Daily Caller readers reacted intensely to last week’s story that Republican lobbyist and quirky socialite Edwina Rogers would be representing the Secular Coalition for America. Many seemed befuddled. How could the conservative lobbyist represent such a leftist group? The Secular Coalition, after all, overwhelmingly supports liberal and government-centered policies, such as requiring religious organizations to provide contraception, through insurance, to their employees.
But the more important question is: Why would secular-minded individuals advocate for a big-government agenda in the first place?
If secularists honestly apply their views about how the world and human nature work to political philosophy, this should lead them to advocate for a limited government. They should understand that order, both in nature and in human societies, emerges spontaneously, and that an evolutionary understanding of human behavior cautions against big government.
Secularists of various stripes accept the idea that the natural world arose by spontaneous order rather than at the hand of an omniscient being. But this idea is difficult to intuit — deep time and incremental processes are counterintuitive to our evolved brains.
Similarly, the idea of spontaneously emerging social and economic order is counterintuitive. Our primate brains were evolved for a very different environment, where large-scale markets and mutually beneficial exchanges generally did not exist. But with a basic understanding of economics (and an appreciation for the idea that often human intuition is wrong) one can reach the understanding that free markets and spontaneous order are good even though they may not always seem so, and that big government is bad even when it sometimes seems appealing. As noted economist (and believer in biological evolution) F.A. Hayek wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
So the paradox is — if secularists do not believe that an omniscient intelligent being designed the universe and created life, how can they believe that a government made of men can order our social and economic lives to our mutual benefit?
Not only are these men and women of politics unable to “design” our lives, their selfish genes often put them at odds with the needs of those they represent. People who understand human evolution see that we are evolved to propagate our genes. And many times altruism helps do that. But politicians and bureaucrats are unlikely to display altruism when our modern regulatory state allows them the ability to rent-seek and regulate on behalf of themselves, their kin, and their allies with impunity. Our giant, opaque government is the ideal environment to feed the needs of those in power with little regard to what is best for the citizenry. Scandals like the recent one at the GSA hammer that point home.
In contrast to the liberal perspective that humans can be molded into ideal self-sacrificing beings, evolutionists understand that people are born with an evolved mental architecture — an architecture which can be altruistic, but needs incentives to do so. Big government, because of its inherent structural defects, does not, and cannot, provide those incentives. Perhaps if secularists think about government in this way, they’d be more apt to support Ron Paul, whom they’ve given low scores (lower than those given to Santorum!) for his attitude toward nontheists. Regardless of Paul’s personal religious beliefs, he does not seek government force to carry them out.
Secularists must think harder (and overcome their intuitions) about what their descriptive viewpoints reveal about how the world works. This doesn’t mean accepting Social Darwinism (which is a collectivist philosophy tangentially related to evolutionary theory) but rather to apply what they know about the emergence of spontaneous order and the possible selfishness of human nature to political theory. It’s time to revisit the idea that the left is on the side of reason and science — and start thinking about how conservative ideas of individual liberty and economic freedom, however one reaches them, serve the religious and nonreligious equally well. Secularists shouldn’t simply swap a spiritual god for a God of Government without thinking rationally about what that means.
Kersti Kennedy is a third-year law student at the University of Washington in Seattle. She holds a BA in anthropology with an evolutionary emphasis.