Libertarianism’s Achilles Heel: Game Theory & In-Group Preferences

In a society without a cogent sense of ethnic or cultural identity, such as in the Western world where many of the inhabitants shun collectivism of many sorts, there exists few viable alternatives to the Cathedral’s dogma of progressive secular Liberalism. While other alternatives do exist, the number of individuals within those communities are so minimal that they are generally only sustained through the existence of the Internet. Among them exists one that finds itself in the unique position of being both socially palatable in our modern political climate and relatively widespread in adoption – Libertarianism.

Libertarianism presents itself as a suitable philosophy to those who seek to maximize personal freedom and minimize the use of force and harm against others. Libertarianism is first and foremost a philosophy grounded in the theory of individualism. Metaphysically, it claims the individual as the basic unit of personal reality; while groups can exist, they are nothing more than a collection of individuals, and can be broken down into individuals without issue. This concept is one that hinges on a basic tenet of Liberalism – Universalism. If an ideology posits that there exists no in-groups and out-groups, no meaningful differences between individuals, then that ideology is universalist in nature.

Libertarianism also has a moral component to the ideology; the main undercurrent of which is that each person should have a right to be free from force and coercion. Individual liberty is upheld by the concept of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), the idea that any encroachment upon another person’s “life, liberty, or justly acquired property, or an attempt to obtain from another via deceit what could not be consensually obtained, is always illegitimate.” Thus, it is generally a negative right, the right to not be subjected to something. One primary criticism of the NAP is that by specifically defining aggression as physical force, it neglects the role of non-physical aggression in relation to coercion tactics. This is a valid criticism, and one that I find compelling; yet I believe that criticism of the NAP, despite its central role within Libertarian thought, is not the primary cause of concern for proponents of Libertarianism. I believe the true Achilles heel for the ideology to be game theory, and within the societal application of game theory, the evolutionarily dominant strategy of in-group collective interest.

Individualism: A societal Tour de Force

Largely stripped of strong ethnocultural and nationalistic prejudices towards members of out-groups, a greater sense of individualism in the Western world has proven to be an amazingly productive approach that has helped us to dominate the world’s stage and to advance human interests by leaps and bounds across the world. Capitalism, the great enabler of the individualist approach to society, meshes well with Libertarianism and its central tenet, the NAP. It allows individuals to pursue their own interests via cooperative trade, and in its purer forms, requires the existence of a state only in order to enforce the NAP against those who would not adhere to it. It does so via the existence of a police force and laws prohibiting fraud, blackmail, coercion, breach of contract, etc.

Universalist individualism, as practiced across the West, requires us to shed all in-group preferences (it should be noted that in-group preferences are the default human evolutionary psychological state, and have been demonstrated to exist from birth). In an ideology that adheres to universal individualism, there can be no artificial divisions that keep us from treating every person as their own person. A person’s race, sex, nationality, culture, religion, so on and so forth, are forbidden from consideration.

In general, when looking at society through a cooperative game theoretic perspective, the individualist approach can be highly advantageous to all involved. Our collective standard of living has never been higher, poverty has been reduced significantly, and violence is at historic lows. A tidal wave of ingenuity has been unleashed, as industrialization propelled our societies into modern times. In only ~65 years, we went from just learning to fly to landing humans on the moon. We discovered the germ theory of disease, which has potentially saved more lives and prevented more diseases than any discovery since. There can be no denial that the individualist strategy is a dominant cooperative strategy in terms of aggregate social success and advancement. It allowed Western societies to dominate the world, as it was a more economically and technologically successful strategy than collectivist strategies.

While we know that the cooperative individualist strategy results in positive things for all involved, humans are not naturally predisposed towards embracing the universal individualist perspective. We are born with innate in-group preferences, which generally manifest (at least initially) racially and continue with you throughout your lifetime. As we age, our in-group generally expands to our local community, our region, our Nation, and we generally retain those same preferences we had when we were born (with some notable self-hating exceptions).

The Double-Agent Strategy: In-Group Preferences and Structural Advantages

Taking into account human nature regarding both in-group preferences and our greed of wanting to maximize our own benefits, we may note that not everyone will be happy with the successful cooperative strategy of universal individualism. In a world with finite resources, clashes are bound to arise. Those who wish to gain an upper hand will look to compete in another way, rather than engage in this strategy. How does one best the universal individualism strategy? By playing the role of double-agent; pretending to adhere to the universal individualist doctrine while secretly working towards the betterment of your own in-group, however that may be defined. With this strategy, you maintain the outward appearance of impartiality while simultaneously giving and obtaining preferences from those within your chosen in-group.

This strategy is called the hybrid game, where it contains both cooperative and non-cooperative elements. This strategy is asymmetric, as those who are strict individualists do not have the ability (or at least the will) to engage in the double-agent strategy; it is possible that societal forces have taught them from birth to ignore in-group preferences all together. The double-agent strategy is a strictly dominant strategy when compared to the individualist strategy, as it creates an institutional discrimination factor in the game, tilting fortune away from the individualists. On a sufficiently long time frame, this systematic advantage will favor the double-agent strategist, resulting in a “stacked deck”, so to speak.

In modern times, the proliferation of the Internet and the increased interconnectivity it brings with it has allowed for us to form groups based on our own preferences with people from around the world. Yet when we consider what types of preferences would affect a person so that they are willing to engage in in-group preferential treatment via the double-agent strategy, it can hardly be denied that preferences most central to an individual’s natural identity are the ones that will be acted upon – be they sex, race/ethnicity, community, nationality, or tight-knit social institution affiliation such as with Unions or fraternities/sororities. Almost no one will engage in the double-agent strategy for identifying with another person over your mutual love of anime, but rather over those things more core to someone. These components, the building blocks of identity and fraternity, are the ones most likely to influence an individual to abandon the cooperative individualist strategy in favor of the double-agent strategy. They form the core tenets of our identity; before you had a career, before you chose a wife or husband, before you watched Saturday morning cartoons with your siblings, you had these tribal markers, and with them an in-group.

Because of the nature of human interactions and our penchant for heuristics based on group characteristics, we will likely never be able to abandon these integral pieces of our humanity. To attempt to do so is a fool’s errand, a sisyphean task. Biology and evolutionary strategy are against you. Who would think themselves capable of overcoming not only their own human nature, but the nature of humanity as a whole? I’m not speaking philosophically here, such as in overcoming oneself in the Nietzschean manner, but rather on a deeper, more primal psychological and biological basis.

It is this acceptance of the human condition that serves as the basis for a rejection of Libertarianism as a usable ideology. The Libertarian underpinning of universal individualization rejects fundamental human nature and our penchant for in-group preferences, and its followers actively ignore the existence of groups and group interests. This willful ignorance, this self-inflicted blindness required of the ideology, results in the strict dominance of the double-agent strategy when considering interactions through a game theoretic lens, making Libertarianism a losing strategic position to hold. Libertarianism’s most fertile ground for successful use can be found within the European nations and its various diasporas. Europeans, in general, tend to reject collectivist attitudes due in part to their high-trust societies and the philosophical and theological traditions (such as the ideals that emerged from the Enlightenment and Christian universalist values). However, even within these fairly open societies, divisions remain and group preferences will emerge. The strategy of Libertarianism is a losing position to hold in a world where in/out group preferences exist and where limited resources are a reality to be contended with. The actualities of human nature, examined through a game theoretic lens, serves to expose the ideology’s losing nature and functions as Libertarianism’s Achilles heel.