I would like to be able to say that liberty is a paramount human instinct, honed through eons of human existence and experience. But we are surrounded by too much evidence to the contrary, both in recorded and natural history. The social and intellectual evolution of humankind has led us to a mixed bag of rights, acquired politically through cooperation and conflict resolution, often predating the creation of governments and the empowerment of states. The notion that we ought to enjoy the negative right of liberty is there among our instincts, of course, but it is at war with the positive right of privilege -- the notion that we are "owed something" beyond what we earn (through voluntary exchange) for the use of our land, labor, or capital. Liberty is also at war with our instincts for control, aggression, and instant gratification.Will Wilkinson comes at it this way:
I do not mean that the social and intellectual evolution of humankind is right -- merely that it is what it is. Libertarians must accept this and learn to work with the grain of humanity, rather than against it. There is no profit in simply asserting the inherent wrongness of laws and government actions that undermine liberty. Nor is there much profit in arguing the unconstitutionality of illiberal laws and government actions; it is obvious that appeals to the Constitution will be of little avail unless and until we have a Supreme Court that abides wholeheartedly by the Constitution.
The key political lesson of evolutionary psychology is simply that there is a universal human nature. The human mind comprises many distinct, specialized functions, and is not an all-purpose learning machine that can be reformatted at will to realize political dreams. The shape of society is constrained by our evolved nature. Remaking humanity through politics is a biological impossibility on the order of curing cancer with pine needle tea. We can, however, work with human nature—and we have. We have, through culture, enhanced those traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom. We can, of course, do better.
As Immanuel Kant famously remarked, "from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made." But, in the words of philosopher, Denis Dutton,
- It is not . . . that no beautiful carving or piece of furniture can be produced from twisted wood; it is rather that whatever is finally created will only endure if it takes into account the grain, texture, natural joints, knotholes, strengths and weaknesses of the original material.
Evolutionary psychology, by helping us better understand human nature, can aid us in cultivating social orders that do not foolishly attempt to cut against the grain of human nature. We can learn how best to work with the material of humanity to encourage and preserve societies, like own, that are not only beautiful, but will endure.