The atheist conservatism of Gustave Le Bon

As more scholars start recognizing the emerging “Secular Right” (or atheist conservatism) there will be increased research into the historical precedents of this phenomenon. There can be little doubt that these scholars will take a renewed interest in Gustave Le Bon.

Aside from the obligatory nod to his work on crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon is all but forgotten in the history of science and political thought. This is quite ironic since Le Bon’s prolific output was in no small measure motivated by his desire to establish broad recognition for his work. His writings were quite well read during his lifetime by the French population and (conservative) politicians, but, with the exception of his anti-clericalism, the core ideas that make up Le Bon’s work are now surrounded by great controversy and taboos.

It should not be surprising that mainstream conservatives have largely ignored Gustave Le Bon. Like most conservatives, Le Bon was hostile to socialism and big government. However, one of the defining characteristics of his oeuvre is that he identifies socialism as the modern expression of religious instinct. To Le Bon, Socialism and Christianity reflect the same kind of backwards irrational human psychology.

One would think that such an outlook would make him more acceptable to classical liberals, and indeed, there has been some interest from those quarters in Le Bon’s work. For example, in 1979, Liberty Fund published a selection of his works called Gustave  Le Bon: The Man and His Works, with an introduction by Alice Widener.  There is little evidence that this publication was a great success. Yes, Le Bon was horrified by the growth of government and the welfare state, but he was not a starry-eyed optimistic rights-based liberal either. As such, he has little in common with the rationalist Rand-Rothbard strand of libertarianism that has dominated classical liberalism to date.

What really makes Le Bon’s work problematic for modern conservatives and libertarians, not to mention progressives, is that it is heavily informed by biological concepts and extensive discussions about race. To Le Bon, it makes little sense to talk about “politics” or “the economy” without situating these topics in their specific ethnic and cultural context. This was not controversial during the time he was writing, but the strong emphasis he puts on these concepts does not make him the poster-child of the kind of blank slate universalism that informs most political ideologies. What also does not help Le Bon’s case is his generous use of medical pathological terminology to characterize developments in society and politics. Le Bon was deeply concerned about the prospect that democracy and universal suffrage would give rise to an unhealthy combination of populism and socialism, culminating in the general decline of society.

To my knowledge, little serious analysis of his work has been conducted in the English language. A notable exception is Robert Allen Nye’s dissertation, An Intellectual Portrait of Gustave Lebon: a Study of the Development and Impact of a Social Scientist in his Historical Setting (1969). This work contains a lot of interesting biographical and bibliographical information about Le Bon, but the rather explicit left-wing aim for writing this study excludes a more balanced approach.

For a writer who published around 40 volumes and 250 articles, not much is known about the youth of Le Bon. Nye even mentions that there has been some controversy about the question of whether he was really a medical doctor or not, but adds that some of the claims to the contrary may have been motivated by political animosity. It is a fact, however, that Le Bon published widely on biological and medical matters and even conducted ongoing experimental research throughout his life (reportedly, costing him his eyesight during his old age). In a letter to Albert Einstein he even claimed to have anticipated relativity. In turn, Einstein responded that no experimental nor mathematical proofs were being offered by Le Bon. Such confrontations with specialists in other fields were a defining feature of Le Bon’s productive life. Nye mentions that it was typical of Le Bon that he corrected the proofs of his last published article on the very morning of his death.

One of the tensions in Le Bon’s work is his explicit aim to be an objective scientist (of the secular, positivist variety) and his obvious atheist-conservative leanings. Unlike most people with political ideals, Le Bon thought that free will is an unscientific metaphysical construct that has no place in the study of man and society. This perspective, combined with his evolutionary outlook, explains why Le Bon had little confidence in the transformative nature of grandiose abstract ideas.

His physiological investigations led him to reject the fashionable view that all men are equal and only separated by educational opportunities. In fact, his work anticipates the current debate about the “education bubble” when he argues that most modern education has few lasting benefits (while creating a mass of potential public servants and resentment against capitalism) and should be replaced by more emphasis on real science, practical matters, and vocational skills. He has little confidence in the emerging science of sociology and advocates the study of physical anthropology and the comparative psychology of people instead. Le Bon has little sympathy for the works of Rousseau and associated theories about the innocence of primitive cultures. Interestingly, his hereditarian outlook also makes him suspicious of attempts to impose abstract political Western ideas on other cultures.

Advocates of the idea of natural rights will return empty handed from consulting his works. Ness quotes from Le Bon’s L’Homme et les Societies:

The idea that an individual has certain rights by the very virtue of the fact that he has entered the world is one of those infantile conceptions which easily take root in the brains of ignorant socialists.

It would be a mistake to assume that Le Bon’s interests in ethnic diversity were confined to making superficial general statements. During his lifetime he conducted experimental investigations into comparative physiology and skull size, published book-length studies on the Indian and the Arabian people, and even envisioned a ten volume Histoire des Civilizations. He also published a small volume of his work in differential social psychology called Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des Peuples (translated in English as The Psychology of Peoples), which, reportedly, was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite works.

With such a non-trivial output (most of which remains untranslated), it is difficult to exactly define Le Bon’s views on the role of the State. Le Bon was clearly influenced by the English classical economists and writers such as Herbert Spencer. In his view, “the true role of law is to codify custom” and the law should not be used to legislate happiness, impose confiscatory tax rates on the productive, or excessively interfere in people’s lives. Le Bon believed that by enforcing common law, which itself is the product of a gradual evolution to reconcile conflict of interest between people, the state will unify instead of divide people – as opposed to doctrines like socialism that preach inevitable conflict of interests between social classes. Nye writes, “the anti-socialist quest was, for Le Bon, something of a permanent character trait. It is not surprising that he became the symbol for many members of the French political and intellectual community of the struggle against collectivist ideology.”

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Vilfredo Pareto and even Ludwig von Mises (on von Mises and fascism, see Ralph Raico’s article), Le Bon at some point found himself forced to choose between Bolshevism and the growing fascist counter-movement. Not surprisingly, Le Bon sided with Benito Mussolini but his support was conditional and he retained his preference for a different kind of government:

It is better to undergo the anonymous dictatorship of the law than that of a chief – those who will not accept the first are compelled to undergo that of the second.

He hoped that the Fascism of Italy would simplify “the administrative machinery” while leaving “the maximum of liberty to private initiative.” Mussolini himself seemed to have been quite enamored with the works of Gustave Le Bon, strongly recommended his work to others, and considered The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, “an excellent work, to which I frequently refer.”

Le Bon’s writings on crowd psychology have often been associated with the rise of fascism and modern propaganda techniques. And indeed, Le Bon himself was hopeful that his insights could be used favorably by politicians who shared his outlook. But a closer inspection of his output reveals that Le Bon was not a stereotypical advocate of the totalitarian state but an atheist conservative with strong individualist and anti-collectivist tendencies. His secular social outlook, which aimed to merge the biological and social sciences, combined with a distinct Burkean skepticism about radical social change, fits right in with the concerns of today’s Secular Right.

Darwinian Politics

Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom is a fine introduction to the sociobiology of politics. Rubin is a self-identified libertarian but he makes a serious attempt to avoid dogmatism and consider evidence that points in the opposite direction. For example, on the issue of personal freedom his research forced him to qualify his views about government regulation of personal behavior. In most other aspects, he believes that knowledge of evolutionary psychology can help us in recognizing irrational and wealth-destroying ancestral thinking and conduct. To what extent such recognition can alter our behavior is not a topic he discusses in much detail. In some cases, he seems to be of the opinion that there are general human traits that are so “hardwired” that it would be futile for politicians to go against them, but in other cases he seems to lament the persistence of other hardwired human traits in our modern society. I suspect that, ultimately, where one locates oneself in such debates is itself influenced by ideology, which presents some non-trivial challenges in drawing normative conclusions from sociobiology.

The main thesis of the book is that humans have spent most of their existence in small groups of hunter gatherers and our thinking and conduct concerning economical and political matters is greatly shaped (and constrained) by this.  Most of the chapters are aimed at working out the implications of this for various issues, ranging from conflicts between groups to the politics of envy.

Rubin is not a friend of social contract / state of nature theorizing. He not only believes that contractarianism provides little guidance about the State and politics in the real world, but that the social contract metaphor itself is harmful because it suggests that humans have more freedom in choosing the rules and institutions of their society than they actually have (and can have). He draws an interesting analogy to this view and the Standard Social Science Model (and its political offspring, Marxism) in which human psychology is basically a blank slate. He writes, “if real policies are based on false constructions, then real suffering may ensue.”

One of the strongest sections in the book is where Rubin explains why evolution is not incompatible with individual or group differences. His argument draws upon evolutionary game theory in demonstrating why we would expect individuals who employ different “strategies” to be present in varying proportions in the population, including a small proportion of sociopaths. It would be reasonable to conclude from this that different character traits give rise to different kinds of political beliefs, and that we should expect a permanent “war” between these various types of people. Rubin, however, does not pursue this line of thought and focuses on how general evolved human traits may conflict with rational decision making and welfare maximization.

He devotes a whole chapter to group conflict and this chapter is by far the least exciting because he rather uncritically adopts the outlook of progressive economists.  Rubin puts a lot of emphasis on the observation that individuals can be part of, and can identify with, all kinds of groups. There is little discussion, however, of the degree to which this behavior persists in decision making about personal and political matters. The author is correct that prejudiced consumers and producers decrease the economic gains available to them but he does not discuss cases where “discrimination” can contribute to economic welfare or safety. He also seems to treat the Western economy as a given and does not consider the possibility that (rapid) demographic changes can alter the popularity and functioning of a free market itself. This individualist position should be well known to libertarians (especially of the Objectivist variety) but the question of how a society of (secular) individualists should deal with internal and external threats of more collectivist groups of people is ignored in this context. He is a staunch opponent of affirmative action, however, because it strengthens ethnic identity politics and is extremely dangerous.

In the chapter on altruism, cooperation, and sharing I feel that the evolutionary perspective runs into limits. To some people, evolutionary psychology is just a bunch of just-so stories that allows for the (permanent) co-existence of competing theories and normative conclusions. Rubin thinks that a roughly utilitarian position is implied by human evolution, as opposed to Rawlsian income distribution or Marxism because the latter positions embrace views of human justice that are not compatible with human evolution. He counters the criticism that utilitarianism leads to undesirable implications if carried to its logical extremes by pointing out that such preferences would not have been fitness maximizing, which is an interesting evolutionary take on “rationalist” academic philosophy. This chapter is perhaps the most interesting for his exposition of the debate about the existence of altruism and whether it can be explained without resorting to group selection.

Rubin discusses the existence of envy in some detail and this is the topic where our evolved psychology seems to be highly incompatible with the characteristics of free market economies, in which economic transactions benefit both parties and the gains of the rich do not come at the expense of the poor. It should not be surprising, however, that most humans (including intellectuals) cannot distinguish between, what he calls, dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. As a consequence, people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that the wealthy people do not exercise power. In his discussion of political power, he returns to this topic when he notes that this failure to distinguish between economic success and political power leads many people to believe that government can be a countervailing power instead of a substitution of coercion for mutual benefit.

The author attributes the existence of religion to a form of enlightened anthropomorphism that also allows humans to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemma situations. He attributes the popularity of religions like Christianity and Islam to their universal non-ethnic nature. Unfortunately, the author does not treat the topic of how rising secularism in the Western world will affect such conventions about cooperation and altruism in much detail. In the same chapter, he also discusses a form of competition called “handicap competition,” in which humans engage in self-harming behavior to signal their superior fitness. The author does not draw this link but it is intriguing to think that a lot of the obligatory self-loathing that progressive intellectuals display in discussions about multiculturalism is actually a means to signal their superiority instead of an actual attempt to reduce their own power.

The chapter about how humans make political decisions is quite interesting for libertarians, and those of the anti-political variety in particular, because it documents in some detail how our inherited political conduct is mostly irrelevant and ineffective in today’s world. In particular, we vastly overestimate the importance of our own political views and behavior. As the author notes, “given the vanishingly small probability that a single vote will influence the outcome of an election, there is no reason for people to vote at all.” One important consequence of this is that individuals have a much greater incentive to make rational decisions as consumers than as voters. In politics, ancient zero-sum views on economic issues and envy persist. As such, Rubin provides an evolutionary explanation for the economic populism and political failure that the economist Bryan Caplan identified in his groundbreaking book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. In a sense, this indictment of mass politics as such is more radical than the political anti-statism that informs contemporary rights-based libertarianism.

One of the most interesting and far-reaching discussions in the book concerns the contrast between the study of rationality by behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists on the one hand, and evolutionary psychologists on the other. It has become quite trendy to document and highlight all kinds of cognitive biases, but Rubin contrasts this field with the work of Gerd Gigerenzer, who has shown that if problems are presented in a way that tracks our evolved abilities, respondents are much more likely to give the right answer. Rubin then gives a number of examples of cognitive bias and explores their evolutionary basis. Sadly, it seems that no matter how one defines rationality, it looks like most political activity remains irrational, wasteful, and divisive in today’s world.

The book ends with some analytic and policy implications of the materials presented in the preceding chapters. He basically restates his preference for limited government, against confiscatory income redistribution, and for more liberal immigration policies. Aside from the fact that the author seems to take the orthodox rationale for government as the preferred provider of public goods for granted (at least in this book), one would expect an evolutionary utilitarian such as Rubin to end on a more critical note about democracy, universal suffrage, and its effects on welfare. Otherwise, Darwinian Politics is an important book that warrants careful study and contains a lot of interesting ideas and references.