Where ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ REALLY Come From

By L. Reichard White

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 learn 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 inherit our key knowledge, skills, information, and behaviors means that each one of us becomes a depository of different, often unique — and sometimes critical — 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 and distributed among all the individuals around us.

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.

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.

The loss of either Madrigal or Gaud 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?” –Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, p. 212″

Lazy slackers and outright cheaters are one thing. Opportunistic bullies who take advantage of situations by force — 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 of all kinds?”

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:

  1. How to preserve the data-base by keeping everyone alive while, at the same time,
  2. 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-set that makes “vigilent sharing” work.

In other words, folks innately keep track of their “sharing” — and rightly expect reciprocity. New research shows that this keeping track begins in toddlers as young as the age of three.

You’ve almost certainly 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 you’re 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-riding 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 the more dangerous psychopaths, so-called “royalty,” and other 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 the variations in this balance — and that subjective perception — where political differences regularly begin.

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

Like,”Tweet,” and otherwise, pass this along!

Here for updates & corrections or to leave comments.

Reichard White [send him mail] taught physics, designed and built a house, ran for Nevada State Senate, served two terms on the Libertarian National Committee, managed a theater company, etc. For the next few decades, he supported his writing habit by beating casinos at their own games. His hobby, though, is explaining things he wishes someone had explained to him. You can find a few of his other explanations listed here.

Mama’s Note: I really appreciate White’s take on this, but have a different definition of “altruism” and “conservative.” Altruism, in the sense he uses it is, of course, very necessary. When voluntary, it is truly the “milk of human kindness.” It is the very basis of the peaceful, voluntary association society that free, non-aggressive people want to live in.

When involuntary, imposed by psychological brainwashing or force, it is one source of the worst problems in our current society. Used and abused by the bullies and psychopaths, altruism becomes the false guilt that drives the “politically correct” and other political insanity all around us now.

I don’t use the term “conservative” at all, since it has far too broad a definition – as with so many things – making it a relatively meaningless term. The sort of person White seems to be writing about is one I think demonstrates “enlightened self interest.” Since every action, choice and thought of a human being is naturally geared to his/her own survival, the altruistic part of their nature has to be subservient to that self interest or eventually they simply don’t survive at all. And, of course, that does happen… all too often. And maybe that’s nature’s way of culling those who are, ultimately, not fit to survive. But that’s a topic for another time, perhaps.

Of course, not everyone is “enlightened;” knowing what is actually in their own best interest, or of those for whom they sacrifice. People do things for all sorts of reasons, and many of those are tragic mistakes, but I don’t know anyone who actually makes their decisions based on the survival of the species.

I suspect that the human species will survive, however, one way or another. The voluntary society, with both cooperative altruism and enlightened self interest, would seem the best bet for that survival, and so we continue to resist the bullies, parasites and psychopaths – one decision at a time.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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2 Responses to Where ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ REALLY Come From

  1. Well Mama – – –

    “Used and abused by the bullies and psychopaths, altruism becomes the false guilt that drives the ‘politically correct’ and other political insanity all around us now.”

    You certainly have that nailed securely to the wall! Since we are naturally (genetically) “altruistic,” altruism — and associated guilt — is a perfect tool for the bullies, psychopaths, wiindigo, and others with bullying free-rider, permanent leader, etc. tendencies– and their imitators — to misuse to control and loot the rest of us for their own personal gain.

    “I don’t use the term ‘conservative’ at all, since it has far too broad a definition…”

    Indeed, once politics enters, you can’t trust the language anymore. However “conservative” — as initially defined OUTSIDE politics — is almost the perfect word to describe what I’m talking about in “Where ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ REALLY Come From.”

    “Conserve” like this: husband, keep, maintain, preserve and save.

    “Conservatives” keep lazy moochers — including more dangerous Wiindigo, Kunlangeta, psychopaths and permanent leaders — from weakening the group by depleting its resources.
    Of course, as you point out, once politics gets a hold of it, rationallity gives away to spin and out-right misrepresentation. And that’s on a GOOD day.

    “…the altruistic part of their nature has to be subservient to that self interest or eventually they simply don’t survive at all. ”

    Yes indeed, and that goes for our ancestors when in their small groups as well. There had to be a balance between keeping folks alive while still discouraging free-riding. Hence “liberal” tendencies to keep folks alive and “conservative” tendencies to curb free-riding. A dynamic balance, partially depending on the changeable external environment.

    This balance is where “we” libertarians come in: Either all liberal or all conservative equals disaster. In our small ancestral groups, either would sometimes lead to extinction. Ditto with individuals.

    “…I don’t know anyone who actually makes their decisions based on the survival of the species.”

    Luckily, just as another Mama, Mother Nature, takes care of things like heart-beat, digestion, and particularly breathing, She also made sure we have programming which automatically includes survival of the species in our decisions.

    For example, we don’t usually consciously consider survival of the species when doing what’s necessary to make, nurse, and raise babies — which is, of course, pretty much the only reason Mother evolved that behavior.

    Health,happiness, and long life, L. Reichard White


    • MamaLiberty says:

      I’m not arguing with you, just don’t think that all moral or natural behavior fits into the “altruistic” mold. And, in any case, I am not part of the “we.” I am not a “libertarian” and reject almost every such label on principle. I am an individual, with only tenuous links to any group of other people. I’m sure that makes me an outrider, an anomaly in society, but there it is. 🙂

      Oh, and in my experience, “conservatives” will so often “conserve” and resist change, even when it is clearly in their own best interest. And that’s not just in politics. I’ve watched it over generations in my family and Scottish ancestors. Not any sort of “conservative” either. 🙂


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