Liberty and biology are linked by conflict when an energetic, invasive state attempts to improve lives through social engineering. Since today’s US government is on a virtual crusade to build a Utopian dream, biology becomes increasingly important. At some point, biological reality almost guarantees tyranny. Let me explain.
Though geneticists differ on details, all agree that some human traits are more biologically based than others. Yes, nutrition may slightly affect height but with adequate nutrition height is almost entirely genetic. Conversely, whether one speaks Spanish or English at home is purely environmentally determined.
Here’s an extreme example to illustrate my point. Imagine that some government wants to promote “fairness” on many dimensions. It decides that everybody should be nearly the identical height since; after all, tall people enjoyed innumerable advantages, everything from excelling at basketball to being judged more physically attractive. And short people suffered as a result of “height privilege.” To this end, children of tall parents would be denied adequate nutrition while those from shorter parents would receive extra height-producing food to lengthen their bodies. Initial efforts would naturally fail, so more draconian measures might be necessary, for example, children of tall parents could be forced to take growth-retarding hormones while shorter children receive drugs to accomplish the opposite.
Clearly, any government effort to manipulate biologically hard-wired traits, no matter how morally worthy, may endanger liberty if the inevitable failure is (incorrectly) interpreted as merely a shortage of effort and resources. James Madison (especially Federalist 10) famously recognized the limits imposed by human nature. That is, men are naturally inclined toward tyranny so, since reversing human nature is impossible, it is wiser to use human nature itself to promote liberty—ambition must be set against ambition.
The classic illustration, of course, was the Soviet effort to remake human nature, e.g., abolish private property, suppress religion, undermine the family, and when gentle admonitions failed, keep upping the force so as to create that Workers’ Paradise.
It is therefore incumbent upon policy makers (at least those cherishing liberty) to recognize biologically imposed limits in building their Utopias. As Madison knew, all the King’s consent decrees, all of his administrative orders, all of his financial incentives and even all of his criminal sanctions cannot reverse more than 150,000 years of breeding. Those who professionally raise animals know that you cannot train a Rottweiler to behave like a toy poodle and attempting this fantasy will bring one unhappy, screwed up Rottweiler.
Let’s now venture into more real world, controversial illustrations. Most parents (but especially mothers) are deeply concerned with the physical safety of their children. Parents who lacked this genetic trait undoubtedly exited the gene pool eons back. By contrast, a desire for diversity (an idea less than a generation old) is foreign to our hard-wired urges to be among people who resemble us. Again, ancestors who left their relatives to widen their cultural experience by visiting the weird tribe a few valleys away increased their probabilities of exiting the gene pool.
So, what happens when judges demand that mother send their offspring to dangerous schools where few students physically resemble their children? We all know the answer—they flee almost immediately and this occurs despite promises of spectacular physical resources or the alleged forthcoming benefits of diversity.
Many parents will readily make real sacrifices—expensive private schools, moving or home schooling. Tellingly, these ingrained urges trumps transitory ideology—Manhattan’s upper Westside is a bastion of liberalism and political correctness. But what would happen if the city’s Department of Education redrew school district lines to enrich upper-middle class white children by exposing them to youngsters from the slums of Harlem? Fortunately for the sake of public order, the city’s bureaucrats are justifiably terrified of such social engineering. Other city officials realize the tax consequences of driving out the higher income middle class. Even on the upper Westside, where the nurture, not nature creed is ostensibly sacrosanct, politicians show some respect for Mother Nature.
But, for the moment, imagine that today’s Mandarins, be they elected or appointed, decide that exposure to those of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds is so necessary to a modern multicultural society that the parents should not be permitted to contravene the latest academic wisdom heralding the virtues of diversity. It is at this point that biology and liberty forcefully collide and it is just a matter of how hard the Mandarins will push social engineering. Draconian measures might include annexing suburbs to render flight futile, imposing taxes and regulations on private schools to make them less appealing, purposely under-funding schools with high test scores to equalize outcomes across the city, assigning the worst teachers and administrators to high-performing schools (since, after all, these students already have all the advantages), and who knows what else in the name of “fairness.” And keep on upping the coercion until Mother Nature surrenders.
I am frustrated by how the nature/nurture distinction and the possible subversion of liberty is absent from public debate. This may be the silent triumph of Marxism: the presumption that humans are malleable clay in the hands of wise social engineers. If so, the issues become–what ought to be accomplished, and how failures must be overcome. Among holders of this view, the idea that human nature sets limits on “doing good” and that a war on Mother Nature will bring costly liberty-destroying defeat has become unspeakable.
I believe it’s time to re-invite Mother Nature back into the public debate. She is the great friend of Liberty by cautioning limits on what government may reasonably hope to accomplish. This argument explains why statists go ballistic when her very name is mentioned as a constraint on governmental actions. As the Roman lyric poet Horace (65-8 BC) succinctly put it, “You may throw out nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back.”
Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois and author of the book, “Bad Students, Not Bad Schools.”