The Libertopia Meme

by Jamie McCarthy
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One of the better-known concepts, on the net generally and to libertarians in particular, is the meme. The meme is an idea which can reproduce itself by spreading from one mind to another, just as a gene reproduces when its carrier organism reproduces.

The environment of a meme, like the environment of an animal, has limited resources (the number of minds it can possibly inhabit) and a meme can "die" (if a mind forgets it, or if a mind it inhabits dies). These three attributes -- reproduction, competition, and limited lifespan -- ensure that memes, like genes, will undergo evolution.

But evolution bears no regard for the individual animals which must die by the billions for its progress, and neither is memetic evolution guaranteed to be good for the minds the memes inhabit. Let's take a look at the perfect Libertarian society in memetic terms.

Credit for the "meme" meme is usually given to Richard Dawkins for The Selfish Gene, 1975. The title underscores the notion of gene-centric thinking: an organism is just a gene's way of making more genes. Genes migrate through Organism Space, and those that "solve the environment's problems better" manage to make more genes like themselves; those that don't, die. Memes too.

Natural selection, however, cannot be expected to produce an ethical structure which makes any sense. "May the fittest survive" is not exactly a basis for morality. "He who impregnates the most females wins" isn't quite the societal structure I'd want to inhabit. In short, the selfish gene is selfish, and that doesn't bode well for its carriers, namely us.

The strange thing is that, while so many net.libertarians understand and approve of the gene-centric and meme-centric perspectives -- Mike Godwin has even recently said that Godwin's First Law [1] was a memetics experiment -- they fail to take the same perspective of Libertarianism's advocation of natural selection in Economic Space.

This webpage is too small to describe thoroughly the Libertarian ideal, Libertopia, where government plays no role except in protecting property rights, but the interested reader may consult various Libertarian publications for the particulars. One of most noteworthy traits is that "all government welfare, relief projects, and 'aid to the poor' programs" will be eliminated because they are "invasive of privacy, paternalistic, demeaning, and" -- worst of all -- "inefficient." [2] The main reason for Libertarian opposition to aiding the poor is that it is funded through taxation, which is considered theft or essentially theft, but a close second is inefficiency.

It should be noted that the poor are not abstractions which can be plugged into the raw equations of supply and demand side-by-side with the rich. We human beings have an unfortunate addiction to food, shelter, clean water, and other sundries. Unlike machines, if our supply of these essentials is reduced below a certain minimum level, we do not work more slowly or go into a standby mode: we die.

In Libertopia, different entities (persons and corporations) compete against each other for money, with the untainted equations of supply and demand furnishing, in the economists' simplest mathematical model, optimum efficiency. Since the only rule is Thou Shalt Not Steal, then, just as organisms manage to discover new tricks in Organism Space without violating the laws of physics, so entities will discover new tricks in Economic Space without stealing (or without getting caught stealing). Corporations will discover new tricks to doing more with less, to increase their bottom lines, and efficiency will approach its maximum.

And, just as there is no morality to a wasp's paralyzing a caterpiller so that its young can devour it alive, so is there no morality to the tricks the persons and corporations will use, are expected to use, to better solve the problems in their environment.

Entities which harbor the memes which lead to economic success will prosper, ensuring the reproduction of those memes -- whether it's the self-made millionaire doing books and seminars on "How I Got Rich In 90 Days" or the grizzled old investor teaching his son how to invest and leaving him his millions in his will to learn with.

To clarify, it doesn't have to be humans teaching humans their memes; corporations can certainly notice that other corporations are doing well, and through a variety of methods, take on the memes which are perceived to contribute to their success. And corporations can pass memes to humans, and humans to corporations. The point is that the memes for efficiency will be rewarded with better chances for reproduction.

This whole setup would be a splendid plan -- if one's goal were to discover the best memes for solving problems in the economic environment created by the single law "Thou Shalt Not Steal": the TSNS environment. (The pure TSNS environment is one of many that are possible in Economic Space.)

True, if we looked in on Libertopia a thousand years after its onset, we would see a fabulous collection of memes, inhabiting people and corporations that do amazing things. Nature's skill in genetic craft is shown by the speedy cheetah and the streamlined dolphin, and so would we see corporations that are totally efficient, and people who are conditioned to fit in perfectly to their (mostly-corporate) environment.

But the maximization of memetic fitness in the TSNS environment has nothing to do with maximizing happiness of us human beings here in our environment (the Real World). What Libertopia builds is efficiency on the economists' most idealistic spreadsheets, where feeding the poor is a side-issue relegated solely to the "voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals." From the single concept of private property, all else follows, as if protecting property from theft is the defining characteristic of the human animal, with food and shelter requirements a minor footnote.

Libertarianism suggests that the economists' most simplistic models are accurate representations of reality: that this will necessarily be a better world, that human happiness will be maximized, when memetic fitness in the TSNS environment is maximized. This is approximately as fallacious as the argument of eugenicists that human happiness and our genetic fitness are one and the same! Both claims are nonsense, confusion of goals, conflations of different games being played at different levels.

Yes, in Libertopia, a pattern of increasingly better design will unfold -- a pattern which appears only because the poor designs die off, often literally -- but it will be in Economic Space, which is not a world you or I can inhabit.

What is most puzzling is that net.libertarians, who are comfortable with the idea of selfish genes and selfish memes, don't "get" that Libertopia is an environment which will naturally-select the fittest economemes, while treating the people and corporations which spread them as carriers, to be disposed of once they are no longer useful. The trout swims vigorously and nobly upstream, fertilizes its mate's eggs, and then watches its body disintegrate because it has become a useless eater and is now a hindrance to its genes. The corporate worker struggles to contribute his sweat and his ideas to his firm for forty years; then, when his usefulness is at an end, he is laid off into a society without a safety net, because he is a useless eater and can no longer contribute to the betterment of the meme pool. We humans will be building the perfect meme pool, engineered through natural selection for its artificially-created environment, with no regard for our own health, happiness, or even our lives.

Genes and memes are selfish; the humans that bear them are unimportant. This notion seems obvious, once the tricky notion of memetics has already been understood.

So why is this meme so popular among people who should know better?

[1] Godwin's First Law is usually stated, roughly, "as the duration of a net.discussion increases, the probability that Nazis will be invoked approaches certainty." See Meme, Counter-Meme.

[2] I turn to the Libertarian Party as the most official representation of what Libertarianism stands for. The Party's beliefs are couched in philosophical terms, but their Platform is clearly pro-business. The second sentence of its Preamble states "...force and fraud must be banished from human relationships, and that only through freedom can peace and prosperity be realized" (my emphasis). Prevention of fraud (a serious business concern) and prosperity (healthy business) are second only to the prevention of the initiation of force (the chief philosophical tenet of the party).

More evidence of business-first belief is plentiful. "Government intervention in the economy imperils both the personal freedom and the material prosperity of every American." "'Anti-trust' laws do not prevent monopoly, but foster it by limiting competition. We therefore call for the repeal of all 'anti-trust' laws..." "The welfare state, supposedly designed to aid the poor, is in reality a growing and parasitic burden on all productive people, and injures, rather than benefits, the poor themselves." Most importantly for the topic of this essay: "We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and 'aid to the poor' programs. All these government programs are invasive of privacy, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals."