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Monday, June 3, 2013

Optimism and Despair in a World of Injustice

This is the winning entry for the first Thorpe-Freeman Blog Contest. You can find the original article here.

The infamous development economist William Easterly recently tweeted that writing about spontaneous order without citing Friedrich Hayek is now “mainstream cool,” while writing about spontaneous order and citing Hayek makes one an ideological extremist. This biting critique of intellectual discourse, a mere 140 characters long, does more than just expose the drastic ideological shortcomings of the modern Left. It highlights the endlessly interesting obstinate ignorance that collectivists of all stripes have historically displayed toward the basic theoretical and moral insights advanced by libertarians.

In a recent Freeman essay by anthropologist Mike Reid, a pattern similar to the one noticed by Easterly emerges in the actions of central planners aiming to preserve the cultural heritage of a number of ethnic groups that have been deprived of their property rights by the very governments now looking to preserve their cultures for them. Reid takes examples from India and Canada and finds that the logic of preserving a specific culture does not hold up to scrutiny.

On the policies of the government of India, Reid writes:

Recently, three children from a little-known forest tribe in India approached a nearby village and asked to join their school. The teachers, however, were forbidden by law from admitting the kids.

This is because the Indian government prohibits regular folk from interacting with those children, or any members of the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands. The State regards those people as a “unique pristine society” who are “not physically, socially, and culturally prepared” to deal with the modern world.

Therefore, Jarawa children who might like to learn writing or mathematics must be sent back into their designated area of the jungle—for their own good.

Native American nations in Canada have fared no better. Reid describes their plight at the hands of Ottawa:

In Canada from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, because the government believed the numerous aboriginal peoples under its new dominion were not “culturally prepared” to survive in the modern world, the State rounded up the aboriginal kids into compulsory, residential schools. Here, the children would be “civilized” […] one part of the legacy of this attempt at massive social bulldozing is a grim empirical fact that has been studied again and again: sky-high aboriginal suicide rates.

One of the basic plotlines behind these two examples is that the culture of a people is being defined by another group of people, and the latter group just so happens to wield the murderous power of the State. Furthermore, those who wield State power then get to define how the property-less groups are to be treated: which of their attributes are to be highlighted (“the noble ones”) or corrected (“the developing ones”). Spontaneity and decentralization are the keys to vibrant cultures, and top-down central planning is the sure path to cultural stagnation.

To libertarians, this is not a new concept. We’ve all had our fair share of clashes with stagnationists when it comes to arguing about why individualism is a superior way of looking at the world, whether it be with social conservatives aiming to preserve “our” culture or Western leftists hell-bent on preserving an imposed innocence of the Other.

The sad but predictable results documented in Reid’s essay, combined with Easterly’s lamentation in the form of a tweet, can certainly contribute to the infamous pessimism that is often associated with libertarianism. However, when confronted with the scale of our task, rather than despair I think back to a 1996 essay written by Lawrence Reed where he urges the use of optimism to counter the deep temptation to kneel before power (a temptation that is often wrapped in the cloth of despair).

Despite Easterly’s tweet about Hayek’s undeserved shunning by the intellectual community, spontaneous order is “cool” in the world of ideas. This is a big improvement from, say, the intellectual climate 20 years ago and libertarians would do well to remember this when confronting arguments in favor of cultural or economic authoritarianism.

Moreover, many social scientists working in disciplines that have traditionally displayed a collectivist bent—such as history, anthropology and sociology—have now slowly begun to acknowledge that humanity has been interconnected for thousands of years through trade, that most virtuous definition of what it means to be human. A group of collectivist scholars broadly self-defined as ‘neo-Marxist’ have been especially influential in this regard. Their work should give every individualist a faint glimmer of that optimism so generously shared by Mr. Reed.

Indeed, spontaneous order and the follies of cultural isolation are prevalent in their work. For example, in his highly influential magnum opus Europe and the People Without History, written in 1982, anthropologist Eric Wolf exposes both the myth of cultural isolation and the sheer magnitude of spontaneous order just before the connection of the New World to the Old:

Groups that defined themselves as culturally distinct were linked by kinship or ceremonial allegiance […] Trade formed networks from East Asia to the Levant, across the Sahara, from East Africa through the Indian Ocean to the Southeast Asian archipelago. Conquest, incorporation, recombination, and commerce also marked the New World. In both hemispheres populations impinged upon other populations through permeable social boundaries, creating intergrading, interwoven social and cultural entities. If there were any isolated societies these were but temporary phenomena […] Thus, the social scientist’s model of distinct and separate systems, and of a timeless “precontact” ethnographic present, does not adequately depict the situation before European expansion; much less can it comprehend the worldwide system of links that would be created by that expansion (71).

One can see right away the relevance of Reid’s article in regards to cultural authoritarianism. The fact that Wolf has unwittingly echoed the past two centuries of work done by classical liberal theorists should serve to bolster optimism within our ranks, not dampen it. Such work not only helps to discredit the condescending central planner aiming to preserve an imposed primitiveness, but also the arguments of the nationalist and the xenophobe.

Despair not, for we are slowly winning this war.

  • Brandon Christensen graduated from UCLA in 2013 with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology. He has spent time living in small segments of Mediterranean Europe as well an Ashanti village in central Ghana. Brandon is interested in pre-colonial polities, property rights and international trade, and he is an alumni of two FEE summer seminars in 2009. Brandon is the first winner of the Thorpe-Freeman blog contest.