Your Opinionizer long did, perhaps an even more important contribution to humankind; Adam Smith’s long forgotten masterpiece The Theory of Moral Sentiments, released in May 2020 in a 99 cent Kindle 6th edition, a quick but thoughtful read.
It’s this book that needs our attention. Smith developed his ideas on human nature in what Roberts calls “what might be the greatest self-help book that almost no one has read.”
Individual vs. Collective Human Nature
Philosophically, ideologically, politically the collectivist hones in on the universality of human nature while the libertarian focuses on the individuality of human nature. It’s a primary reason why each forever talks past one other rather than to one other.
Even as every individual being conceptually shares a universal human nature it’s equally true that every human being has his or her own uniquely individual human nature.
What’s really being said is that non-libertarians don’t understand the human nature of libertarians. This is true of many libertarians themselves as well as non-libertarians because ultimately nobody really seems to understand what human nature is.
With an official population count of 328.2 million people in the United States as of 2019 and likely many more than that unofficially there were necessarily at least 328.2 million American human natures in that year. And since all Libertarians are, like all other people, individuals, there are unavoidably at least 328.2 million human natures in America.
That’s the difference between the collectivist mindset and the libertarian mindset. Collectivists think in terms of groups—a human nature—while libertarians think in terms of individuals—many human natures.
Human Nature and Morality
While we are certainly social creatures motivated by self-interest, reason and voluntary actions our human nature, if we are not psychopaths, also endow us with such moral values as love, caring, sympathy, empathy, beneficence and a strong sense of fairness and justice.
What collectivists don’t seem to understand about “human nature” is that a group of humans is simply a concept that refers to an interaction between two or more actual, living, breathing, independently distinct individuals. While there may be such a thing as a “group mind” in science fiction—The Borg in Star Trek—There is no such thing as a “group mind” for real humans.
If you live, you live; if you die you die; if you thrive or fail or feel pain or love or anger you experiences those things. Others may commiserate or empathize with you but it is still you who individually do and feel those things. Why is this so incredibly difficult for collectivists to understand? Perhaps that is what defines their own peculiar human nature, separate from all the infinite definitions of individual human natures.
But What Exactly Is Human Nature?
If you try to Google “human nature” you’ll get all kinds of definitions, many of which will contradict or at least disagree with one another. One source talks about “the three aspects of human nature.” Another identifies “six things we all do.” Another article discusses “10 Psychology Findings That Reveal The Worst Of Human Nature.”
Here’s how Wikipedia begins its article on the subject:
Human nature is a bundle of characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, which humans are said to have naturally. The term is often regarded as capturing what it is to be human, or the essence of humanity. The term is controversial because it is disputed whether or not such an essence exists.
One source identifies some human natures as being playful, being scientific, being epicurean, being legislative, being clandestine about sex and even being gossipy. Other possibilities such as being stupid, being introspective, being poetic, being self-important and a multitude of other “beings” are never mentioned. Apparently those human attributes aren’t natural.
Some will note that one overwhelming fundamental human nature is that humans are, as earlier noted, social beings. Barring a tiny minority of individual loners, hermits, survivalists and other recluses this is true. Unfortunately, people who recognize this human nature take it to mean that people who organize themselves into collectives such as clans, tribes, countries, kingdoms, empires, nation-states, online social media groups and every other sort of community is “natural.”
Libertarians disagree with virtually all of the world’s biggest collectivist advocates on only one issue but it’s the only issue that really matters; traditional collectivists insist on some form of coercively enforced interaction while libertarians demand that all human interactions be non-coercive.
Coercion vs Non-Coercion
To put it simply, libertarians accept voluntary social interactions which they see as moral based on their non-aggression principle while collectivists demand some measure of compulsion in their interactions which libertarians reject as immoral.
Yet if all collectivists everywhere adopted the non-aggression principle there would be no conflict with libertarianism. Then every kind of group imaginable could be freely formed, re-formed, peaceably disbanded and the absolutely best types of collective interactions to fit what very different types of people actually want could be discovered.
But those who benefit in one way or another from coercion will never be persuaded to give up their lust for power over others.
“Why should anybody want that sort of power?"
"Why does a moth fly toward a light? The drive for power is even less logical than the sex urge, and stronger.”
—Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
That’s “human nature” for some all right but others will never give up defending themselves from being enslaved by that coercive groupthink mentality. The never-ending urge for freedom from tyranny is also a long-held central core of “human nature.” Perhaps even more logical than the drive for power or the urge for sex, and stronger.
What seems to be left out of the discussion might be the single biggest “human natures” of all. A simple reading of history shows that humans have eternally and enthusiastically engaged in murder, rape, torture, war, slaughter, conquest, empire building and general mass butchery of one another.
If that isn’t a part of human nature what else can it be? If the positives of caring, loving, empathy, sympathy, understanding and even godliness are sometimes identified as “human nature” are not the worst negatives also human nature?
One can see the difficulty of discussing an idea when it can’t even be clearly defined.
Not only that but it suggests a spillover into the related issue of determinism versus free will. Does human nature predetermine some people to be good or evil, kind or cruel, boisterous or quiet, or whatever, and therefore have no choice about their own human natures while others have free will embedded in their human natures which give them the power to control and consciously change how they think and act?
In short is human nature predetermined or voluntarily chosen? Or both? Or neither?
But that in itself points at least to a workable definition. While there are many broadly general “natures” that apply to all humans there is clearly no single, universal, all-embracing, monolithic “human nature.”
Ultimately it means that every individual human has his or her own specific collection of “human natures” uniquely distinct from every other human individual. Since all human beings are individual beings possessing the ability of conceptual thinking, imagining, dreaming, wishing, feeling, there are in fact as many “human natures” as there are, were, and will ever be human beings in the world.
In the end it doesn’t really matter except what actually happens in the end. Libertarians, by definition, either through determination or choice or some other mechanism operating within their human natures accept the non-aggression principle against coercion, intimidation and fraud. Non-libertarians do not seem to have that mechanism since their governments, whether categorized as “left” or “right” or something else, always encompass coercion, intimidation and fraud.
The Politics of Human Nature
So back to the beginning. Why does the Libertarian Party fail? It has nothing to do with understanding human nature at all. It has to do with not understanding the relationship between philosophy and politics.
The LP operates within the realm of politics and politics is just one of the six branches of philosophy—epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy.
Politics is merely the practical application of philosophy. It is the end result. The (lower case L) libertarian philosophy must be firmly embedded as the primary belief system in a society before there can be any hope of any meaningful upper case L Libertarian political success.
The LP is premature. Its only real value right now is in the form of an educational outreach tool, one of many means of introducing people to the libertarian philosophy. In which case it may be failing politically while succeeding intellectually. At least that should be every libertarian's hope.
The contention that libertarians, or anyone else, don’t understand human nature is itself a failure to understand human nature.
The only truly meaningful question is not “What is human nature” but “What is YOUR nature as a human?”
Ultimately all “human nature” is individual. A collective is just a concept that encompasses two or more individuals. A conceptual group cannot have a human nature. It’s why libertarians get it and collectivists don’t.
References and Links
What is Human Nature? This article introduces the conundrum by noting that human nature includes the core characteristics shared by all people yet we all have different experiences of the humans in our life. How can that be?
How Individualist is Human Nature? Key here might be this question: If our human nature causes us to act in our own self-interest why does it also cause us to act altruistically, a moral standard opposite from our own self interest?
The Role of Genetics and Adaption Here we go with the concept of a universal human nature being valid despite the reality of “substantial genetic variation that makes each human genetically and biochemically unique.” Isn’t that what we’ve been saying here?
Why Do Libertarians Fail? Because They Don't Understand Human Nature The author admits that he was addressing the political failures of the Libertarian Party and not the individuals themselves but the true failure of the LP isn’t about human nature, it simply isn’t the LP’s time.
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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Garry Reed (author) from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas on June 16, 2020:
Thanks James. There are so many angry people out there it's a pleasure to get some positive feedback for a change. I hope you keep reading.
James A Watkins from Chicago on June 15, 2020:
I enjoyed your article very much. I am a semi-libertarian. There is quite a bit in your article with which I agree. Either way, you did a masterful job of communicated your point of view. Well done.