A new study supports the notion of individual empowerment

by Robert Maynard

The 19th Century saw the American inspired vision of individual liberty and a free society characterized by “spontaneous order” challenged by a Utopian, collectivist ideology. In noting this shift Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini had this to say about the 20th Century in his 1932 piece “What is Fascism?“: “For if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism and hence the century of the State.” The 20th Century certainly was the century of centralized political power in the hands of the State and Mussolini was not the only one the decry this 19th Century focus on individual rights.  Frank Goodnow was an educator, long-time president of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and political scientist, as well as being a key thinker in the American Progressive movement.  In his work “The American Conception of Liberty” he noted the following:

The end of the eighteenth century was marked by the formulation and general acceptance by thinking men in Europe of a political philosophy which laid great emphasis on individual private rights. Man was by this philosophy conceived of as endowed at the time of his birth with certain inalienable rights. Thus, Rousseau in his “Social Contract” treated man as primarily an individual and only secondarily as a member of human society. Society itself was regarded as based upon a contract made between the individuals by whose union it was formed. At the time of making this contract these individuals were deemed to have reserved certain rights spoken of as “natural” rights. These rights could neither be taken away nor be limited without the consent of the individual affected.

The problem with this notion, according to progressives, fascists, socialists, communists, and other similar ideologues, was that it limited the scope of action by the state.  For all the superficial differences between these ideological systems, they all shared the notion that a perfect society was one that operated as a collective entity with individuals merely serving as parts of that entity.  With the right people in charge, a society could be “socially engineered” into some kind of utopia.

Another Progressive thinker who had a problem with the traditional American check on Government power was Woodrow Wilson.  He wrote about what he saw as the ideological basis of the philosophy behind limiting government in his piece “What is Progress?”

Now, it came to me, as this interesting man talked, that the Constitution of the United States had been made under the dominion of the Newtonian Theory. You have only to read the papers of The Federalist to see that fact written on every page. They speak of the “checks and balances” of the Constitution, and use to express their idea the simile of the organization of the universe, and particularly of the solar system,—how by the attraction of gravitation the various parts are held in their orbits; and then they proceed to represent Congress, the Judiciary, and the President as a sort of imitation of the solar system.

His analysis a bit curious, but wrong.  The natural rights principle at the root of our notion of constitutionally limited government predates Newton and is rooted in the older “Natural Law” philosophy.  This philosophy saw humans as a free moral agent created in the image of their creator.  The references in the Declaration of Independence to being  endowed by our creator with certain “Unalienable rights”, stems from that view.  Yes, they had studied Newton, but their basis for their views on humans nature and the importance of human freedom was derived more from the Bible and writers like Augustine than from Newton.

Still, after setting up the straw dog argument that our view on government was derived from Newton, Wislon proceeded to present his own philosophical basis for how government should be run:

The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick co-operation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern day, of specialization, with a common task and purpose. Their cooperation is indispensable, their warfare fatal. There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive coordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.

The older Natural Law based theory was that individuals were moral agents created by God in his image.  Yes, we must develop, but we need freedom to do so.  That is the reason for checks on government, not some equation of human society with a the laws of Newtonian physics.  Communal activity must come about spontaneously by voluntary action.  Government is limited and Civil Society encouraged because government is based on the justified use of force.  The Progressive view is that society is one big organism and can be socially engineered by a process similar to selective breeding in biology.  Individuals are parts of society and are a product of their environment.  Human nature can be “modified” by modifying the economic, social and political environment.  The trick is to give the right people the reigns of political power so they can “modify” the environment and socially engineer society.  Needless to say, you cannot limit the role of government if this approach is to work.

These two visions are completely incompatible, which accounts for a lot of our political conflict.  The progressive vision may make sense if human nature was completely shaped by our environment, but a new study by researchers out of Germany indicates otherwise.  The study shows that a lot of our nature is shaped by the extent to which individuals engage in adventure and the act of exploration.  The results summarized in this article by France 24 International News:

The act of exploring helps shape the brain and adventuring is what makes each individual different, according to a study out Thursday by researchers in Germany.

The findings published in the US journal Science may offer new paths to treating psychiatric diseases, scientists said.

Researchers sought to pin down why identical twins are not perfect replicas of each other, even when they have been raised in the same environment, and studied the matter using 40 genetically identical mice.

The mice were kept in an elaborate, five-level cage connected by glass chutes and filled with toys, scaffolds, wooden flower pots, nesting places and more. The space available to explore spanned about five square meters (yards).

“This environment was so rich that each mouse gathered its own individual experiences in it,” said principal investigator Gerd Kempermann of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases.

Even though the mice were genetically the same, and the environment they were kept in was also the same, they showed individually different levels of activity. Some explored a lot, some did not.

There are other studies that indicate the role played by individual initiative is even greater in humans.  It would appear that the best social policy is one that encourages individual exploration and initiative.