Libertarians should pride themselves as harboring the most consistent political philosophy.
How human rights came to exist is a centuries-old tale from the enlightenment writings of Kant to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The most recent, well-known defense of individualism was Soviet-escapee Ayn Rand’s theories on objectivism, which established the moral superiority of pursuing one’s own happiness.
Although I, as son of Soviet Jewish refugees, resonate with Rand’s life story, as a scientist, I have long taken issue with her epistemology. Rand’s arguments rest upon pure reason, while science, ever since Galileo dropped objects from the tower of Pisa to disprove Aristotle’s theories of gravity, has found that truth can only be determined through experimentation. Thus, since morals cannot be experimentally confirmed (at least in our day and age), they cannot exist with reasonable certainty, and Rand’s theories, along with those of all philosophers who preceded her, are pure speculation.
Such post-modernism, in and of itself, can be used to justify libertarianism: if there are no universal morals, then it is only fair that everyone have a chance to live life how they see fit as long as they do not impede others. However, this leap of logic is tenuous. If there is no good or bad, what is fairness? Is ‘fairness’ consensual or democratic? If so, could a majority of people choose to restrict the lives of a minority? Without hard morals, these questions are unanswerable, and libertarianism loses its self-perceived high ground.
As a medical student and cancer researcher, I was averse to accepting such uncertainty as an answer. It was only while staring at cells in the lab that I realized that the same process that had miraculously brought us into being could also thrust purpose upon us. Although morals cannot be tested and proven, science rests upon ‘theories,’ which are universal laws that have been experimentally confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt.
One such theory is evolution. Evolution states that every being has an inherent goal of self-propagation. Of course, genes and proteins do not consciously decide to propagate, but those with enhanced survival are passed on and therefore become more common. This theory, which in science extends from molecules to organisms (like ourselves) to entire universes, can be also extrapolated to culture (thus the origin of the term meme). Certain beliefs, practices, or societal organizations can be more adaptive towards the survival of its practitioners than others. Adaptive is not synonymous with morally good or reprehensible- it simply means that said trait contributes to the survival and expansion of the society which practices it, and therefore contributes to the survival of the human race.
Free-market economists will argue that individualism is inherently adaptive because, among other reasons, people are naturally primed to pursue their self-interests. While this has been the trend in the modern world (e.g. the victory of capitalism over communism), it is by no means a dead-set rule. The human self-serving inclination can be reconditioned or even extinguished. Take, for example, the dystopian Oceania of George Orwell’s 1984, which by manipulating reality and restricting all personal freedom, prospered as a society, from an evolutionary stance (it consolidated power and grew as a state, which is the purpose of an adaptive culture). By this logic, under certain conditions, the restriction of human liberty may, in fact, be the most adaptive choice for a society. How, then, does one justify personal freedom as uniquely adaptive?
Another important key to the puzzle of evolution is diversity- large populations with many allele variants (many versions of a trait from which evolution can choose) are more adaptable and survive better in the long term. Take our early hominid ancestors. They were less adapted to living in the jungle, and were largely outcompeted by species resembling other modern apes. However, when the climate drastically changed and forests receded, our versatility led us to become the dominant species on the planet. By this same token, even if the restriction of freedom, as is the case in 1984, appears more adaptive in the short term, in terms of the long-term survival of the human race, restriction of liberty is maladjustive.
It would be in a superpower’s best interest to consolidate power by conditioning its citizens to trust blindly and surrender any shred of self-sustainability. Such is the case with 1984’s Oceania, and to a lesser extent, the case with our own government today. However, what is best for our leader is (more often than not) not what’s best for our species. Should conditions change and said totalitarian civilization be led to collapse, the dependent citizenry would be unable to fend for itself, and largely die out. A microcosm of this phenomenon occurred following the collapse of the Roman Empire. A global empire, if collapsed (and according to the laws of entropy all things are destined for collapse) could mean the extinction of the human race.
Thus, the defense of individualism, which entails many peoples practicing diverse lifestyles, values, and societal organizations, increases the chances of the long-term survival of humanity, regardless of the changing universal conditions. Freedom is adaptive in a biological sense, and must be cherished not only for the betterment of our personal lives, but also for the survival of the human race.
Libertarians, with evolution in mind, can finally pride themselves as the saviors of humanity. Even with such a humble talking point, however, they are unlikely to win any elections any time soon.
Adam A. Barsouk is a student of Medicine and Health Policy at Sidney Kimmel Medical College. Adam values the freedom that America has provided his family, and as a cancer researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and an aspiring physician, hopes to share this commitment by liberating the infirm of the chains of disease and suffering.