How Liberals Corrode Society

In the girl section of the Wall Street Journal last weekend Matt Ridley had an article on nice vs. nasty, cooperation vs. competition. Researchers have found, he writes, that families that stay together cooperate better than families that are far apart.

This is not the first work to find mathematical evidence that there are conditions under which cooperative behavior drives out selfish behavior... So long as there is little geographic mobility, clusters of networked kin and friends develop, putting an advantage on being nice.

Who knew?

The knock on the modern era is that, what with rampant individualism and people migrating to the ends of the earth, little remains of good old family bonding and the village community in which people used to cooperate so well. As community broke down, they tell us, and got replaced by homo economicus, the universe of cooperative behavior collapsed. Thus we needed socialists and their revolution or liberals and their big government programs to curb the ruthless individualists and restore the cooperative spirit of the old days.

Only the liberals were wrong.

The great untold story of the modern era is that, all along while socialists and liberals where deploring the loss of community, people have been working hard to create a new kind of community to retain the cooperative benefits of the old family closeness. Instinctively accepting the idea that "clusters of networked kin and friends" are the key to cooperation, people in the industrial age have been busily inventing new institutions that rewarded people for "niceness."

The basis of the left-wing view, that the modern era is a nightmare of exploitation and/or inequality, is epitomized in The Dialectic of Enlightenment by neo-Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in the 1940s. "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men." The lefty solution, from Marx to Obama, was to defeat domination with counter-domination, courtesy of big government.

Obsessed by power and domination they have missed the real story -- of ordinary people since the Enlightenment in their everyday lives engaged in an unceasing effort to create new institutions of cooperation to replace the old face-to-face community.

We can start with Adam Smith's invisible hand. The whole point of the price system is that nobody gets to dominate with their products and services, at least not for very long. You have to offer your product to the world, and you have to adjust its price and its quality as you discover what people want and are willing to pay for. And when the world changes, a great corporation like Dell Computer must go back to the drawing board and hope it can reinvent itself before it's too late.

Then there is the project to replace the close community of village and kin, first of all in religion. According to Max Weber, people in European cities learned how to trust non-kin from Christianity. And the whole point of high-cost religion is to build a long-term trust community by flushing out untrustworthy people that are too selfish to pay their fair share.

Almost forgotten today are the "fraternal" associations, the Masons, Elks, and Odd Fellows. What do you do when you migrate out of your home village into the wide world? You replace the brothers you left behind with new brothers, by courtesy rather than by blood. You trust your new lodge brothers and help them, knowing that they trust you and will help you in return.

Working men formed labor unions, to create a brotherhood of workers that could speak with one voice, as the brothers in a real family might do, against their local bosses.

But then came the liberals. Liberals have wrecked the modern movements of sociability, because liberals believe that only liberals can be allowed to dominate nature and other men. So they declared war on business and gave us crony capitalism. They declared war on the churches and gave us gay marriage. They staged a ruinous Great Depression and replaced fraternalism with the paternalism of the welfare state.

Now scientific research is showing that people that stay together work together, because people in long-term relationships are nice to each other. Wow. You think that explains why corporations try to structure their employment conditions so people stick around and churches work to put people into family-style Bible-study groups?

The real problem with the modern era is the modern ruling class. All over the western world ordinary people, with creative abandon, have been inventing new ways of encouraging our instinctive natures as social animals to be nice rather than nasty. But the ruling class gives us a president whose only talent seems to be to sow mistrust and divide us. They give us a politics that regresses to the band of robbers, recruiting people to its ranks with promises of "free stuff" and loot.

Surely, we Americans deserve better.

Christopher Chantrill ( is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and also At he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.