Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

 This seemed to me a clear classification error. My predecessor in managing the science collections probably hadn’t been particularly well-versed in scientific methodology or the criteria deployed in distinguishing science from pseudoscience. They’d purchased or received a book that had all the superficial trappings of science and made the understandable mistake of placing it among science books.

 Curious, I decided to do a bit of research. Turns out, my predecessor had indeed made an error. Unfortunately, they were far from alone in making it. This misclassification is astonishingly pervasive. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) lists catalog numbers in the 570s (Dewey) or QHs (Library of Congress Classification) as the most frequent classification for not only Darwin’s Doubt, but a variety of similar works. I checked the catalogs of public libraries in New York, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, and the District of Columbia – in each location, the story is the same. Of course, this is hardly a representative sample, but the emerging pattern was distressing nonetheless: public libraries across the United States are failing in their charge to present accurate information to the public.

History of a Bad Idea: the Rise of Intelligent Design

In popular parlance, the perspective peddled in the books I’m referring to is called intelligent design. It is the modern incarnation of creationism, a thoroughly discredited branch of religious dogma that formerly masqueraded as science. The 1975 Daniel v. Waters circuit court and 1982 Mclean v. Arkansas district court decisions gave legal standing to the current scientific consensus on the processes that account for cosmological, biological, and geological phenomena, rejecting creationism as a suitable topic for public science education. In the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case, the U.S. Supreme Court did likewise. It was recognized that creationism is a religious perspective on the origins of life, incapable of withstanding serious scientific scrutiny and incompatible with the principles of secular education.

 Thereafter, those inclined to view religious origin stories as an essential component of science education adopted a new tactic. Creationism was stripped of all obvious references to Christianity, Biblical doctrine, and even deity. Subsequently married to a school of rather potent intellectual gymnastics, creationism sired what is now known as intelligent design – a more sophisticated and insidious rebranding of the old campaign to inject theology into the realms of scientific discourse and public science education.

 Advocates of intelligent design have worked hard to disguise their sectarian motivations and present a veneer of scientific objectivity. Despite these efforts at obfuscation, intelligent design has been consistently rejected as an appropriate topic for public science classrooms. Most recently, in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Judge John E. Johns – a Bush appointee – ruled that, because intelligent design is not science, its presentation in publicly funded science curricula represents a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On its own, this legal precedent makes the presence of books like Darwin’s Doubt in public library science collections a real eyebrow-raiser. Why, if it is inappropriate to inject religiously motivated thinking into publicly funded science education, is it somehow permissible to allow religiously motivated thinking into similarly financed science collections at public libraries? According to established legal precedent, every library that shelves books like Darwin’s Doubt and Michael Behe’s equally unscientific Darwin’s Black Box in their science collections stands in flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Intelligent Design Isn’t Science

This alone should offer sufficient reason for any publicly funded library to take the simple step of booting these books out of their science collections. But to drive the point home, let’s push a little further. Surely it will be protested that the courts do not decide what is and is not science. This is true. But if the courts don’t decide, who does?

 One answer might be that the scientists themselves decide. And there is a sense in which this is true. Consensus does play a role in shaping the course of scientific progress and the vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design as junk or pseudoscience. This is especially true among life scientists, who tend to have the most relevant expertise when it comes to evaluating the scientific validity of an idea like intelligent design. Scientific organizations like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have issued unequivocal repudiations of intelligent design, denying its credibility as a scientific theory and urging educators to guard against its intrusion into public science curricula.

 Of course, science doesn’t work by consensus alone. This means that the deepest reasons for doubting the scientific veracity of intelligent design come from the nature of science itself. Individual scientists have different ideas about what exactly differentiates science from non-science. But one defining feature about which there is virtually unanimous agreement is this: science must make some appeal to observable reality. Its special standing as a knowledge-gaining pursuit is granted by a thorough dependence on the fruits of observation and experimentation. Scientific claims must be testable and, more fundamentally, falsifiable. If there is no conceivable way in which your idea can be proven wrong, then it is extremely likely that it is not science.

 This is where intelligent design is dealt its fatal blow. The entire program of intelligent design consists of stubborn attempts to poke holes in a Darwinian understanding of the origins and diversity of life on earth. Intelligent design advocates do not formulate testable hypotheses, in no small part because their central claim – that the existence of life hinges upon the intervention of an intelligent designer – can’t be tested. Those sympathetic to intelligent design posit scientific-sounding notions like irreducible complexity – the notion that certain features of the biological world cannot have evolved by natural processes because they depend on an intricate interplay among essential components – as a smokescreen for the credulous, hoping clever branding will mask a paucity of strong ideas.

 Various intelligent design proponents have posited candidates for irreducible complexity in the form of biological traits like flagellar motors and complex eyes. Each of these features rests well within the explanatory wheelhouse of modern evolutionary theory. Insofar as an irreducibly complex flagellar motor is an intelligent design hypothesis, the theory has been falsified. But this is too permissive. Look deeper and you’ll find that there are no objective criteria for recognizing irreducible complexity when you see it. The claim that the camera eye is irreducibly complex doesn’t flow from the logical structure of intelligent design, so it can’t actually be seen as a hypothesis with any relevance to said idea’s explanatory potential. What is and is not irreducibly complex is all in the eye of the beholder. The notion that the Cambrian Explosion can’t be explained by established Darwinian principles isn’t a hypothesis – it’s an opinion. It is an argument from incredulity that offers no fodder for experimental or observational evaluation and therefore disallows intelligent design entry into the scientific fold.

Lying in Place: Misleading the Public Through Careless Shelving

None of this is particularly groundbreaking stuff. These ideas have been spelled out repeatedly in ponderous legal decisions, dense philosophical tracts, breezy popular science bestsellers, and from countless university lecterns across the globe. Yet somehow intelligent design books like Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin’s Black Box have managed to sneak into public library science collections across the United States.

 A mislabeled book here and there is a small thing. Surely the vast majority of the books on the surrounding shelves represent good science. Those good ideas should swamp the bad. But think of the disservice done to the laypersons that come to these topics with fresh eyes. It’s a simple thing, but the placement of books can say a lot. In this case, it may say that intelligent design – an idea regarded by the vast majority of actual scientists as either junk science or pseudoscience – should be granted the same credence as any other book in the science section. In which case, the library will have done the job of carelessly misinforming its patrons. Placing intelligent design books in science collections is a decision that carries with it an implicit suggestion that they have the same explanatory merit as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

 Darwin’s Doubt and books like it belong in the library. Public libraries have a duty to serve the interests of the theologically minded as much as the scientifically curious. These books might make good candidates for entries in philosophical collections dealing with the metaphysics of change or teleogy. More aptly, they might find a place in religious collections. Collection managers ought to have some discretion in this regard.

 There is, however, one place in the public library where these books do not belong: the science section. Most libraries weed out books on discredited ideas. If a library is doing its job, patrons shouldn’t find books advocating the phlogiston theory of combustion or offering astrological explanations for the condition of their love life in the science collection. Intelligent design is equally unscientific. Let’s do the public the service of cataloguing it accordingly.

Unmasking Leviathan: The Radical Right’s Attempt to Reshape American Politics

The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.

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There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.

However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.

Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.

Given the preeminence of wealth in their worldview, it is little surprise that the architects of the modern conservative agenda evince open disdain for the principles of democratic self-governance*. Fanatical ideologues, these people hue to a perverse and extreme doctrine, wherein any effort by the majority to put common interests ahead of personal wealth is viewed as an act of tyranny. Their allegiance to community and nation ends where those entities cease to serve as instruments furthering the accumulation of wealth and power. Less there remain any ambiguity: these people pose a massive threat to post-Great Depression democracy in the United States. Their goal is to return the U.S. to the Gilded Age – a time of massive economic inequality, rampant corruption, and widespread disenfranchisement.

They have set for themselves the explicit goal of turning government to their will, eliminating all barriers to the accumulation of profit, simultaneously turning every element of the public sector into a new avenue for the generation of wealth. To this end, they have captured the Republican Party and bent it into a tool of radical greed. Gone are the principles of traditional conservatism. No more reverence for tradition as the grounding force for social order. No principled commitments to self-determination or limited government. In their place stands a single-minded passion for unfettered self-interest.

This all reads like some kind of hard-boiled conspiracy theory. But it’s not. It is ice-cold, brutal reality, uncovered by the diligence of intrepid journalists and documented in the written words of the ideological fanatics themselves. These people have built a network of shadowy 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations to conceal their machinations. They have seized control of the GOP by demanding fealty in exchange for political self-preservation. Republican congress people with the courage and integrity to dissent have been branded as Cucks and RINOs and primaried out of office, replaced by rabid ideologues and lick-spittles more amendable to an extremist, anti-democratic cause.

History of the Cause

The history of the radical libertarian movement, as documented in Nancy Maclean’s exhaustively researched and deeply admirable book Democracy in Chains, is itself damning. As a political movement, modern American libertarianism – the philosophical lifeblood of radical conservatism – traces its roots back to John C. Calhoun, a savage bigot and fierce defender of slavery. Calhoun correctly saw in democratic governance a potential threat to property rights and therein his right to accumulate wealth by owning people as property. He recognized that in a contest of values there were significant domains in which property rights and human rights might conflict, and set about dreaming up a body of political theory compatible with his personal sympathies (spoiler: Calhoun favored property rights over human rights).

In Calhoun’s view, the majority had no legitimate right to inflict its will on a minority, for any reason. This meant that an electorate enlightened enough to recognize chattel slavery as a repugnant moral abomination had no right to impose their views on a minority who found slavery a righteous engine of personal profit. In this light, Calhoun dreamt up the right of interposition – a state’s right to veto federal authority.

This self-serving view carried on through history, festering in the stew of racial tensions and class conflict that has long characterized the American South. When Brown vs. the Board of Education placed the weight of federal law behind school integration, the regressive elements of the old aristocratic order in the South used the doctrine of interposition as an instrument of rebellion. When that failed, they became enthusiastic advocates for school privatization. In Virginia, school voucher programs were first instituted as a way around integration – dropping public funding for public schools in some majority black counties and offering white students special scholarships to attend private all white schools.

In this crucible of social upheaval, acolytes of what came to be known as the Austrian school of economics began to recast developments in terms of Calhoun’s old contest between individual rights and communitarian values. This is how they framed things, but it’s worth noting at the outset that it is a thorough misrepresentation of their true values. The only individual right they cared about protecting was a person’s right to acquire and dispense wealth as they saw fit. In order to protect it, they were willing – and have only grown more so – to strangle any other individual right that inconvenienced this aim.

Over time, this movement has only grown, gaining as allies radical billionaires like Charles Koch. Today, they work to influence policy at every level of government, staffing and funding so-called “think-tanks” (really sophisticated propaganda outlets, given their a priori intellectual constraints and vicious intolerance for dissent) like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. In order to sway policy, they operate a network of putative “charity” organizations that dump huge sums of money into political campaigns at every level of government.

Their strategy – from their own writings and personal communications – is to “crab-walk” American democracy into a system of restraints that cripple collective action. It begins by working to incrementally erode confidence in public institutions. As outlined by James Buchanan, one of the movement’s chief architects, it begins with disingenuous expressions of concern.  Ideologically sympathetic – and, frequently enough, directly coached – politicians express concern over the future of some program like Social Security, wondering whether it will be there for them and their families in the future and what they can do to fix it.

From there, they secure support from the most vulnerable, promising those 5 or 10 years out from retirement that Social Security will still be there for them. Thereby heading off their most vocal opponents, they proceed to encourage further doubt in the program’s viability and stoke frustration over its performance. They push the age of eligibility back a few years and work to sew discontent among the young by planting questions about why they pay into an entitlement scheme that will probably have collapsed by the time they come of age. Further public ire is generated through the very suggestion of means-based welfare redistribution – naively favored by progressives.

It all paves the way for privatization, which does more than turn the targeted program into an engine of profit for the already wealthy. Every instance of privatization works to corrode public confidence and interest in government, as it begins to steadily play less and less of a role in their lives. By the time they realize what has happened – if they realize it – it is too late. The public is left adrift to fend for themselves in a cutthroat system of corporate feudalism and economic coercion.

This is why the Republican Party is willing to engage in dangerous brinksmanship like shutting down the government or stealing a Supreme Court seat. Their ideological needs are met either way. Either they decrease government spending and capture a branch of government through nefarious means or they decrease public confidence in democratic institutions and amplify the perception that the government is irredeemably broken. It’s a win-win for people so fanatically devoted to a perverse ideology that they are willing to pay any cost to see it enacted.

The Fanaticism of the Radical Libertarian/Conservative Movement

If one is going to tar a belief system as dangerously fanatical, it’s probably best to explain why. The short answer is this: the libertarian/conservative movement currently working to drastically reorder the American political sphere is entirely divorced from empirical reality. It is based on a theory of human behavior that has been repeatedly refuted by scientific studies from a variety of disciplines. That’s a long way of saying it is false. Despite this, the proponents of the movement – the radical right – are willing to abandon fundamental American values and cause untold suffering to see their beliefs put into practice. Someone who holds a belief in disproportion to the available evidence is a fool. Someone who is so passionately dedicated to that belief that they are willing to hurt people to see it manifest is a fanatic. And a dangerous one at that.

It would be unfair to cast the motivating concerns of modern libertarianism as entirely unfounded. Like all radical social movements, it starts with a seed of legitimate grievance. In this case, the problem is what has been called “rent seeking” behavior. Rent seeking occurs anytime a person or organization extracts a benefit disproportionate to their contribution, be it economic or social. In the realm of government, the famous libertarian economist Milton Freidman called this the problem of distributed costs and concentrated benefits. Despite the protestations of the most ardent leftists, it is real.

It all boils down to this. Politicians have it in their interests to meet the demands of voters, however they might be conceived. Libertarians couch this in the language of “public choice” theory – which we’ll return to shortly – and describe it all as a matter of rational self-interest. There’s no reason to be so reductive (and even less reason to think rational actor theory is a robust model of human behavior) but the analysis still stands. Maybe politicians want to address public concerns as matter of civic duty, maybe they want to do it is a way of securing re-election. Presumably there are instances where both are true. In this regard, it is critical to note that strains of corporate welfare are forms of costly rent seeking as well. It’s  not just a problem of poor people asking for more than their “fair share”.

In any event, the outcome is the same. Groups of like-minded voters or powerful interests work to pressure politicians into granting them political favors. There’s no need to frame it in terms of seedy back room dealings. This can all be very innocuous. Indeed, most of the targets of libertarian outrage are either inoffensive or objectively beneficial, like arts programs, public schools, and environmental protections. This is, in fact, precisely how democracies should work.

However, it can become problematic over time, because the benefits these initiatives secure almost always come with some cost, distributed in tiny increments among the tax base. Over time, successful campaigns that benefit narrow interest groups – at a cost virtually invisible to any given tax payer – can pile up. Widespread costs accrue gradually, eventually leading to a big, expensive government.

From this, hardcore libertarians contend that majority rule is inherently oppressive and that minorities should always have the right to defect from the popular will. This, as James Madison – the primary author of the U.S. Constitution – argued during the founding of the United States, would effectively neuter representative government and abolish democratic rule. It also paves the way for corporate tyranny, as powerful minority groups maintain unchecked power to coerce and exploit the less wealthy while laying waste to public goods. By allowing corporate agents to escape the costs of externalities (unforeseen costs that aren’t factored into the prices of products) it allows new forms of rent seeking behavior.

What we have here is a fanatical overreaction to a real problem. One would have to be an oblivious milquetoast to look at the spending of the modern U.S. government and not spot at least a handful of programs they find completely frivolous. The solution is to find ways to more effectively evaluate the costs and benefits of special interest programs – and do so continuously – so government can periodically clean house by getting rid of programs that no longer do much good. Abolishing government entirely and reducing the domain of public action to free-market spending, as libertarians and hard-line conservatives advocate, is a recipe for widespread misery (a point the libertarian movement’s intellectual architects cheerily accept).

Inasmuch as the libertarian response to the burden of taxation is an overreaction, the intellectual tradition that leads them to posit pure capitalist anarchy as the foundation for an ideal society is riddled with fallacious reasoning. To describe modern academic libertarianism as intellectually stillborn is probably unjust. Ideas are judged according to their performance in tests against empirical reality. In this domain, the hard line libertarian enterprise has faced countless rebukes and been reduced to a program of pure, self-interested propaganda.

Libertarianism – and free-market fundamentalism, writ large – takes many of its philosophical cues from the Austrian school of economics, a school dependent on an obscure line of reasoning called “praxeology”. Succinctly put, praxeology contends that the study of human action and behavior can be purely deductive. This is a rather curious position, in no small-part because it holds itself as immune to refutation. One can simply start with a few premises about the nature of human action and work out how humans ought to behave as a result.

As a logical proposition, that is all well and good. Premises lead ineluctably to conclusions and boom, there you have it, a prescription for human action. Problems arise, however, when the premises you use as a launch pad for your reasoning are false. In the school of praxeology, as in the more widely recognized domain of public choice theory, many of the starting assumptions have been repeatedly proven to be thoroughly erroneous.

Take just two of their founding tenets: that humans are entirely rational and infinitely selfish. Both have been disproved, again and again, by experiments with ultimatum and dictator games. In an ultimatum game, two players are matched up and charged with distributing a given sum of money. One is given the role of “the proposer” and one is given the role of “the responder”. The proposer offers a certain amount and the responder decides whether or not to accept it. If the responder accepts, both players take home their allotted share. If the responder refuses, both players get nothing. The dictator game is pretty much the same thing, except the responder is completely passive – they get whatever the proposer gives them.

If human are rational and selfish, this yields pretty firm predictions about what ought to occur. In the ultimatum game, the proposer should offer the lowest possible sum and the responder should accept it. It doesn’t matter if it seems unfair. That is an irrational consideration. If the proposer divides a $100 pot 99:1, the responder should still say yes because they leave $1 dollar richer than they would have otherwise. But this never happens. The experimental subjects that come closest to realizing the libertarian fantasy are economics students who have been educated (or perhaps indoctrinated) with the principles of rational choice theory. Everywhere else, subjects consistently offer bids that exceed rational utility optimization and reject those that seem unfair. This is true even in the dictator game, where the proposer has the option to keep the entire pot for himself.

The implications are clear. Humans are bad at rationally maximizing their payoffs and are innately predisposed toward fairness.

Even within the confines of rational actor theory, the free-market fundamentalism seems to collapse. Some degree of third-party enforcement is essential solve problems associated with incomplete contract and public goods dilemmas. One of the principle assumption behind market rationality is that participants in exchange have all of the information they need to make the best possible decision. Rarely is this the case in the real world, but is convenient fiction for modelling. Interestingly, if we take the notion of rational self-interest, we should expect agents to regularly conceal things from one another. Deception should be common place, as those offering goods seek to hide their possible detriments and exaggerate their benefits. The fossil fuel industry, for example, should work to obfuscate the damage caused by their product. That’s hypothetical of course – they would never actually do that, say, by hiring the marketing sharps who worked to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

So many of the assumptions that motivate the entire free-market fundamentalism are either false or mutually self-defeating that is difficult to see why so many people take it seriously. Alas, such is the power of motivated reasoning. If human behavior were simply a matter of selfish rationality, a belief that the unfettered pursuit of wealth is a sound basis for sociopolitical order would be considerably more justifiable. Libertarians have reached the right conclusion from their founding axioms. It just happens that those axioms are fundamentally wrong.

This doesn’t seem to affect their enthusiasm much. Amity Shlaes, a devotee of the libertarian pioneer James Buchanan and author of The Forgotten Man, claims that “public choice theory explain(s) everything.” An impressive feat. It is also, as it happens, the feature of Marxism that led Karl Popper to reject it as a scientific discipline. Public choice theory and praxeology are nonsense on stilts (to borrow Jeremy Benthem’s phrase) precisely because their application is limited only by their practitioner’s imagination. They are irrefutable because they are endlessly plastic.

In science, the most robust system we humans have ever devised for assigning confidence in our beliefs, the proper use of deductive reasoning is as an instrument of refutation. One takes a body of theory and uses it to derive predictions (i.e. hypotheses) about what the actual world should be like. Ideally, the relationship between theory and hypothesis is axiomatic – meaning if theory X is true then we should see Y. If we don’t see Y, theory X is false. Scientists then perform experiments or observations and look at how closely the results match predictions. If the results look nothing like the predictions yielded by theory, then scientists start to suspect the theory in question suffers from serious flaws.

Of course, in any social science, things tend to be a lot trickier than that. But it is still considered bad science to continue to build theories – much less large scale policy prescriptions – around disproved premises. Public choice theory, like Marxism, is more akin to a body of religious dogma than a serious scientific or intellectual framework.

Libertarian Utopia

Paradise, for an ideological zealot like Charles Koch, is an alien world. Plenty of people feel the sting of their tax bill and reasonably think they could do with a lighter load. They might even have specific public services in mind as targets for reduction or eradication. Few, however, actively dream of the world proposed by the hardcore libertarian. In the utopia envisioned by the radical right, government only exists to protect property rights. It serves no other purpose.

This is a perverse vision. The architects of the campaign are well aware of this. Many of them are, after all, pretty sharp people. Charles Koch himself holds a number of engineering degrees from MIT. Koch and his allies recognize that few people would freely elect to live in the world they are trying to build, which is precisely why their campaign is so secretive. They do not want to expose their dreams to an open trial in the marketplace of ideas, because they have strong reasons to think it will likely fail that test.

So what is that world actually like? Cutthroat, myopic, and fraught with suffering. Now, it is important to recognize that, while Charles Koch and the intellectuals on his payroll would choose to describe things in more rosy terms, they have no fundamental disagreements with what I am about to describe.

In the libertarian utopia envisioned by the radical right, inequality – already at record levels in the United States – is radically worse. The U.S. of libertarian dreams looks considerably more like a third-world country, complete with slums where people who can’t make it in the mainstream market live in shacks built from tar paper and corrugated tin and scrape by on their own. Clean water is a commodity for people with the means to buy it. Public health crises like the lead contamination that plagued Flint, Michigan are far more common. There is no Center for Disease Control or National Institute of Health working to cure diseases or prevent the outbreak of devastating epidemics. If you don’t save enough to retire, you’re on your own, condemned to old age poverty. This is true even if you saved prudently and happened to have a personal health crisis that drained your savings account years short of retirement – because there sure as hell isn’t any room for government assistance with medical care in a free market paradise.

Unsurprisingly, radical libertarians see no room for environmental regulation or public lands. Land belongs to whoever values it the most, which will tend to be very rich individuals or corporations who can afford to transform large swaths of it into profitable enterprises like mining or logging. There will, in short, be no spaces left over for the common folk to camp or hunt or hike on.

Public schools will be gone, virtually guaranteeing that patterns of intergenerational inequality will be cemented in place and carried on in perpetuity. The prospects of children will be shackled to the economic performance of their parents. This will also have the effect of paralyzing discourse and intellectual progress, as the ideologically inclined can opt to send their children to indoctrination academies that will reinforce their preferred brand of nonsense. The children of fundamentalist Christians will learn that the earn is 6000 years old and the children of postmodern liberals will learn that their subjective feelings take precedence over any strain of established fact.

Of course, you could take some solace in the fact that you won’t have much of tax bill any more. That would be a mistake. First, the libertarian vision will actually demand a massive police state. While drugs and prostitution will be legal, police will still be necessary to stifle the communitarian uprisings that are sure to crop up from time to time, threatening the property rights of the moneyed classes. Likewise, there will still be a strong military for enforcing the spirit of righteous, unfettered capitalism throughout the rest of the world. So you’ll still have a tax bill. But a lot of your tax savings will be consumed paying to drive on private toll roads, send your kid to the best private school you can afford, forking out for fire department services (if you’re into having someone help you put out a house fire – or can afford a house), and paying market value for clean water.

This is the world Charles Koch and his pawns in the Republican Party are working to build. Those with the intelligence to recognize the likely consequences of their vision openly are on board with all of this. They see the obvious costs as a worthy price for economic liberty. In their view, it is all ethically justifiable because people always succeed or fail according to their inherent value. If you are poor, it is because you are lazy and stupid. If you are rich, it is because you are intelligent and ambitious. An inability to secure clean drinking water or pay a private security detail to keep your house safe from the upstarts who sneak out of the slums at night is a sign of personal failure. In this world, you can only ever be a victim of self-sabotage.

If you think that seems extreme, you are right. But it is a natural conclusion to reach if you start from blatantly fallacious premises like “humans are rational, self-interested, utility maximizing machines.” The radical libertarian architects of campaign to reshape America don’t care about the suffering and chaos that would be caused by a pure victory of their ideology. In fact, suffering, in their worldview, would be a signal of righteous victory. Those who can’t make it in a libertarian utopia are victims of self-sabotage and personal ineptitude. Libertarianism, for them, represents a world in which everyone gets what they deserve.

It is worth taking a moment to pause and reflect on this view. This version of “the cream will always rise up to the top” socioeconomic theory is rooted in a meaningless tautology, entirely immune to external evaluation. The problem is that economic success, like biological fitness, is a what is called a “supervenient” property. In layman’s terms, that means it is not reducible to a single, universally relevant set of causes. In the world of evolutionary biology, there is not one feature that causes fitness. Rather, fitness can be understood in one of two ways: as a description of the number of offspring an organism produced or as a probabilistic estimate of the number of offspring an organism might produce, given its characteristics within a given environment.

That’s all rather esoteric, but the long and short of it is that you can’t say fitness is all about being strong or fast or pretty. Sometimes it’s about those things. Sometimes it’s about others. Sometimes it’s just about luck. Likewise, success is only probabilistically associated with the features we colloquially attribute to successful people. We have folk theories of success that say it’s a matter of intelligence, skill, competence, ambition, and hard work. True, in the social/economic/political world, intelligence and ambition are enormously useful. They play a role in success that exceeds what would be expected by pure chance. But it is perfectly possible to gain success without them (say, through inheritance or dumb luck) or possess them in abundance and go nowhere.

In the libertarian vision, is the smart, hard working person who simply has a life riddled with bad luck just an unfortunate cost of liberty? Maybe. What of a person who is born with a very low IQ to poor parents who can’t afford a good education? Do they deserve a life of poverty and suffering? The libertarian position here, is – quite explicitly – “yes”. Some people are going to eat shit and die and communitarian efforts – expressed through majority will in open, democratic elections – to alleviate that suffering through taxation and welfare are considered a form of tyranny.

The End Game

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” One could find a modicum of irony in this bit of wisdom, considering its source. Friedrich Nietzche believed that one of the core impulses behind human behavior was a will to power – a desire to exceed social or ethical confines and an ambition to exercise control.  This is an ambition radical libertarians would not find entirely alien.

Nietzsche produced a lot of garbage (the concept of “eternal return”, anyone?) but the sagacity of the aforementioned quote is hard to dispute. In combating any evil, one should be vigilant of the potential risks. The Austrian school of economics was spawned in the wake of World War II, at a time when brutal despots – men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – had seized control of Germany and the Soviet Union. Friedrich Hayek, one of the founding thinkers of the Austrian school, perceived a direct line between communitarian values and tyranny.

This connection has not been born out as matter of social law or historical fact. Most modern Western countries engage in some mixed strategy of social democracy and capitalism. It is only with considerable effort that one can look at Germany, Denmark, Norway, Canada, or even the United States and see a world of tyranny and oppression. But at the time, the argument didn’t look nearly as frail. Radical leftist ideologues, deeply motivated by an extreme commitment to communitarian values – above and beyond any consideration for individual rights – had recently captured control of huge swaths of Europe and Asia in the form of the Soviet Union. Very shortly, China would also fall to the fanatical leftist ideology of political communism. It looked very much like there might be a direct road from the communitarian ethos behind public education and infrastructure projects to authoritarianism.

Hayek and his intellectual kin saw the injustice and oppression sired by a virulent strain of ideological fanaticism and set about building a body of political theory to combat it. Thus was born their fire and brimstone devotion to individual economic liberty and absolute, inalienable property rights. History and science have since revealed the body of socioeconomic theory they constructed as a rather fevered overreaction, empirically unsupportable in theory and ethically disastrous in practice.

Yet the modern devotees of that tradition still herald it as a utopian vision. Belligerently indifferent to the vast flaws in their intellectual framework, they have set themselves the task of reshaping the United States of America to better match their fanatical aspirations. In this, men like Charles Koch directly mirror Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Pol Pot, and Joseph Stalin. They are so convinced that their vision of the world is true and righteous that they are willing to go to almost any lengths to see it put into practice. No amount of human suffering seems too high a cost. Their dreams of a glittering utopia for commerce and personal ambition are worth any toll.

The similarities run deeper still. Political operatives in the Koch organization advise new recruits to study Vladimir Lenin’s playbook for revolution. The parallels are truly disconcerting. An extreme ideology, largely divorced from the findings of serious scientific or historical research. A passion to put that ideology into practice that trivializes the suffering it will cause. A plan of operation that involves deliberate deceit and misdirection. A disdain for democracy.

It is partially ironic, that people so fearful of the threat of one extreme ideology would champion an equally extreme remedy. But it is not surprising. This is what happens anytime anyone begins to put their beliefs about the way the world ought to be ahead of the way the world actually is. Ideology poisons reason. It has happened on the Regressive Left, where a nasty brew of identity politics, postmodern subjectivism, and neoMarxism is motivating savage anti-democratic behavior and a disturbing embrace of authoritarianism. The radical right is no different. They have taken concerns about the burden of taxation and regulation – reasonable targets for open debate – and turned them into justifications for a fanatical campaign with a dangerously anti-democratic endgame in mind. The difference here is that the Regressive Left is presently just an obnoxious fringe group. The radical right, on the other hand, is calling the shots for one of only two major political parties in the United States – and it happens to be the one with majority control in both houses of congress, ideological control of the Supreme Court, and a megalomaniacal imbecile ripe for manipulation in the White House.

The ultimate goal of the radical right is wholesale constitutional reform. In this, they have made considerable progress. They have captured the majority of state legislatures and used that authority to redraw congressional districts to disenfranchise liberal and independent voters. Likewise, they have instituted a huge number of voter suppression laws – ostensibly to prevent voter fraud, a virtually nonexistent problem. The real purpose of those laws – as their architects have occasionally let slip – is to rob people who don’t agree with them of their political voice. In the Senate, they effectively stole a Supreme Court seat. Some argue this was done in principled defense of traditional conservative interests like gun rights and abortion. Those people are fools. This was done to protect Citizens United and McCutcheon vs. FEC – Supreme Court rulings that undermine one-person, one-vote democracy by allowing unlimited, undisclosed political spending by wealthy individuals and corporations – from judicial review.

None of this is surprising to anyone who understands the motivating ethos of the radical right. The only value they cherish is wealth – the ability to accumulate more of it, the ability to protect, the ability to spend it however they wish. As I have stressed repeatedly, this would be fine if two things were true. First, if the socioeconomic theory they endorse were not flagrantly indifferent to the actual working of reality. Second, if they were not so secretive in their dealings. Instead, they are secretly working to refashion the U.S. Constitution into an instrument of a fanatical ideology.

Consider, in this regard, that they revere the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as an example of the successful implementation of their ideology. Pinochet stole power in a brutal coup, torturing and murdering members of the opposition. Thereafter, the Pinochet regime embarked on a campaign of neoliberal reform that included significantly curtailing the electorate’s capacity to influence their government through majority vote. To be fair, the economy of Chile performed well in the succeeding decades. Corruption and exploitation was rampant in privatized industries (privatized social security, for instance, took 30% of the funds people invested as fees) and income inequality rose sharply, but GDP looked healthy.

Pinochet was supported by the likes of free market fundamentalist Friedrich Hayek. In undertaking constitutional reform, his government was advised by James Buchanan, a principle designer of the Koch network’s plan of constitutional restructuring in the United States. Their views on the outcome are telling. Pinochet murdered his opposition and ruled as dictator. He deliberately worked to erode the average citizen’s capacity to shape political outcomes. The Pinochet regime’s programs reduced real wages for many and increased income inequality substantially. They did, however, likely contribute to prosperity for some and overall increases in GDP. The implication is clear: the people on the radical right are willing to sanction brutality and oppression, forsake democracy, and increase economic suffering if doing so makes it generally easy for some people – the most skilled, intelligent, and ambitious, in their view – the get very rich.

In all of this, nothing is more damning that radical right’s commitment to secrecy. One arm of their political machine, the State Policy Network, currently funds efforts to mislead the public into keeping the sources of political spending secret. In New Mexico, they run ads on social media that suggest campaign transparency laws will lead to harassment. This is an outrageous lie in service of deliberate fear-mongering. The law in question only demands disclosure for donors who spend more than $1000 dollars. As of 2016, only 0.52% of donors give more than $200. The State Policy Network’s real goal is to keep the political machinations of the Koch network hidden from public scrutiny.

This is a thoroughly anti-democratic stance. Democracy is impotent if the electorate is uninformed. One of the most important pieces of information they can have is what interests are providing the financial backing for political candidates. This is true across the board. But this anti-democratic stance is now dogma in the bought-out GOP, openly promoted by the likes of Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz. The libertarian fanatics and hard-line conservatives on the radical right are working to erode the foundations of democracy and institute a system of oligarchic rule invincible to public rebuke. This campaign is being enacted behind a smoke-screen of unctuous patriot rhetoric and cruel misinformation. They are doing so because they believe their fanatical ideology will not survive a public hearing. Few people want what they want. They don’t care. Their chief political aim is the establishment of a governing system built to ratify their will.

In all of this, there are real items of pressing public concern. They should be subject to open debate, not pressed through clandestine dealings and cynical political manipulation. The United States has plenty of problems. They should be addressed through the action of an informed electorate. Contrary to the political strategy and policy initiatives of the Koch network and modern Republican Party, this means more transparency and better public education.

There is a tradition in political discourse of couching debate in terms of the views held by the Founding Fathers. Personally, I consider this tradition mostly nonsensical, based in a breed of fallacious reasoning that holds that people in the past were somehow wiser or more intelligent that people today. Good arguments, of course, stand independent of their originators. But in deference to said tradition, it is worth pointing out that men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison were fierce advocates of government transparency and all favored some breed of public education. John Adams, for instance, wrote:

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

Insofar as we take defection from the views of the Founders as an indication of treasonous intent or anti-democratic spirit, the implication here is obvious. The Koch network and the modern Republic Party are open foes of democracy. Their devotion to secrecy and opposition to public education rob them of any right to claim to be acting in best interests of the American electorate, writ large.

By all means, include policy ideas derived from recalcitrant, hard-line conservatism and radical libertarian philosophy as items of debate in the endless contest over how best to accomplish the aims outlined in the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. No idea should be off the table and no rational person should ever expect the best solutions solutions to every problem will fall under one ideological umbrella. Those who argue otherwise are blinkered ideological fanatics and we should be wary of their influence. But those who would work in secret to undermine democracy in service of ideological fanaticism are something far worse: they are enemies of liberty, of the right to free expression and the tools of self-governance. They, more than anything, pose the most immediate threat to the American way of life.

 

Further reading:

 

 

*It is worth noting, given the amount of space dedicated in this essay to a defense of majority rule, that this system is not without out its problems. As Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels outline in their excellent book, Democracy for Realists, a lot of voting behavior can be boiled down to myopic retrospection and tribalism. Voters tend to align according to political identity (am I a Liberal or a Conservative?) or choose candidates based on a shallow reading of well they have fared over the months directly preceding an election, regardless of how much their fortunes were actually impacted by the policies of the candidates under consideration.

Likewise, as critics of Nancy MacLean’s book have pointed out, ending institutionalized segregation would have been a longer battle – perhaps still underway – if matters had been left entirely to majority rule. In my view, all of this speaks well of the checks and balances the Founding Fathers built into the U.S. Constitution. It also argues strongly in favor of transparency and public education. I don’t see it as an argument in favor of abolishing majority rule in favor absolute sovereignty of property rights.

As a point of pure fantasy, I am partial to a system that weights votes according to competency. That is, everyone still gets a vote, but those who take the time to educate themselves above and beyond the average should get more of say. In practice, however, this also looks problematic. First, it’s easy to imagine such a system being gamed for partisan advantage. Indeed, a fair test that asked questions like “How old is the planet earth?” or “What is the scientific consensus on the causes of current patterns of climate change?”  would be instantly smeared by some critics as biased, because the correct answers to those questions run contrary to popular opinion in conservative circles. Second, voter competency might not be a good measure of a voter’s capacity to fairly judge candidates and policy – it would only be a measure of how much they know about them. Thanks to motivated reasoning, people are perfectly capable of drawing contradictory conclusions from the same body of evidence, according to existing biases.


 

In a roundabout sense, this essay is a review of MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. I think that her book was very good and well worth reading. Worth noting, however, is that she injects a distinct editorial voice into her history. Based purely on the policy measures they support, her portrayal of the radical right – and Charles Koch, in particular – rings true. Some have taken exception to her portrayal of James Buchanan. It is certainly colored to the left, but I’m not sure it is wholly inaccurate.

She also dedicates a little space to an economist named Tyler Cowen. I wasn’t familiar with him before reading MacLean’s book and am only faintly familiar with him now. That said, nothing I have been able to uncover supports her characterization of him. In Democracy in Chains, he reads like a foaming ideologue. Everything else I’ve uncovered paints him as a libertarian, but a relatively moderate one.

Combating Political Religion: How Small Government, Free Market Dogma Fails to Account for Observable Reality

There is growing sense that those interested in finding out what is true of the world are becoming a rarer and rarer breed. Everywhere we look, someone is trumpeting some blatant inanity. Vaccines cause autism. Adding flouride to water is a government conspiracy. Genetically modified organism are dangerous. Organic food is particularly nutritious. Christians are a persecuted minority. The 44th President was a foreign national and communist agent. The 9/11 Terror Attacks were an inside job. The world is only 6000 years old. Humans can’t influence the climate.

Nonsense is everywhere, but the impression that it is more prevalent than ever is mostly a matter of appearances. Humans are innately tuned to focus on the negative aspects of their environment. Good reasons for this abound, easily distilled in the recognition that it is far more consequential for us to spend our time thinking about the things that could be better than it is to spend it thinking about the things that are going just fine. On the landscapes of our ancestors, where decisions about what to pay attention to were a regular matter of life and death, it was vitally important to take note when things were about to turn sour – when herds of prey were about to migrate to a new territory, when seasonal changes were about to reduce the availability of edible fruits, when an unfriendly band of visitors turned up in your neighborhood.

So it is today. We perk up and pay extra attention when our political rivals take office or slow down and drive more carefully after passing an accident on the side of the road. The idea that we live in a world anomalously dominated by halfwits and conspiracy theorists isn’t due to the fact that halfwits and conspiracy theorists are more common than they once were. Rather, it is due to two related facts.  First, that we have access to the knowledge necessary to identify half-witted and conspiratorial thinking. Second, erroneous views about the world are obnoxious at best, dangerous at worst. Because of this, they tend to stand out. It’s unfortunate that only some of us use the knowledge constantly at our fingertips to build a more consistent, reliable understanding of the world. But the larger reality – that any of us have access to any of that information at all – is the real historical aberration.

Ignorance persists despite the proliferation of tools for its easy obliteration. As a consequence, individuals with any amount of expertise in a given subject are likely to take note of the fact that a lot of their peers have firm beliefs about the way things work that are flat-out wrong. The resilience of discernible falsehoods is an unremarkable product of historical inertia. In that, we should rejoice – not that they are still around, but that we now know how to spot them.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which the perpetuation of obviously false views about how the world works can achieve special gravity. This happens when the people who hold the levers of power embrace attitudes that are thoroughly divorced from reason and evidence. Historically, we can point to the woe and misery wrought by efforts to force the square peg of communist fantasy into the round hole of reality as illustrative examples. Men like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin held views about the way the world should work that had very little basis in fact. They achieved power and millions of humans suffered and died as a result.

Sadly, this is not a phenomenon that has been consigned to history books. In the United States, this kind of thing pervades government.  Powerful men and women who harbor ill-founded and objectively false ideas about how the world works are currently engaged in the cruel work of hammering Western society into a form that better fits their perverse vision. They are not communists, but like communists they celebrate a vision of society based far more in fantasy than in observable reality. In this, their categorical affinity with communists is striking:  that is, they are ideological fanatics.

Their fanaticism flows from two doctrinaire beliefs. First, that market liberalization results in the best kind of society possible. The fewer restrictions there are on the way people make money, the better off we will all be. This view can be reduced to a simple slogan: “markets produce the best possible distribution of wealth and resources.” Second, that government is the source of all evil. They believe that the only legitimate role for government is to militarily secure and protect an open field for profit generation. This perspective is captured by the old aphorism, “that government which governs least governs best.”

An immediate problem with both views is that they are meaningless tautologies. They don’t produce useful criteria for judging whether or not they are actually true. Instead, they frame things in such a way that any outcome that results from liberalizing markets or decreasing the size of government is granted a priori status as the best possible outcome that could have happened. For an ideologue, this is a useful definition. For anyone concerned with actually evaluating how accurate these prescriptions are and how effectively they produce worthwhile outcomes, these views are entirely useless.

There need to be external, independently verifiable criteria for deciding what does and does not count as effective governance or a desirable distribution of resources. Absent such benchmarks, slogans about the power of markets and the proper role of government are reduced to religious mantras. They don’t gain truth through repetition, but a lot of elected representatives have taken their steady repetition as a sign of truth.

Consider some concrete examples. Below are the mission statements of two influential think tanks.

The mission of The Heritage Foundation is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. 

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. Our mission is to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.

The first is immediately problematic. The Heritage Foundation is intellectually neutered by its interest in finding policy solutions that conform to a pre-established ideological litmus test. They have decided that the solutions to public policy problems involve free enterprise and limited government in advance of evaluating any evidence. The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, places initial emphasis on in-depth research as a tool for solving problems. Usefully, they do so without establishing ideological strictures on what the best solutions ought to look like.

Take any hypothetical problem and it becomes immediately obvious that The Heritage Foundation is going to have a harder time finding a good solution than The Brookings Institution. American students are scoring poorly in math and science. The burning of fossil fuels is having detrimental environmental consequences. Millions of American kids aren’t getting enough to eat. For The Heritage Foundation, the answer is always clear: less government, freer enterprise. If a branch of science worked this way, it would cease to be science. No congress of physicists is going to get together and outline a research program that says all good science must conform to Newtonian mechanics. But this is precisely what The Heritage Foundation has done with issues of public policy.

Yet the views of the Heritage Foundation carry enormous weight. They are endorsed by majorities in both houses of congress. The Speaker of the House, third in line for presidential succession, is a zealous devotee to the a priori assumptions of small government, free market fundamentalism. Conservative bill mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council produce legislature precisely tailored to reflect free market, small government dogma and Republican politicians – at every level of government – work to make that legislation the law of the land. Those willing to dissent do so at considerable risk. Skepticism is likely to be greeted with a well-funded primary challenge from an individual more willing to tow the party line. It is hardly shocking that there is an armada of well-heeled conservative ideologues willing to spend huge sums of money on the project of forcing Western society into the mold of libertarian utopia.

The Dubious Underpinnings of Conservative Economics

The ultimate tragedy in all of this is that the market religion of the modern GOP is provably false. Visions of conservative/libertarian utopia emerge from the logic of neoclassical economics. Starting in the 19th century, men like Leon Walras and Vilfredo Pareto took up the work of turning our understanding of human economic behavior into a respectable science. They turned up lot of powerful insights, but also set in motion a line of thinking that would eventually turn large segments of economics into nothing short of a mathematically sophisticated religion.

By the early 20th century, economics had come to invoke a number of simplifying assumptions in order to produce workable models. These assumptions included:

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Deploying these premises, economists produced theories about how people ought to behave in idealized markets. They weren’t wrong. If all of the above assumptions were true, then the best governments could ever do to facilitate happiness and prosperity is get out the market’s way.

Problematic in all of this is that each and every one of those assumptions is false. Not just doubtful or misleading, but an objectively untrue statement about observable reality. Many economists were aware of this fact at the time and many are aware of it today. That’s why economists use fancy terms like “unpriced externality” – this is an implicit acknowledgement of the reality that assumptions four through eight are false.  But there’s no reason to stop there. Observational and experimental evidence also tells us that humans are not perfectly rational, that they aren’t good at maximizing utility, that they aren’t entirely self-interested, and that economic systems are neither closed nor precisely tuned to seek out any equilibrium states.

Yet for some reason, some people began to act as if the aforementioned beliefs were more than just useful assumptions. They didn’t just make it easier to model the exceedingly complex behavior of huge swarms of interacting humans. Rather, they were true reflections of how the world actually operates. If this were the case, the ideological fanatics working for The Heritage Foundation and populating every tier of U.S. Government would be onto something. Indeed, they would hardly deserve being labeled “ideological fanatics”. They would be right to think that all policy solutions ought to involve steps to limit government and deregulate markets.

Or would they?

Notions of market optimality – the belief that unfettered markets produce the best possible outcomes – do not withstand a lot of scrutiny and often fail in their own terms. Consider two examples: scientific research and pollution control.

Much of the technology we take for granted today would be impossible absent scientific breakthroughs from the first half of the twentieth century or latter half of the nineteenth. Some of these discoveries were funded by governments, others through private philanthropy. None of the foundational insights in theoretical and experimental physics that laid the groundwork for global GPS, cellular phones, communication satellites, or the worldwide web emerged from a desire to get rich. At the time, a physicist who displayed a thirst for profit was frequently greeted with scorn and ostracized by his or her community.

Governments across the Western world funded scientific research as an expression of human curiosity and a matter of national prestige. Curiosity-driven scientific research often yields enormous benefits, but the ways in which discoveries will shape futures landscapes are largely unforeseeable. Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, Marie Curie, Robert Oppenheimer, Alan Turing and their peers didn’t envision a world where Apple and Samsung would make billions producing portable, wireless communication devices connected to a worldwide web, granting hundreds of millions of people perpetual access to virtually all human knowledge. Yet without their discoveries, that world would not exist.

Indeed, a rational, entirely self-interested, utility maximizing agent would never make an investment in a research program that might, in some way or another, decades down the line, turn a profit for someone else. A CEO who sought to divert funds to scientific efforts that might – forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years in the future – prove foundational to some kind of profit generating enterprise would quickly be removed by shareholders and replaced by someone made business decisions more closely aligned with their interests – that is, making money.

The same logic bears out in the realm of pollution control. Some types of business are environmentally costly. The processes they use to manufacture products for commercial use also produce byproducts with harmful downstream consequences. According to the strict logic of neoclassical economics, businesses should only respond to the costs of pollution and mitigate the effects of harmful byproducts of production under a narrow range of circumstances.

If the costs of pollution are immediately obvious to customers, they can and will (under the assumption of rational choice) respond by sanctioning the company, who will in turn work to remedy the problem in order to placate their customer base. But any time the costs of pollution are not sufficiently large or localized to be immediately discernible to customers, the logic of the market demands that the business do nothing about it. In fact, being rational and self-interested, they should actually make efforts to conceal their harmful behavior anytime the costs of deception are lower than the costs of mitigation (one of the ways in which the founding premises of market optimality are inherently contradictory).

That means a factory that manufactures paper plates in Mississippi will have little incentive to clean up any harmful byproducts if most of those paper plates are sold in China. Likewise, pollutants that accrue gradually, such that their ill-effects are only exerted decades down the line, are invisible to corrective mechanisms internal to the market itself. Such is the case with anthropogenic climate change, where the costs of burning hydrocarbons aren’t necessarily felt until decades after the fact.

Suffice it to say, there are numerous conditions under which the reasoning behind the modern conservative ethos – the ruling dogma of billionaire oligarchs like Charles and David Koch and ambitious political zealots like Ted Cruz – crumbles under its own weight. This was widely known and commonly accepted in the first decades after World War 2. Economists and politicians alike recognized that market were only sensitive to a narrow range of inputs and entirely blind to many of the downstream costs that might accrue for any given method of production. Recognition that third-party intervention would sometimes be necessary to secure good outcomes was bipartisan. That’s why the EPA was founded under Richard Nixon and his signature graced the first iterations of the Clean Air and Water Acts.

The antipathy toward government now common on the political right emerged as part of a deliberate campaign undertaken by fanatical millionaires to peel back what they perceived as the creeping threat of socialism. They founded think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and launched an intellectually caustic propaganda war against any and all barriers to the generation of wealth – in particular, their wealth. In this, they have been enormously successful, managing to shift their fringe views so far into the mainstream that they are openly espoused as true and irrefutable on the most widely viewed cable news network in the United States.

Now, congress is populated by zealots oblivious to the dubious intellectual underpinnings of their ruling philosophy. Their worldview is the direct progeny of a set of premises adopted for instrumental utility, otherwise entirely lacking in reality. Based on their behavior, it is safe to assume that they are true believers – they really think that eradicating every piece of government that doesn’t relate to national defense is the best thing to do for everyone. They are simply blind to the fact that their core beliefs are so flimsy that they often fail in their own terms and crumple when measured against external benchmarks of success.

But there is no reason why we should confine ourselves to discussing such a spurious worldview strictly in its own terms. Few of the founding premises of modern conservative socioeconomic philosophy happen to be true. Shifting the dogma of the modern conservative movement into natural light reveals an edifice held together by tape and glue.

Humans are frequently irrational. And markets are made of humans. Those inclined to root their understanding of human systems in verifiable reality are rarely surprised to learn that market behavior is riddled with error. Investors sometimes value a parent company at millions of dollars less than its subsidiary, clearly falsifying the neoclassical prediction that the price set by the market is always right. Football teams sometimes trade multiple later round draft picks for the chance to pick up a star up front and win fewer games as a result. People take out loans they can’t afford, buy items they don’t need on credit, and don’t save enough for retirement.

Let’s reconsider those nine premises I listed a few paragraphs back.

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Recall that the smaller government, freer markets at any cost emerges from taking these premises as reliable, high fidelity distillations of observable reality. They are instrumental to substantiating the mindset of men like Charles Koch and Ted Cruz. And every single one of them is undeniably false.

This is not a secret. It is widely known and easily discoverable. This is why it is impossible to take people like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz seriously as thoughtful stewards of American wellbeing. These people are not principled statesmen. They are ideological fanatics. They subscribe to a worldview that has been repeatedly and consistently refuted by the very nature of reality. Insofar as their policy prescriptions have any merit, it is largely a result of coincidence. They have not, I suspect, invented a remarkable method for reasoning from false premises to sound conclusions.

And yet they persist in these beliefs. Their belligerent insistence on clinging to a misguided vision of how the world ought to be, independent of any and all evidence of how the world actually is, makes them incredibly dangerous men. Though they have yet to scratch lowest rung of the anguish unleashed by the likes of Mao and Stalin, the fact remains that their ideology lives in the same epistemological neighborhood as communism. It is a vision of what the world could be if a number of important facts about what the world is actually like were otherwise. Their efforts to force the world to conform to their ideological prescriptions will only result in conflict and pain. Powerful solutions to pressing social, economic, and ecological problems will escape them, willfully hidden behind a veil of dogma. Even if compelling policy initiatives that violate their worldview are brought to their attention, they will be prohibited from adopting them by a blind commitment to ideological purity. As the mission statement of the Heritage Foundation clearly states, only solutions that embrace limited government and free enterprise are on the table.

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Combating Political Religion

The arc of recent history bends toward insight and discovery. Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and religious fundamentalist receive a lot of well-deserved public derision. This sometimes makes it look as though society has become infected by an unprecedented strain of ignorance. But the larger reality is that people have easier and easier access to better and better information about the world in which they live. It’s easy to feel disheartened when a poll shows that 40% of U.S. adults think the world was made, as is, by some divine power within the last 10,000 years. Every available strain of evidence says this view is false, yet people persist in maintaining it. Taking a wider view brightens things a bit. Sure, it’s a bummer that a bunch of adults are so enamored of a childish fairytale that they deny the fundamental nature of reality. But a couple centuries ago, we didn’t even have access to the information that exposed those beliefs as farcical. The vast majority of people held views about the age of the earth and the nature of reality with absolutely no basis in reality.

This rosy outlook is tainted when people who cling to superstitious or ideologically clouded thinking achieve political power. It is easier today than at any other point in human history to find out when we hold false views about the way the world works. Yet a glaring majority of the elected officials in the U.S. Federal Government passionately subscribe to a view of human behavior and the role of government that is provably false. Not only do they hold these beliefs, they are using them to guide policy formation.

The GOP has held control of two out three branches of government for a little over two months. Already, they have taken steps to roll back vital environmental regulations and decrease funding for curiosity driven science. These, as mentioned, are two of the areas where their one-size-fits-all belief in smaller government, freer markets fails in its own terms. Unchecked, they stand to implement a campaign of ideological extremism unlike anything the nation has ever seen. That this is done in service of unchecked greed is largely incidental. The fact that very wealthy people stand to become even wealthier while the poor are left to wither as a result of the conservative agenda disguises the fact that that agenda is an expression of fervent religious devotion. I

Some scholars have made the mistake of using communism to point up the dangers of secularism. This ignores the fact that communism itself, as expressed in the regimes of Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin, cannot be derived from secular thinking. Secular thinking is an expression of reason, guided by evidence. It gives us things like an expanding circle of human rights and cures for dangerous infectious diseases. Communism, like exaggerated notions of libertarian capitalism, falls apart when subjected to evidentiary checks. And libertarian capitalism, like communism, is a form of political religion. Both are utopian visions that exist in obstinate indifference to the hard nature of reality.

Huge swaths of political thinking run afoul of this single, crippling fallacy – the mistaken belief that there is one right answer. Sometimes governments grow too large and run inefficiently. Sometimes free markets generate undesirable outcomes. Neither point can be used for the wholesale dismissal of either.

This is precisely why we need external, universally recognizable criteria for recognizing success and failure. What do we want governments and markets to achieve? If we want markets to achieve an optimal allocation of resources, we need a definition for “optimal allocation of resources” that is external to the market itself. Moreover, we need to recognize that the motivations required to thrive in markets foist on people a certain level of myopia – markets are incapable of planning for the distant future or taking into account all the potential costs a given business strategy might incur. That’s why we need both government regulation and government investment in curiosity-driven science.

The goal of government should be to make it easier and easier for larger and larger portions of the population to thrive. In this, it should be a democratic instrument. The goal of economic systems should be similar. They should not exist to generate wealth as an end unto itself. Rather, their purpose is generating the wealth necessary to pursue the end of human thriving. From these simple premises, we can derive a number of hallmarks for identifying success and failure.

By accepting these aims and jettisoning the fallacious dogmas that drive intransigent anti-government sentiment and fuel blind market liberalization campaigns, it is possible to achieve ground ripe for bipartisan collaboration. History teaches us that liberalized markets tend to be correlated with prosperity and peace. Together with democratic governance, they seem to make people generally better off. It is clearly desirable for people to have as much leeway for free economic choice as possible. That is where the reasoning of the market fundamentalists stops, thereby failing to recognize that the more apt and justifiable expression is that people should have a much leeway for free economic choice as possible, given the larger, perpetually shifting aims of society.

It should be recognized, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that markets sometimes generate undesirable outcomes. They produce entrenched inequality and unfairly discount the wellbeing of future generations in favor of current wealth. Nor do they include any discernible mechanism instituting ideals higher than “make money”. There is no room for curiosity and the quest for knowledge as ends unto themselves in a world ruled by smaller government, freer markets at any cost ideologues. In that world, a human animal invested in aspirations above and beyond the accumulation of wealth would be a creature bent on extinction. The utopia of the libertarian capitalist is just as bleak and gray as they utopia of the hard-line communist.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an either/or world. Continuing the historical embrace of reason that has been underway since the Enlightenment, we can build an understanding of economic systems and political order based on scientific evidence. Already it is clear that unfettered freedom of expression is unambiguously good and that economic liberty is often a powerful tool for making humans happier, healthier, and more prosperous. Eschewing one-size-fits all political religion can help us take these insights and put them to better use in a piecemeal engagement with the endless parade of political problems that are bound to emerge whenever humans live together in large numbers. Indeed, it is immediately obvious that government can play a vital role in encouraging markets to behave as if those nine assumptions about market optimality were true. For instance, they can make sure the prices of products reflect all of the unforeseen costs of production and ensure that consumers have access to all the information they need to make smart economic choices.

There may be other ways to solve these dilemmas. Discovering them will demand abandoning ideologically motivated, one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions. The point here is not to make the case that government is the solution to all of the world’s problems. Examples where precisely the opposite is true – where government interference in market behavior has produced undesirable outcomes – are plentiful. Sometimes the best solution will be market liberalization. Often, however, markets will generate unexpected and undesirable outcomes. It can never be a foregone conclusion that government is not the answer. Unless someone comes up with a better form of third-party enforcement than democratic governance, there will be many circumstances in which it is the best alternative we have.

 


An addendum in light of a comment.