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    Michael Shermer's Libertarianism
    By Massimo Pigliucci | June 13th 2008 09:23 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary

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    Michael Shermer (the well known author and publisher of Skeptic magazine) and I usually see eye to eye on all things skeptical. On matters of economics, however, we seem to depart rather sharply. He is a former Randian (as in Ayn Rand) and current moderate libertarian. I am an unmitigated progressive liberal (yup, I like very progressive taxes -- that is, steep on the rich -- welfare, universal health care, free education -- including college -- and a tiny military).

    During the summer my lab at Stony Brook University reads a couple of books for fun and intellectual enrichment. One of them this year is Shermer’s The Mind of the Market. I will take issue here with the arguments he deploys in chapter 3 in particular, entitled “Bottom-up capitalism.”

    One of the central ideas of the book is to build a parallel between Darwin’s natural selection and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” It isn’t that Shermer is trying to go back to so-called social Darwinism (which Darwin himself vehemently rejected), but rather to make the case that both biological systems and economies are “complex adaptive systems with emergent properties.” The conclusion to be drawn from this is that, just like natural selection yields results without the intervention of an intelligent designer, so we should let markets work their magic without government tampering (I simplify somewhat, you should read the book if you want the full treatment).

    There are problems with the natural selection-economic markets analogy, of course. To begin with, it is not clear what markets maximize, if anything. Natural selection maximizes local fitness (of a particular population in response to a specific set of environmental circumstances). Free markets may maximize trade volume, for instance; or perhaps they minimize prices; or they augment per capita income, but it is hard to see why exactly any of these things would be necessarily good, since according to several studies published over the last few years they are all only loosely correlated with quality of life, or with other important priorities, like justice, equality, or environmental preservation.

    Even assuming that letting markets operate on their own is a good idea in terms of the goals to be accomplished, the parallel with natural selection is rather apt in a way that libertarians won’t like: not only does natural selection not yield optimal outcomes (just whatever happens to work well enough), but it is extremely and painfully wasteful. Let us not forget that the overwhelming majority of species that ever existed went extinct, and that any improvement in the adaptation of a population of organisms happens at the cost of countless deaths and suffering among the less fortunate members of that population. Just like unbridled capitalism, essentially a pyramid scheme, makes a very small number of people very rich, but is built on the sweat and lack of a social net for the majority.

    Even Michael, however, has limits (unlike many libertarians I know). After having extolled the virtues of Microsoft’s quasi-monopoly and having told us that Walmart is the best thing that could happen to small America and the world at large, he ends the chapter on a more moderate note. “There are extremists,” Shermer writes on p. 42 of the book, “who embrace the ideology of anarcho-capitalism. ... [But] in order to keep the free market both free and fair, we need political states based on the rule of law, with property rights, a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system, economic stability, a reliable infrastructure, protection of civil liberties, a clean and safe environment, and various freedoms of movement, of the press, of association, and of education. We need a robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states. We need a potent police force for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state. We need a viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws. We need an effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.”

    In other words, we need a pretty pervasive government to both facilitate and control social activities, including economic ones! This is the classic libertarian version of wanting the cake and trying to eat it too. Whatever happened to leaving the markets alone to do their magic (something, incidentally, that Smith himself never advocated, aware as he was of human wickedness and crookery, well before Exxon Valdez and Enron)? Natural selection doesn’t require our or anyone else’s intervention to work, it truly does function “from the bottom up.” Not so economies, even by Shermer’s own account. Natural selection does work without the need for an intelligent designer, but it just seems perverse to ask human beings not to use their intelligence to improve on the workings of whatever invisible hand may blindly guide the markets.

    Comments

    "I like very progressive taxes -- that is, steep on the rich"

    It always amuses me when someone so obviously otherwise intelligent makes this ridiculous.

    There is no mechanism in this country allowing us to tax "the rich." We have an income tax. We tax income. Rich people are already rich and do not necessarily have any income at all. You could tax income at 180% and they wouldn't care. In fact, I would imagine rich people are in favor of very progressive income taxes because those taxes are a barrier to becoming rich, and with that barrier in place, "the rich" stays an exclusive little club. I'm sure they appreciate your support in maintaining their status.

    What you really should say is that you support steep taxes on high income earners. Or to put that another, you could say that you support punishing people for earning money. You can dress that up with labels like "progressive" (because who could possibly oppose progress, right?) or you could just admit that you hadn't thought it through all the way (else you wouldn't have claimed it was a tax on "the rich"). Or as a professor of evolution, you might say that you support taking meet away from the fast cheetahs and giving it to the slow ones. That works too.

    "There is no mechanism in this country allowing us to tax "the rich."

    100% inheritance tax after a, relatively low, monetary + asset net evaluation.

    yup, I like very progressive taxes -- that is, steep on the rich -- welfare, universal health care, free education -- including college -- and a tiny military)

    Yeah, we get it. Another statist professor who believes that theft by majority vote is a-okay. All those things you want -- welfare, health care, education -- are marginally provided by the State only because it takes the products of someone else's labor and gives it to others, often to wealthy individuals. In other words, the State is laying claim to the lives of the governed. In the old days they used to call that slavery. Are you advocating slavery, Professor?

    The economy is a system far beyond human comprehension, with ever-evolving emergent properties. Much like a fast-evolving rain forest, perhaps? How would an ecologist improve a rain forest?

    If someone understood the economy well enough to predict any economic future, they could prescribe a path to a better future. In the first case, they could make a great deal of money, in the second they could make far more.

    We don't often see either of these events produced by academics, or any of the many other professions prescribing remedies for economic ills.

    There are fundamental limits on foreseeing the future of complex evolutionary systems: mathematical chaos + computational complexity + emergent phenomena of systems. You don't understand enough to write the equations, you can't collect initial conditions with enough detail to be useful, you can't compute futures with enough fidelity with feasible computer power. Even if you could, models aren't reality.

    Libertarians don't believe in trying to fix what we don't understand.

    Lew Glendenning

    Hmm... no offense, but I can tell you aren't an economist.

    Here are some issues I see in your post:

    To begin with, it is not clear what markets maximize, if anything. Natural selection maximizes local fitness (of a particular population in response to a specific set of environmental circumstances). Free markets may maximize trade volume, for instance; or perhaps they minimize prices; or they augment per capita income, but it is hard to see why exactly any of these things would be necessarily good, since according to several studies published over the last few years they are all only loosely correlated with quality of life, or with other important priorities, like justice, equality, or environmental preservation.

    Free markets do not maximize trade volume, minimize prices, or augment income, not necessarily.

    Just as with natural selection, free markets maximize local fitness. This statement isn't very helpful until you take a look at what "fitness" implies in a free market habitat.

    In this habitat, the fittest companies are those that attract money from customers. How do you attract money from customers? The most reliable way is to offer them something that benefits them. (Cheating -- fraud -- is not a good option, for legal reasons.) But you've gotta keep in mind, there's a lot of competition around, so to survive the business has to offer people something that will benefit them more than if they spent the money on something else.

    In the end, what is maximized is efficiency. Businesses compete and evolve to give customers the most of whatever it is they want for the finite amount of resources they have.

    the parallel with natural selection is rather apt in a way that libertarians won’t like: not only does natural selection not yield optimal outcomes (just whatever happens to work well enough), but it is extremely and painfully wasteful. Let us not forget that the overwhelming majority of species that ever existed went extinct, and that any improvement in the adaptation of a population of organisms happens at the cost of countless deaths and suffering among the less fortunate members of that population.

    Because thinking humans are creating the business mutations, the evolution of businesses is much more focused. Businessmen aren't tied to a genetic code; they can change whatever is not working at a moment's notice.

    The fact that most species are extinct (and most businesses go out of business) is a good thing, because the surviving businesses are better suited to serving human needs. I doubt many people would shed a tear for all of these dead, inefficient businesses. I'm sure even fewer people would do business with them, were they to reappear. : )

    Just like unbridled capitalism, essentially a pyramid scheme, makes a very small number of people very rich, but is built on the sweat and lack of a social net for the majority.

    I'm disappointed to see someone so smart say something so incredibly ignorant.

    Natural selection doesn’t require our or anyone else’s intervention to work, it truly does function “from the bottom up.” Not so economies, even by Shermer’s own account.

    I think he's mistaken here, and his arguments for this in the book were downright pitiful. There's a book by David Friedman (Milton Friedman's son) called The Machinery of Freedom, if you're interested in the more consistent libertarian position.

    Natural selection does work without the need for an intelligent designer, but it just seems perverse to ask human beings not to use their intelligence to improve on the workings of whatever invisible hand may blindly guide the markets.

    Again, you totally misunderstand the issue. Humans ARE using their intelligence to improve on the workings of the economy. These humans are entrepreneurs. The reason they do this is to make money. How do they make money? By finding a better, more efficient way to please customers. That's the economic selection process, and that's why markets work.

    You really should do more research on this subject before you write this kind of stuff. If you could only see how inappropriate your criticisms are, I'm sure you'd be pretty embarrassed. And I'm not speaking from a hard-headed libertarian viewpoint right now, just an economics viewpoint. There are valid (though flawed, I believe) arguments for regulation. But YOUR arguments miss the point entirely.

    From your critique of a review of Shermer's Market book: "Again, you totally misunderstand the issue. Humans ARE using their intelligence to improve on the workings of the economy. These humans are entrepreneurs. The reason they do this is to make money. How do they make money? By finding a better, more efficient way to please customers. That's the economic selection process, and that's why markets work."

    As much as I want to believe this, it is difficult to do so in light of the economic meltdown, particlularly where banks and others seemed to seek not at all what you claim here. Unless we substitute "fleece" for "please." I'm trying to get my head around the idea of an unfettered market being effective in the real world. It seems as if the costs of adjusting after these kinds of devastating wake-ups are so expensive.

    As other commenters have put ineloquently, you clearly do not understand the fundamental definitions of human action (economics) that Shermer's points are based on. I doubt someone with your obvious theological bent on the non-existant entity qua entity "society" ever will take the time to think honestly about how you know what you know about human action, revealed preference, or the function of the state. Ah yes, our individual self-determination of our own utility betrayed by the complacency of cowardly or malignant minds – a sacrifice to the vanity of aging adolescents. Pity.

    Massimo, there are so many things wrong with the flat assertions you make it's hard to know where to begin but I want you to hear me out because, if you were willing to read his book, it shows you have some open-mindedness towards libertarianism.

    You accuse Michael of being one of the few moderate libertarians you know, but then when he shows you to be a moderate (actually he doesn't but I'll get into that later), you say he is a classic libertarian by having his cake and eating it too. Which is it? Are most libertarians not moderate or aren't they?

    The second point I'd like to bring up is that, while, although Shermer currently rejects anarcho-capitalism, the sentence you quote, when he says "But] in order to keep the free market both free and fair, we need political states based on the rule of law, with property rights, a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system, economic stability, a reliable infrastructure, protection of civil liberties, a clean and safe environment, and various freedoms of movement, of the press, of association, and of education. We need a robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states. We need a potent police force for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state. We need a viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws. We need an effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.” he does not say that we need a government to do these things. Just like I believe I need food on my plate but I don't go to a gov't market to do that; I go to the super market. He says we need x,y,z and you infer that he means we need gov't to provide x,y,z when he doesn't. You say
    "In other words, we need a pretty pervasive government to both facilitate and control social activities, including economic ones! This is the classic libertarian version of wanting the cake and trying to eat it too. Whatever happened to leaving the markets alone to do their magic (something, incidentally, that Smith himself never advocated, aware as he was of human wickedness and crookery, well before Exxon Valdez and Enron)? Natural selection doesn’t require our or anyone else’s intervention to work, it truly does function “from the bottom up.” Not so economies, even by Shermer’s own account. Natural selection does work without the need for an intelligent designer, but it just seems perverse to ask human beings not to use their intelligence to improve on the workings of whatever invisible hand may blindly guide the markets."

    In a recent reason.tv interview, Shermer said that liberals in the science field (not sure if he thought of you when he thought of this) fall for appeal to ignorance fallacies that just because we don't know what a private police or private military force would look like, doesn't mean one can't exist - the same fallacy that creationists make when they say that just because science can't prove something yet means God did it (Gov of the gaps).

    Wow. Look at all the butthurt Libertarians spamming this page. Gotta love their binary pseudo-logic: If you disagree with us, you're either misinformed or evil.

    >If you disagree with us, you're either misinformed or evil.

    How is this not true?

    > How is this not true?

    If you don't know how it's false, you're either ignorant or stupid.

    Spoken like a true progressive socialist. When they can't answer the question, "How is this not true?", they will answer it with personal attacks seen by the above response that the person asking is "ignorant" or "stupid" who would dare ask.

    Redistribution of wealth is socialism; a concept which did not have any part in the success of the United States. Nor has the socialist model shown any successful government to date. They have all failed with nothing but a stream of misery and injustice to show for it.

    When the academic, who ponders texts in books, has ventured out into the corporate environment and is actually part of the fruitful labor that has made this country great, then please submit your resume of credentials to the public as to what basis you have earned to speak on such matters that your experience in said environment has pointedly proven your political conclusions.

    Until then, I will assume that texts of unicorns and spin has muddled your brain. A brain that is teaching such rubbish to equally ignorant young students, who will one day want your heads for leading them into their hell-holed future.