This is a short excerpt from a talk where Shermer discusses the evolution of our sense of fairness (curiously, Shermer describes himself as a libertarian).
(1) I have to say I find it unconvincing that all relations and exchanges must be analyzed in economic terms. Reciprocal gift exchange, for example, goes well beyond some crude economic transaction: it involves a wealth of social interactions and obligations. Economic transactions for thousands of years in many societies were deeply embedded in social life. But this is perhaps a minor criticism.I have discussed this subject in a longer post here:
(2) Our species is about 200,000 years ago, and agriculture only emerged about 10,000 years ago. For most of our history (probably over 88% of it), we were nomadic hunter gatherers. Modern human psychology (which is partly and significantly caused by the evolved structure of the human brain) remains fundamentally the product of that evolution.
It is likely that the sense of “fairness” or even “entitlement” leading to the existence of common property (the ancient equivalent of public goods) or sharing the wealth (e.g., egalitarian food sharing practices amongst hunter gatherers) appears to be evolved in us as an advantage for survival. Hunter gatherer societies obviously had a degree of social coercion to enforce egalitarianism as well (to solve the free rider problem and to deal with the appearance of selfish impulses deemed unfair).
The desire to “spread the wealth” is not some alien, wicked propensity caused by “evil” governments: it is in our psychology, the psychology of egalitarian, food-sharing hunter gatherers.
This has consequences: most of the social and economic positions held by virtually all forms of libertarianism would appear to me to be unnatural (if one can use that word) to most people, and go against the deeply ingrained, evolutionary and psychological traits that many humans have. The belief that the rich cannot be made to give up some of their wealth to provide for humans unable to find work on the market or any private charity would, I contend, find few supporters. Yet it is a requirement of natural-rights based libertarianism that there is nothing immoral about allowing the deaths of humans unable to find work on the market or unable to obtain private, voluntary charity. The mass “conversion” of people to libertarian or Austrian philosophy (and the elimination of all taxes, public goods, government provided social security) is about as likely as the disappearance of the widespread human fear of snakes, which also seems to have an evolutionary and psychological basis.
(3) I do not wish to ignore the role of culture, or suggest some vulgar genetic determinism (which I personally find distasteful) here, of course. Human psychology is the complex interaction of genes and environment. There are exceptions to general genetically-influenced psychological traits. Culture can have a very significant role in shaping behaviour, attitudes and preferences.
Nor do aspects of our psychology justify in the moral sense egalitarian behaviour or political/social systems. For proper justification, an objective ethical theory is required. Intelligent people have felt themselves able to defend a reasonable degree of egalitarianism via independent ethical theories, such as some form of consequentialism, Rawls’ ethics, Kantian ethics, etc.