Maximizing individual liberty maximizes our collective intelligence.

Why?

  1. Knowledge is distributed.
  2. The only way to know someone’s actual preferences is by what they do, not what they say or how they vote.
  3. No matter what you might think about someone’s ability to act in their own best interest, there is no general way to choose someone else who will be better qualified to even decide what that person’s best interest is, much less decide what actions or policies will best address those interests.

Collectivist systems are literally stupid, because instead of people being expected to act in the interests of themselves and those they care about, i.e. those whose interests they are best qualified to know, they are instead expected to act in the interests of some abstract collective whose best interests cannot be known and thus end up being replaced with whatever narrative the most influential members of society come up with.

But if we can’t agree on common goals, how will we solve big problems like anthropogenic climate change and poverty?

These problems are being solved. They are being solved by individuals making decisions about how to spend their own time and resources. Bill Gates has committed his fortune to creating an “energy miracle” to address both problems. US carbon emissions are back down to where they were in the 1990s, 12% off their peak, not because of any international agreement or government action but because of individuals figuring out ways to get rich off of natural gas, which just happens to emit way less carbon than coal. The fraction of the world’s population living at or below the equivalent of $1.90/day is down 65% from 1990 and 71% from 1981. That was not solved by a world government or even by individual governments. It was solved by individual entrepreneurs and philanthropists deciding to devote their own time and resources to solve not just the problem of poverty, but many other problems, many of them selfish, that happened to alleviate poverty as a side effect.

I will grant that a collectivist society, or even a dictatorship, could in principle do a better job of solving problems that those in power decide are problems and that those in power are also good at solving. But therein lies the rub: how do you select a collective narrative, a dictator, or a ruling council that will pick the “right” problems to solve and that will be good at solving them? I suspect that the main reason collectivist ideas are so persistent is that people tend to compare the best outcome they can imagine from a collectivist society having with the messy outcomes they see from relatively individualistic real-world societies. Japan was the poster-child of collectivism for a while. Nowadays it mostly seems to be Sweden. Both are culturally relatively homogeneous countries, and Sweden is relatively tiny. I think libertarians can safely stipulate that when people already share common aspirations, collectivism can produce decent results. But I don’t think any of us would want to be a member of one of those societies if we didn’t agree with the goals of the vast majority. Whereas more individualistic countries like the US and Canada tolerate an incredible amount of diversity.

Part of the problem with reaching agreement on whether individualism or collectivism is better is limitations in our use of language. We consider “competition” to be the opposite of “cooperation,” which means competition must be bad because cooperation is good, right? But in a market, you don’t want producers to cooperate; that’s called a cartel. But since cooperation is good, that must mean markets are bad because they discourage cooperation, right? Wrong! The cooperation in a market is between producers and consumers. Consumers tell producers what they want by giving the producers money in exchange for goods and services. Producers compete to try to do a better job serving the needs of consumers. If the end goal is to best satisfy people’s wants and needs, isn’t that market competition the same as if not only had they cooperated to achieve that goal, but they had somehow obtained better knowledge of consumers’ needs than they would have had they genuinely cooperated?

Another problem with our use of language is that we can’t agree on what “individual” and “collective” actually mean. Shouldn’t “collectivism” maximize “collective” intelligence? Aren’t the needs of the collective obviously paramount? But the collective is not a person. It does not have one set of stack-ranked needs. Assuming you could get everyone to be honest about their preferences and give you a stack-ranked list, and then you combined those lists by pairing off each preference and giving everyone’s vote to whichever was higher on their list, you’d end up with cycles, where your collective prefers, say, pepperoni pizza to Hawaiian, Hawaiian to vegetarian, and vegetarian to pepperoni!

A third problem is that we artificially distinguish “market” or “economic” action from other kinds of actions, while in reality there is no such distinction. Every time we make a choice, we are by definition making a trade-off among alternatives, whether or not we do it consciously. This means there is no such thing as “the market” or even “the free market.” Which makes “market failure” a nonsense term invented by people trying to promote government power. Libertarians have been as guilty as anyone of promoting the idea that the market exists as distinct from our everyday lives. There are, of course, markets. But “the market” is really just a synonym for “society.” Which means if you don’t have a free market, you don’t have a free society.

So now we have a mission statement that is not itself an axiom. This gives us a benchmark against which we can test the set of rights we think people ought to have. While I haven’t done the exercise with any rigor, I suspect that we will find that some form of property is necessary, even if it turns out that the libertarian socialist idea of property is not any worse than the farthest right anarcho-capitalist idea of property. I suspect intellectual property will turn out to be a net detriment, which seems intuitive given that the goal is to maximize our collective intelligence, in which case limiting access to information that costs nothing to copy can only run counter to that goal, provided we can find some other way to incentivize creative works and basic research. And I think Kickstarter, Patreon, research foundations, and similar variants on the old patronage system have demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that we can.

Credit where credit is due: the idea that it would be useful to have a statement about individual liberty that did not reference rights came to me while I was listening to a conversation between Joshua Greene and Russ Roberts on EconTalk. The collective intelligence idea is from episode 298 of Common Sense with Dan Carlin. That episode also reminded me of the Bill Gates Atlantic interview.