This article is part of Issue CCXLV of The Rational Argumentator. Access the index of the issue by going to the Resources section.
Irrational, illiberal collectivism had its beginnings along with the beginnings of the human species. How else could it be the case that the overwhelming majority of the history of our species took place with virtually no progress whatsoever? Indeed, even the advent of basic agriculture and the written word occurred quite late in our history, considering that humans virtually identical in body and mind to our contemporaries appeared circa 50000 B.C.E., whereas the beginnings of agriculture occurred circa 10000 B.C.E., and writing emerged even later. How could this have been the case? Surely, with the proper freedom-respecting, individualistic mindsets and institutions, our remote ancestors could have accomplished noticeable progress every generation. Instead, about 80% of human history passed without any progress whatsoever, and another 19% passed with minimal progress and centuries where previous progress had been reversed and nearly eliminated (e.g., the Dark Ages and the 14th Century in Europe, and the era of Mongol conquests in Russia, the Middle East, and the Far East). And yet superbly intelligent, capable people existed in every generation, and would, if placed in our time or the recent past, have become great innovators.
The sensible explanation of these otherwise perplexing facts is that absolutely stifling mindsets afflicted the majority of human societies during the majority of history. Although they left no written records, most Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies can be safely assumed to have held ultra-tribalist, collectivist views of the world – in addition to a persistently animistic, superstitious view of the inanimate world and a violently intense xenophobia. Moreover, in a small nomadic tribe, an “us versus them” attitude would have been quite easy and tempting to adopt; one relied on one’s fellow tribesmen to protect one against aggression by other humans, wild animals, and myriad miscellaneous perils. Departure from the norms and societal structures of the tribe, through either material or intellectual innovation, would likely have resulted in ostracism from the tribe or worse.
What is relatively new in human history – dating back to ancient Greece – is early true liberal, pro-freedom thinking; I still believe that we are in the early stages of the development of liberal thought, considering how illiberal the majority of human societies today are and how the majority of human progress (and, indeed, of human sanity altogether) can be attributed to only a handful of forward-thinking individuals. Free the human mind just a little, give even a few reasonably intelligent people just a small amount of material and intellectual space to decide how to live and to think – and you get all that human civilization has accomplished thus far. Free humans completely, and astonishing accomplishments would be possible, even from the “average” person.
Of course, the reverse is possible, too: such a severe degeneration of human thinking and institutions as to produce a relapse into barbarism. This would be the worst, most tragic outcome to befall mankind.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXLV.