Paul Seabright has written a stimulating book about the origins of liberalism. But it will not help us rethink our relations with non-liberals at home or abroad, and he does not grasp the nature of authorityby Matt Cavanagh / September 26, 2004 / Leave a comment
At a time when we are worrying about liberalism’s ability to cope with the cultural diversity brought by non-western immigration, and conversely, about the wisdom of trying to export liberalism to an unwilling non-western world, Paul Seabright’s new book is a reassurance. In The Company of Strangers, Seabright writes that: “liberalism is not about how to live as a western capitalist protestant.” Instead, he says, liberalism is about how to live with strangers. Liberal attitudes and conventions allow strangers to trust each other, to co-operate rather than fight, to make deals and stick to them – all of which are increasingly important in our modern, mobile, multicultural world.
But Seabright is in danger of overdoing it. As he makes clear, without trust between strangers there would be no trade, and without trade there would be no social division of labour – and without that, there would be not only no economic wealth, but also no art, no music, none of the fine things human beings have ever produced. There would also be no security: we would not be able, as now, to “step nonchalantly out of the door and disappear into a city of 10m strangers, every one of whom is as much our biological rival as the strangers our ancestors justly feared 200 centuries ago.” All of this suggests that the attitudes and conventions which Seabright is talking about are essential not just to liberal societies but to any large-scale society – and raises the question of whether liberals can claim any special credit for them. Non-liberal cultures have managed to support a division of labour and provide security and stability for their members to much the same extent as liberal cultures. Clearly there are rhetorical advantages for liberals in presenting liberalism as being the true path of human civilisation, where other ideologies are mere detours or blind alleys. But rhetoric can shade into delusion. We should be familiar by now with the old seduction of equating the history of liberalism with the history of humanity.
Still, whether the conventions Seabright is discussing are distinctively liberal or just represent civilised societies everywhere, it remains interesting to ask how and when they developed. Seabright’s answer is that they arose 10,000 years ago, when humans abandoned the hunter-gatherer existence for a more settled life relying on agriculture, trade and the division of labour. Before this, early humans, like chimpanzees, were pretty vicious to anyone outside their close family circle. According to Seabright, what enabled us to escape this violent prehistory and start on the path to civilisation was not biological evolution – there simply has not been time – but social evolution, the emergence of socialised traits which favour co-operation over aggression and reciprocity over ruthless self-interest.
Some people are keen to divide human behaviour into the biological (aggression, fear of strangers, self-interest) and the social (tolerance, hospitality, reciprocity) because they think it is our biological traits that define what we are “really like.” This is not Seabright’s agenda. He accepts that it is possible, and healthy, to resist at least some of our biological traits. The significance of biological traits is simply that they require a different approach: rather than hoping to get rid of them altogether, we have to constrain or counterbalance them. Fear of strangers runs deep in our biology, and will always be with us, but it is something which as a civilised society we should try to manage rather than indulge, whether in the debate over immigration, or the distorted focus on children harmed by strangers rather than the many more who are harmed in the home.
This is sound and timely. I would add only that the flip side of the assumption that biological traits can never be changed – namely that social traits are fully malleable – is equally misleading. Some social traits are, for practical purposes, as unchangeable as biological traits. Acquisitiveness, for example, is a social trait, but market societies might as well approach it as if it were biological: in a market society we cannot get rid of it, so we have to harness it to the common good. Indeed, one of the main challenges for progressive liberals in a market society is to explain how we can manage both acquisitiveness and another trait: competitiveness. The similarities in the challenges they present for social policy are more interesting than the fact that one of them (competitiveness) is biological and the other (acquisitiveness) is not.
Seabright is not guilty of implying that social traits are malleable, or biological traits irresistible, but he does imply that all biological traits are like instincts, fixed at birth and unchanging. This obscures the fact that our biology also includes dispositions to behave or develop in ways that depend on our environment. The capacity for language, for example, is biological but develops in different ways depending on where we live – and would not develop at all in someone who grew up outside society.
This reveals the fault in Seabright’s argument that trust and reciprocity must be social rather than biological, because societies based on these traits emerged too recently to be explained by evolution. The fact that there has not been enough time for a change in our biology does not mean that trust and reciprocity cannot have a biological basis. They might have been latent biological tendencies which emerged only when we started to live in a new kind of way.
Does it matter whether trust and reciprocity are pure social constructs or latent biological tendencies? Yes. It matters first because, as I have said, it is always worth challenging those who argue that all our “bad” traits are natural and all our “good” traits social. Their arguments claim to be based on science, but the political implications are usually obvious. And it matters, second, because tracing the emergence of civilised norms of behaviour to changes in our environment, rather than changes in our motivations, might help us understand how those norms can rapidly break down. Societies can collapse into violence – not over the several generations which would be required for this to be explained by a change in people’s motivations, but in the space of a few months. The difference between us and people in Sudan is not that we are civilised or socialised and they are not, but that we live in a world where our good traits are generally encouraged and rewarded rather than exploited or ignored, and they do not. Whatever we might like to think, it is the robustness of our institutions, not our character, which separates us from them.
Events earlier this year in Abu Ghraib prison offer a reminder, if we needed one, of what can happen when our good traits are no longer reinforced by external authority. This reminder also suggests a contrast between Seabright and Hobbes – another secular liberal who dwelt on our “natural” tendency to violence, but who was much more interested in external authority than in internalised norms. Hobbes’s point was not that internal sanctions like conscience or convention are irrelevant. States cannot function without them, since even in the most authoritarian states people will always be presented with countless opportunities to break the rules in small ways without any realistic chance of detection. The point is that conscience and convention have to be reinforced in general, if not on every single occasion. Respect for authority, or fear of it, has to serve as the motivator of last resort. Where it does not, where authority is weak or contested, people cannot be relied on to behave decently.
It is easy to see why this is an unfashionable view. Twentieth-century history suggests that when it comes to doing bad things to each other, authority is often as much part of the problem as part of the solution. But it would be too crude to assume that authority is never a force for good. Such a view ignores the symbiotic relationship which all stable cultures, including liberal ones, display between the external constraints of authority and the internalised constraints of conscience and convention. It ignores, too, parallels between the corruptibility of authority and the corruptibility of internalised conventions. Neither is inherently a force for good or bad.
Seabright’s bias against authority comes out clearly in his characterisation of Islam. For Seabright, where liberal societies run on conscience and internalised norms, Muslim societies run on external authority. But Muslim society is characterised at least as much by strong internalised values as by strong external authority. Before 9/11, many liberals looked enviably at those strong values as a possible counterweight to what they saw as a dangerous leaching of morality from liberal society. 9/11 changed all that, reminding them that the power of strong values to motivate people to do difficult or dangerous things can be turned to evil ends as well as good, and can insulate people against argument and dialogue. Liberals have reverted to seeing strongly held religious views as a destabilising rather than a stabilising influence.
But liberals also tend to overlook the similarities between the value systems of liberal and religious societies, in their structure if not their content. Both kinds of society combine internalised norms with structures of authority which back up those norms. And in both kinds of society, relatively few people ever discover how much their conformity to the norms is driven by internal or external sanctions. It is a mark of stable societies of every type that internal and external sanctions seldom get far out of step.
This brings me back to the question I started with: can Seabright help us rethink our relations with non-liberals, both at home and abroad? I fear the answer is no. It does not illuminate our relations with Muslim countries to present them, as Seabright does, as societies in which people either do not think for themselves or chafe constantly under the constraints of authority. The idea that Muslims’ differences with the west are maintained solely by unrepresentative authorities which, if they could be removed, would take with them all cultural conflicts and misunderstandings, is facile. Nor does this approach shed light on our relations with Muslims in our own country. If we were clearer about the ways in which all societies and cultures, even liberal ones, relied on the mutual reinforcement of internal norms and external authority, we would understand better the peculiar challenge facing cultural minorities of trying to maintain their values without the external authority to back them up. True, some kinds of external sanction, like shame and social ostracism, remain available to them – in a more or less diluted form depending on how cohesive they are as a community – but they lack the reinforcement of legal and political authority.
It is a proud, and largely justified, liberal boast that liberalism is more tolerant and more nearly neutral than most other ideologies. But that should not obscure the fact that it is harder for non-liberals than for liberals to live their chosen way of life in liberal societies, and that it is especially hard for non-liberal parents living in liberal societies to do what all parents naturally want to – pass their values on to their children. The challenge for liberal societies is to decide how far our respect for Muslim values requires us to grant them not just individual freedom, but the collective freedom to fashion authority structures within their own community to back those values up. How far should we allow the Muslim community to fashion their own laws on property, marriage, the family, or education? These are not easy questions but we will find it easier to grapple with them if we are more honest about the crucial supporting and validating role that external authority plays in sustaining any value system, even in liberal cultures.