Last week in TAC, Zoltan Istvan wrote about “The Growing World of Libertarian Transhumanism” linking the transhumanist movement with all of its features—like cyborgs, human robots and designer babies—to the ideas of liberty. To say Mr. Istvan is mistaken in his assessment is an understatement. Transhumanism should be rejected by libertarians as an abomination of human evolution.
We begin with Mr. Istvan’s definition of transhumanism:
… transhumanism is the international movement of using science and technology to radically change the human being and experience. Its primary goal is to deliver and embrace a utopian techno-optimistic world—a world that consists of biohackers, cyborgists, roboticists, life extension advocates, cryonicists, Singularitarians, and other science-devoted people.
The ultimate task, however, is nothing less than “overcoming biological human death” and to “solve all humanity’s problems.” Throughout much of Mr. Istvan’s work on this issue, he seems to think these ideas are perfectly compatible with libertarianism —self-evident even —so he doesn’t care to elaborate for his befuddled readers.
While most advocates of liberty could be considered, as Matt Ridley coined it, “rational optimists”—meaning that generally we are optimistic, but not dogmatic, about progress—it is easy to get into a state in which everything that is produced by the market is good per se and every new technology is hailed as the next step on the path of progress. In this sense, these libertarians become what Rod Dreher has called “Technological Men”. For them, “choice matters more than what is chosen. [The Technological Man] is not concerned with what he should desire; rather, he is preoccupied with how he can acquire or accomplish what he desires.”
Transhumanists including Mr. Istvan are a case in point. In his TAC article he not only endorses such things as the defeat of death, but even “robotic hearts, virtual reality sex, and telepathy via mind-reading headsets.” Need more of his grand ideas? How about “brain implants ectogenesis, artificial intelligence, exoskeleton suits, designer babies, gene editing tech”? At no point he wonders if we should even strive for these technologies.
When he does acknowledge potential problems he has quick (and crazy) solutions at hand: For example, what would happen if people never die, while new ones are coming into the world in abundance? His solution to the fear of overpopulation: eugenics. It is here where we see how “libertarian” Mr. Istvan truly is. When his political philosophy—the supposedly libertarian one—comes into conflict with his idea of transhumanism, he suddenly drops the former and argues in favor of state-controlled breeding (or, as he says, controlled breeding by “non-profit organizations” such as the WHO, which is, by the way, state financed). “I cautiously endorse the idea of licensing parents, a process that would be little different than getting a driver’s licence. Parents who pass a series of basic tests qualify and get the green light to get pregnant and raise children.”
The most frustrating thing is how similar he sounds to communists and socialists in his arguments. In most articles you read by transhumanists, you can see the dream of human perfection. Mr. Istvan says so himself: “Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much More. They want to be better, smarter, stronger—perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way.”
Surely it is the goal of transhumanists that, in their world, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.” You can just edit the genes of the embryo in the way that they are as intelligent as Aristotle, as poetic as Goethe, and as musically talented as Mozart. There are two problems, though: First, the world would become extremely boring, consisting only of perfect human beings who are masters at everything (which perhaps would make human cooperation superfluous). Second, that quote was famously uttered by the socialist Leon Trotsky.
As Ludwig von Mises wrote sarcastically, the “socialist paradise will be the kingdom of perfection, populated by completely happy supermen.” This has always been the mantra of socialists, starting with utopian “thinkers” like Charles Fourier, but also being embraced by the “scientific” ones like Marx, who derived his notion of history in which communism is the final stage of humanity from Hegel. Hegel himself believed in the man-god—not in the way that God became man through Jesus, but that man could become God one day. Intentionally or not, transhumanists sound dangerously similar to that. What they would actually create would be the “New Soviet Man through bio-engineering and total environmental control as the highest social goal. In other words, you get inhuman ideological tyranny taken to a whole new level.”
It should be noted that sometimes transhumanists recognize this themselves—but if they do, their solutions only make things worse (much worse). Take Adam Zaretsky as example, who says that these new human beings shouldn’t be perfect: “It’s important to make versions of transgenic human anatomy that are not based on idealism.” But his solution is frightening: “The idea is that you take a gene, say for pig noses, or ostrich anuses, or aardvark tongue, and you paste that into a human sperm, a human egg, a human zygote. A baby starts to form.” And: “We could let it flow into our anatomy, and these people––who yes, are humans––should be appreciated for who and what they are, after they are forced to be born in a really radically strange way.” It’s no surprise that Rod Dreher calls Mr. Zaretsky a “sick monster,” because he truly seems to be one when it comes to his transhumanist vision. He wants to create handicapped human beings on purpose.
If this were what libertarians think should happen, it would be sad (thankfully it’s mostly not). As Jeff Deist notes, it is important to remember that “liberty is natural and organic and comports with human action. It doesn’t require a ‘new man.’” Transhumanists may say that the introduction of their idea is inevitable (in Istvan’s words, “Whether people like it or not, transhumanism has arrived”) but that is not true. And in this sense, it is time for libertarians to argue against the notion of extreme transhumanism. Yes, the market has brought it about and yes, the state shouldn’t prohibit it (though giving your baby a pig nose could certainly be a violation of rights), but still, one shouldn’t be relativist or even nihilist about such frightening developments. It would be a shame if the libertarian maxim of “Everyone should be able to do whatever one wants to (as long as no one is hurt by it)” becomes “Everyone should do whatever one can do – just because it is possible.”
Finally, it comes as no surprise that transhumanists are largely, if not all, atheists (or as Mr. Istvan says: “I’m an atheist, therefore I’m a transhumanist.” This just proves what the classical liberal historian Lord Acton talked about when he said, “Progress, the religion of those who have none.” In the end, transhumanism is the final step to get God out of the way. It would be the continuation of what Richard Weaver wrote about in “Ideas Have Consequences”: Instead of seeing nature, the world and life overall as a means to get to know God, humans in the last centuries have become accustomed to seeing the world as something that is only there for humans to take and use for their own pleasures. Transhumanism would be the final step of this process: the conquest of death.
You don’t have to be religious to find this abhorrent. As we have seen, it would be the end to all religion, to human cooperation overall, in all likelihood to liberty itself, and even the good-bye to humanity. It would be the starting point of the ultimate dystopia.
Kai Weiss is an International Relations student and works for the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institute, two libertarian think tanks based in Vienna, Austria.