Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Who Gets To Decide the Truth? –

But an objective observer would probably not have said that the Europe of the late medieval period was better organized or more advanced than the Europe of the Roman Empire at its height. In the year 1500, alien visitors might reasonably have pegged Homo sapiens as a stuck species. "Come back in another 100,000 years," they might have concluded, "and maybe these goofballs will be interesting."

People, Smith argued, come into the world equipped with what he called sympathy, or fellow-feeling; empathy is the word we might use today. We have a natural inclination to imagine how others see and feel, and to align our own perspectives and dispositions with theirs. Also, people come equipped with a desire to be trusted and respected by others. Through our desire for mutual esteem based on our empathetic intuitions, we can align our interests and form social bonds on a basis other than force or domination. True, human beings are also greedy and ambitious. Yet—here is Smith's most famous insight—a well-structured social order can harness those very traits to promote activity which benefits ourselves by benefiting others. If we get the rules right, millions of people of every imaginable skill and temperament and nationality can cooperate to build a fantastically complex device like a Prius or iPhone, all without the oversight or instruction of any central planner. If we get the rules right.

Smith's proposition seemed ridiculous, given that human history through his time was soaked in blood and oppression. His claim was redeemed only by the fact that it proved to be true. Although Smith did not invent markets, he notated the code which enabled a tribal primate, wired for personal relationships in small, usually related groups, to cooperate impersonally across unbounded networks of strangers, and to do so without any central authority organizing markets and issuing commands. Economic liberalism—market cooperation—is a species-transforming piece of social software, one which enables us to function far above our designed capacity.

The first is the idea of natural rights: fundamental rules that apply to all persons from birth to death—rules that all other persons and also sovereigns and governments are bound to respect, and which are to be respected impersonally and reciprocally. Because they are natural, these rights inhere in human nature and are present in the state of nature. They provide a built-in limiting principle to the war of all against all. For Locke, the fundamental rights are life, liberty, and property (meaning not just material property but authority over one's own body and conscience). Because rights are inborn rather than earned by merit or conferred by social position, they inhere equally. Individuals are always equal in their fundamental rights, even as they differ in countless other ways.

A second foundational principle is rule by consent. Governments are not instituted by divine authority to rule the people; they are instituted by the people to enforce natural rights. If governments exceed their authority or use it to violate the people's rights, Locke argued, they lose their claim to govern and may rightly be replaced. Government is sovereign within its grant of power, but the ultimate sovereignty belongs to the governed.

Third, toleration. Religious differences had torn Europe apart, in good measure because the combatants assumed that if one religion is true, then others must be false.