Susan Love Brown on What Makes Society Thrive

Susan Love Brown first became acquainted with IHS when its offices were still in Menlo Park, Calif. At that time, Brown — now a professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University — was part of a six-member student team from the World Research Inc. group assigned with writing a shorter version of Richard Grant’s “The Incredible Bread Machine” (1966).

This edited and abridged book (1974) was later turned into a film (1975), with appearances by Milton Friedman (economist), Walter Heller (economist), and William E. Simon (former treasury secretary under the Nixon and Ford administrations). This film served to educate high school and college students on the benefits of the free market and the unforeseen costs of government intervention in the economy. 

Susan Love Brown

Brown has devoted her career to studying the anthropology of community and individual formation. Her field research in the Bahamas demonstrated the interconnectedness between individuality and sociality. Both forces are products of human nature, says Brown, and both coalesce to create meaningful communities without sapping uniqueness from the individual.

Societies develop and thrive through our individual and social natures; we most often can’t have one without the other. “I learned that individuality was not incompatible with solidarity, and that both were a function of human nature,” notes Brown.

What I want to convey through my own work is that there are principles derived from human nature and which determine how people live successfully together. But these aren’t always obvious. These principles have to be discovered, often through trial and error, until people figure out what works and what doesn’t. This is the story of human beings and the societies they live in.

– Susan Love Brown

At an IHS seminar concerning the theory of the state, Brown was introduced to the ideas of Robert Carneiro, especially his article “A Theory of the Origin of the State,” which was published in 1970. After this introduction, Brown explored thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Karl August Wittfogel. As Brown absorbed these theorists, she discovered that the state “had nothing to do with ideology. It was a fact that required an explanation.”

In addition, Brown met other scholars at IHS events, such as Ralph Raico, Mark Brady, and Mario Rizzo. Her contributions to each discussion supplied an anthropological element, which is not often addressed among classical liberal scholars. This mixture of ideas enlightened the meetings and diversified the collection of thought.

However, Brown confesses that “the real advantage of attending IHS events is to share ideas with young people who are intelligent and to make them aware of the anthropological point of view. There is a lot of satisfaction in experiencing how other minds perceive our ideas, and sometimes they reveal the flaws in our own thinking. IHS provides this kind of intellectual stimulation, and it’s fun to see those lightbulbs go on.”

Anthropology also offers a unique lens into exploring the ways in which women’s rights and contributions have finally been acknowledged and celebrated. For example, Brown mentions that during the Middle Ages, women were largely oppressed under the weight of corrupt and authoritarian aristocracy.

During the dawn of the Enlightenment, however, when free markets were just beginning to flourish, women were finally able to participate in industries in which they were previously left out. Women also made monumental advances in science and technology; many were pioneers in arts and entertainment, among other fields. It’s only when individual rights were finally respected and enforced that women grabbed onto the opportunities previously denied them.

In addition, Brown notes that throughout her career, the greatest intellectual rewards came when pre-existing ideas were scrutinized by other curious minds. IHS was one door into this world of constant intellectual challenge and growth.

At IHS events, I was encouraged to examine the ideas of people with whom I had ideological disagreements — to read their work and inspect their arguments without fear that they would subvert my own. There is nothing more enlightening than discovering that you’ve made a mistake in your assessment and correcting it. That is the true source of intellectual integrity.

“The Incredible Bread Machine” film (1975)

The community that IHS fostered comports well with Brown’s own research. On the one hand, individuality shined through at IHS programs, with each mind contributing a unique and diverse perspective. On the other, a community was fashioned among scholars whose ideas could be seriously challenged and debated.

Brown’s anthropological research on intentional communities, social evolution, and gender studies underscores the special ways in which individuals form thriving communities. The only pathway to a thriving society, Brown believes, is through the respect for individual rights, as “only this can sprout the creativity that is the crucial aspect of human success — the freedom to solve problems.”

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021 with spotlights on scholars, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas. For more stories like this one, visit TheIHS.org/60.

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