In the unforgiving circumstances of most of our species’ existence, the environment was probably particularly unforgiving of stupid. Risky decisions were sometime necessary for survival, but survivors took care to balance risks and benefits carefully. Our pre-agricultural ancestors were probably not deep thinkers much of the time, but relied on a mixture of common sense and affect developed though cultural and biological evolution. While the details of early human thinking and decision making will probably always be a mystery, we can be pretty sure that stupidity had a short shelf-life on the unforgiving savanna 100,000 years ago.
These days much of our thinking is taken care of by the medical researchers, engineers and policy makers that precede us. Our environments are astonishingly safe. Most of us living in Western democracies, for example, don’t have to test the water coming out of their taps to determine if it’s potable. Similarly, we usually don’t have to worry about whether or not a person we encounter on the street will try to harm us. We usually don’t have to worry about whether or not a merchant we are buying goods from is going to rip us off. Our society has been built to free us from having to think about the regular hardships of only a few centuries ago, and that frees us up to be more productive, and have more fun.
As our environments have become safer, individuals are also freer than ever to make bad decisions with little or no direct risk to themselves. Consider the case of Ann Barnhardt. Barnhardt is a minor personality in the ‘look who’s crazy now’ circuit of American fascists. Not that long ago she uploaded a provocative YouTube video deliberately insulting to followers of Islam. Some viewers then posted comments on her video that included threats to end her life and worse. Instead of treating these comments as the typical garbage posted on YouTube, she made available her home address and encouraged the commenters to make good on their threats. Included in her response was reference to a threatening arsenal of weaponry that she would use to defend herself.
In Ann Barnhardt’s imaginary world, she is taking care of herself. She has guns, and is able to back up her provocative words with the force of arms. But in reality, it’s the U.S. state that takes care of her. It is blindingly obvious that if some of the fanatics threatening her had the logistical capacity to make do on their threats (access to weapons and entry into the U.S., mainly), she’d already be dead. But to Ann’s good fortune, the American state has made it hard for most fanatical Muslims to make much hay on the domestic terror front.
In a Hobbesian state of nature, Ann Barnhardt’s kind of thinking wouldn’t survive a fortnight. But her behaviour isn’t very likely to threaten her survival because for centuries intelligent people have worked together to develop social, legal and enforcement structures (both formal and informal) that keep things in America, more or less, in order. Indeed, Ann Barnhardt is an intellectual free-rider–free to do and think stupid things because of the smart work that other people have done to make society safe and functioning. This is the same kind of free-riding we see among anti-vaccine crusaders. These ‘anti-vaccers’ have the luxury of benefiting from everyone else’s vaccination (through herd immunity) without having to endure the burdens of vaccination themselves (small though they are).
Some intellectual free-riding is unavoidable in an open and benevolent society, and I am OK with that. But I do find it contradictory that Ann Barnhardt–an apparent political libertarian–would be a free-rider. Does she not realize that the only thing standing between her alive and her dead is a vast network of government intelligence and policing agencies? If she really thinks herself an island of self-preservation, she should ply her antics in Taliban-controlled regions of Pakistan, where there won’t be a benevolent state to back her up.