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Is Libertarianism Beyond Our Cognitive Capacity?

BrainIf you have ever delved into the study of cognitive psychology, with a particular focus in cognitive biases, you will find that the human mind appears to be hardwired to think a certain way. This is the reason why we are prone to certain errors when it comes to processing information, especially when there is ambiguity. For instance, we have hindsight bias that causes us to look at the past in a preferential way, claiming that when something occurred “we knew it all along”, when, in fact, we were completely oblivious. We also prefer narratives to hard numbers; the most recent example of this would be the uproar being promoted by those in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Proponents of this movement usually come out of the woodwork when an African American person gets shot by a cop. They will proceed to make the claim that such an occurrence is evidence of a pervasive trend within American society, as if African Americans were facing an existential risk due to police brutality. Now, although I will be the first to say that policing in America is a problem, the claim that African Americans are facing an existential risk is not supported by the numbers. According to probability, an African American has a greater chance of being hit by lightening than being shot by a cop.

Now, the reason why this is not given much attention is because it doesn’t coincide with the narrative. It is the same thing with the way people feel afraid when they hear of a terrorist attack happening in a certain place and falsely assume that the danger of dying from a terrorist attack has increased – despite it still being statistically unlikely. These are just some of the cognitive biases that are ingrained into the human mind that researchers have discovered.

Now, what does any of this have to do with libertarianism and society?

Philosophical Libertarianism

Libertarianism as a philosophical construct requires a level of thinking that is not usually exhibited by most persons. In fact, according to some studies, the average person may be incapable of embracing libertarianism because of the structure of their minds.

The bedrock of libertarianism is the notion that everyone is a free and equal person who is entitled to enjoy the fullest expression of their liberty (which is naturally endowed) without any molestation by the state or anyone else. In order to embrace this, a person will have to believe that everyone is entitled to the same rights. This sound great and is something I espouse wholeheartedly, but we never see any evidence of any state fully embracing this concept, even while they may give a great deal of lip service to it.

In America, the Declaration of Independence established the ideological underpinning that provided the conceptual framework that would eventually be the Bill of Rights. The young nation just finished ridding themselves of a tyrannical state that was suppressing their rights – Britain. Their greatest concern was the invention of another such state. Thus, the Bill of Rights was introduced to the Constitution based on the fundamental premise that man is entitled to the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This provides the justification that explains the proper role of government which is to do none other than protect the inalienable rights of the people.

Cognitive Limits

Whereas I wholly agree and assent to the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the question ultimately becomes: is it realistic given the human condition?

What I mean by this is whether or not the average person can think in these terms? We already know from cognitive psychology that people are prone to being irrational. Not only that, but according to research they are also incapable of thinking of the concerns of those outside of their tribal group.

According to Robin Dunbar humans only have the capacity to maintain relationships with 120 people. Some will even go further to suggest that we can only truly care about 20 people. Thus, it appears that factions and human schisms are hardwired into our brains. We will first and foremost primarily concern ourselves with our particularly group. Now, when we begin thinking along this train of thought, it suddenly becomes justifiable to allow injustices to be committed against people outside of your group. We may deny it, but a great deal of injustice is committed not by our consenting to injustice being committed, but not minding its commission provided it isn’t against us, our families or our group. We basically find it difficult to care about people who aren’t like us. Thus, notions like the collective good can only succeed if we actually view the collective good as important as our personal welfare.

What do you Meme?

Now, I am well aware that I have provided a possibly disheartening interpretation of social and civil life. Are we doomed to have society break off into schism, where opportunists use this infighting to seize all of our collective rights?

I believe that although that does seem to be where we are headed, it does not have to be this way. There is a way for humanity to go against its ingrained programming.

It goes without saying that the more educated of us will look with despair that the average person does not have the sufficient cognitive capacities to think in terms of advanced complexity. Surprisingly, this is not the case. There is a way to bring the average person to a higher echelon of cognitive thought. The theory, postulated by Richard Dawkins, concerning stable states within evolutionary adaptation, can be applied to ideas that can find expression along the same lines as genes. These idea genes, or memes, can change the behavior of an entire population.

This is the breakthrough potential of ideas. I am aware that the idea of collective good does already exist. What remains is that we must take this notion further and drill home to everyone that we are indeed one in the sense, that our collective rights are as important, if not more important, than our individual rights. And the only way to ensure our individual rights is by protecting collective rights.

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Gary St. Fleur

Gary St. Fleur is the founder of Save Scranton, an organization that campaigns against the corruption and malfeasance in the North Eastern Pennsylvania area, by utilizing grassroots efforts to enact reform.

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