Michael, we hardly knew ye

The Templeton Foundation has two major goals, promoting capitalism and blurring the line between science and faith. So it’s hardly surprising that their Big Questions online magazine would publish an article claiming that capitalism is an important source of human morality.  And it’s not that surprising that they’d also claim an evolutionary basis for this wonderfully fortuitous and Gekko-ish conjunction of greed and ethics.

What is surprising is that the argument is made by Michael Shermer.

Shermer is a well known—and well respected (including by me)—skeptic, author of several good books (Why Darwin Matters, Why People Believe Weird Things), columnist for Scientific American, and publisher of Skeptic magazine.  So it’s really, really sad to see him pushing the Templeton Thesis on the Templeton website.  Templeton is, after all, devoted to effacing the demarcation between science and woo, a demarcation that Shermer has vigorously defended for years.  And it’s disturbing to see him once again in the pay of the Templeton machine, making an argument that, while supporting their mission, seems pretty thin.

Here’s his thesis:

Given the economic roller-coaster ride of the past two years,  the idea that capitalism promotes morality might seem like an oxymoron. The imperfections of the market system, the wild swings of the boom-and-bust cycle, and the “animal spirits” of irrational investors have revealed the gulf between economic theory and financial reality — and have put the advocates of capitalism on the defensive.

But let’s not get carried away. As every economist knows, the market system, based on the free exchange of goods, is the greatest prosperity-generating machine ever invented. Nor are markets just a necessary evil that we must regretfully tolerate. To the contrary, trade itself leads directly and measurably to greater virtue — to higher levels of generosity, fairness, and trust. But don’t take my word for it. There is plenty of experimental evidence to back me up, and it points to the deep evolutionary foundations of the market’s moral effects.

Shermer then goes on to describe experiments with apes and monkeys showing that they seem to have an elementary sense of fairness.  A monkey trained to exchange a pebble for a cucumber slice, for instance, will suddenly go on strike if it sees another monkey getting a much tastier grape.  Humans, too, will turn down free money in a “split” with another person if that other person claims too much of the pie.  From this Shermer concludes (agreeing with the psychologist who did that study) that “we are naturally inclined to be fair and generous with our kin and kind because of genetic relatedness and reciprocal connectedness.”

I don’t have a problem with the idea that some part of human morality evolved in small bands of our ancestors as a way to enforce social harmony and hence reproductive output.  But I do have a problem with Shermer’s idea that fairness and virtue in general are not just promoted by the modern institution of free-market capitalism, but are inherent in them.

Shermer sees capitalism as simply the interactions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors writ large:

In short, important as it may be to figure out the causes of the current economic downturn, we should not lose sight of the big picture: trade makes people more trusting and trustworthy, which makes them more inclined to trade, which increases trust — and round and round it goes in a positive feedback loop that generates not just unprecedented prosperity but civilized virtue as well.

After all, don’t you have to trust people to do business?  Isn’t a good businessman one who earns his customers’ trust by behaving fairly?  Maybe, but is that really morality?  Isn’t morality something that you intuitively feel is the right thing to do, not just a way of behaving that helps you make money? Is it something you do—like driving below the speed limit—simply because you know you’ll be sanctioned if you don’t? Is Apple moral? Is General Motors moral? The questions make no sense.  These corporations may act morally by donating money to good causes and so on, but it’s ludicrous to claim that selling cars or computers promotes morality.

Capitalism is not in fact a simple scaling up of the interactions of our ancestors.  It makes sense to at least act ethically when you interact with someone every day and would be caught out if you cheated.  But many of those sanctions vanish in a free market where that kind of close interaction is diminished.  I need hardly point out that businesses and other bulwarks of capitalism often cheat, or fail to behave in ways we’d consider virtuous, when they think they can get away with it.  Tainted milk, tainted meat, salmonella-infected eggs, other kinds of cost-cutting that endangers consumers, putting antifreeze in wine, selling illegal knockoff handbags—these too are the fruits of capitalism.  So too is the exploitation of third-world countries for the profit of others. And let us not forget Bernie Madoff and his thieving, cheating ilk—the very efflorescence of capitalism. Yes, businesses usually have to treat their customers fairly to survive, but this is simply a necessity if they’re to prosper, not something that, by acting as a beacon of virtue, increases the sum total of morality in this world.  There’s a reason why the poster child for duplicity is the used car salesman.  And if the free market is so virtuous, why do we need federal inspections, the FDA, and consumer protection agencies?

I don’t see capitalism as innately conducive to morality. It is, at best, orthogonal to it. It may make us more prosperous, but it doesn’t make us better people.

I haven’t read Shermer’s latest book, The Mind of the Market, which appears to include this thesis, but I’m not convinced by his Templeton essay.  I note that the book was endorsed by Dinesh D’Souza.  Much as conservatives dislike evolution, they may accept it if they see it justifying capitalism and promoting virtue.  But that’s just another form of social Darwinism.

173 Comments

  1. Bob Williams
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    I long ago discerned some whiff of taint about Schermer. As I recall – despite what you write above – some easier attitude towards accomodationism than I found acceptable. I found it easy to unsubscribe from his site and his drifting into Templeton-Land causes me no surprise.

    • Darrell E
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      I agreen with the sentiment you express. I never did understand why so many in the atheist / skeptic communities hold Schermer in such high regard. He has always come off as an “yes I’m an atheist, but” sort to me.

      No problems with that in general terms, but with respect to being one of the leading voices of the skeptic / atheist communities, I don’t get it.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Same here.

      And he was an acolyte of Ayn Rand for a considerable time…

      • Badger3k
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        I first read this where he wrote it up in Skepticblog (I think) and there were quite a few comments on his irrationality. He describes his conversion into the Randian cult, and offered no evidence to support his suppositions. I haven’t looked at him the same since.

      • Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Although Shermer claims he’s no longer a follower of Ayn Rand and even describes her following as a cult, it seems that most of his thinking is still based on her ideas. In The Mind of the Market, he argues that people who advocate any kind of restrictions whatsoever on capitalism – antimonopoly laws, tariffs, even patent protections – are analogous to creationists. No kidding.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          Gee, and I was thinking his “the lure of a big reward begets morality” was awfully reminiscent of Christianity…

        • Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink

          Funny thing is, the most common favoured economic theology the Randians tend to favour is one that explicitly rejects evidence based economic investigation – the Austrian model.

          Which I am guessing Shermer goes for too with the crack about animal spirits.

        • Posted August 31, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          >>In The Mind of the Market, he argues that people who advocate any kind of restrictions whatsoever on capitalism

          Actually, no he does not. The tone I got from the book (and his interviews on Point of Inquiry) is that he is a lightweight libertarian. Shermer has gone on record in support of some regulation.

      • Posted August 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        I like Shermer, but you have to ignore his Randiness. Apparently once Ayn gets her hooks into your brain, it never works normally again.

        Still, I enjoy his ESkeptic newsletter and his SciAm column, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books.

      • ckitching
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        He also used to be a global warming denialist, too.

        • Posted August 30, 2010 at 4:14 am | Permalink

          In my experience, global warming denialism and libertarianism are highly correlated. It makes sense. Global warming is the free market’s biggest failure.

        • keddaw
          Posted August 30, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          As we all should have been since the evidence wasn’t of a good standard.

          It is now and hopefully we’re all on the same page.

    • NMcC
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t trust Shermer as far as I could throw him. I never did, and have made criticisms of his nutty views on RD.net and other places going back years. Shermer is little more that a wide-boy on the make who has found his niche market in ‘Skepticism’. And he’s milking it for all it’s worth.

      I remember listening to Shermer in a debate with a church guy and heard him declare himself an agnostic. I thought nothing of this until, about 5 or 6 months later, that is, after the publication of The God Delusion started the bandwaggon (gravy-train, if you like) rolling, Shermer was suddenly in the camp of the atheists.

      Wasn’t there an article or a post on here (or on rd.net or PZ Myers blog?) criticising Templeton for advertising that they will pay large sums of money for articles that espouse their views?

      And lo and behold, in the blink of an eye Shermer is in there with a screed’ Who’d have thunk it?

      I can’t wait to hear Dawkins now on this. He has publicly described the loathsome Shermer as ‘a friend of mine’. What say ye now, Dick?

      Actually, I’ll bet Dawkins doesn’t say a word about it, as is his wont in these situations. Though he has, of course, castigated all and sundry for doing exactly the same thing in regard to Templeton as his money-grubbing ‘friend’.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

      It was his utterly irrational attachment to the bollocks that is extreme libertarianism that made me lose all respect for the dude.
      I have avoided him in the same manner as I avoid Chris Mooney.

  2. Gasper
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I hope Paul Krugman reads this.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Seconded!

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      I’m a big Krugman fan. His blog and columns (and books) are an anchor of economic and political sanity.

      However, I doubt whether he’s very popular with the U of Chicago economics folks.

  3. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Henrich concluded that norms of market fairness “evolved as part of an overall process of societal evolution to sustain mutually beneficial exchanges in contexts where established social relationships (for example, kin, reciprocity, and status) were insufficient.”

    It’s as if the readers of BQO are expected to be completely unaware of colonialism.

  4. Thom
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    “Much as conservatives dislike evolution, they may accept it if they see it justifying capitalism and promoting virtue. But that’s just another form of social Darwinism.”

    I personally agree with Dawkins’ anti-evolutionary view on morality. And it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that conservative religious types like D’Souza would advocate Social Darwinism.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      I personally agree with Dawkins’ anti-evolutionary view on morality. And it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that conservative religious types like D’Souza would advocate Social Darwinism.

      Didn’t Dawkins call it the “tyranny of the selfish replicators” at the end of The Selfish Gene ?

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        He also later stated that in that book, one could effectively substitute “co-operative” for “selfish” and the meaning would remain the same.

  5. Matt Penfold
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    One one needs to look at how the pay gap between senior managers and the rank and file workforce has greatly increased over the last 20 years in the UK and the US to realise that capitalism does not always produce moral, or just, results. If businesses are such paragons of morality then surely they would not be allowing the gap to increase in the first place, and would not be so vocal in their defence of high pay for executives.

    • Gingerbaker
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Matt Penfold said:

      “One one needs to look at how the pay gap between senior managers and the rank and file workforce has greatly increased over the last 20 years in the UK and the US to realise that capitalism does not always produce moral, or just, results….”

      Exactly. Which puts the lie to Shermer’s assertion that (free market) capitalism is “the greatest prosperity-generating machine ever invented”.

      Leaving alone that there is no such thing as a free market, no-holds-barred capitalism is almost certainly the greatest disparity-generating economic system ever invented. Communalism is the greatest prosperity-generating machine ever invented, as it provides the highest standard of living possible to every citizen at the lowest possible cost.

      But the most successful economies and societies of today employ a hybrid system of regulated capitalism and socialism, precisely because of the antisocial and inherently immoral consequences of unchecked capitalism.

      One only need look at the results of 30 years of deregulation of the market, political, and communication sectors here in the U.S. – possibly the purest example of naked capitalism in the First World – to see the dreadful fruits of unadulterated adulation of these so-called free markets – a country where the top 1% own as much wealth as the bottom 95%. A nation with failing infrastructure, a vanishing middle class, inadequate heath care, a third-rate education system, virtually no safety net, and the largest debt ever accumulated in the history of the world.

      And according to Shermer…. a moral miracle.

      • Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Which puts the lie to Shermer’s assertion that (free market) capitalism is “the greatest prosperity-generating machine ever invented”.

        Well, he only said it generated prosperity, he never specified where the prosperity ended up.

        • Badger3k
          Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          No, no – you got it wrong. Just have faith, and it will all work out in the end. The guys making fortunes and controlling the jobs will be forced to raise wages when all their workers leave for…other jobs that don’t exist, but will…somehow…invisible hand….

          Maybe if we redefine “prosperity”?

          • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            Ah, yes, the magic words, “trickle down economy”.

        • Michael Kingsford Gray
          Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

          It is prosperity built on a bogus concept: that of infinite or limitless growth.
          It cannot work.

      • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        And don’t forget a great many poor people and a huge pool of surplus (hence cheap) labor.

        • Gingerbaker
          Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          I remember reading some fellow’s anti-Republican blog a few years ago. His insight was that every Republican policy position could be interpreted as a gambit to produce and maintain cheap labor. Keep ‘em poor, desperate, and stupid and they’ll work for peanuts. The Cheap labor Party. I think the fellow was on to something.

          • Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

            Well, it is a tried and tested strategy, after all.

  6. Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    We all knew Schermer is a libertarian, so why be surprised he worships capitalism? He’s a smart guy and I’m still reading eSkeptic, but that right there is his blind spot.

    I like Penn Jilette, but when he says he’d rather not educate his children than send them to a public school, it’s obvious his politics have blinded him. Same here.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      Should have read your post before I posted mine at #10. GMTA?

    • Hope
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it is just a blindspot. It’s a huge part of who he is. He has been speaking about and writing on this topic for years. I don’t understand why he has any sort of credible reputation as a skeptic at all.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        He should read his own book:
        “Why People Believe Weird Things”
        because he *certainly* believes multiple impossible & weird things

    • Dan L.
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      People aren’t blinded by ideology just because they think public schools are institutions for making kids think that learning is boring and that the most important skill to acquire for adulthood is how to sit still and shut up 8 hours a day.

      There are serious problems with US public education. If I had kids, I’d consider sending them to elementary school purely for the socialization, but I’d want to home school them starting at junior high. It’s really condescending to assume that people can only have opinions on things because they’re blinded by their politics.

      • Posted August 30, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        Sure, if you think you can do better, by all means homeschool your hypothetical kids. But thinking that the public education system is so broken that not educating a kid at all would be better seems a little extreme, don’t you think?

  7. Sharkey
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Somewhat on topic:
    “Humans, too, will turn down free money in a “split” with another person if that other person claims too much of the pie.”

    According to this article, some of that behaviour is specifically Western, and not universal: http://www.nationalpost.com/Westerners+World+weird+ones/3427126/story.html

    If this is the case, Shermer is incorrect to infer that capitalism can be traced back to evolution; it’s strictly a social phenomenon.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Shermer does mention this in his article, but claims it as further support for his thesis:

      There was variation between groups and societies. Henrich and his team found that people in hunter-gatherer communities shared about 25 percent of the pot, while people in societies who regularly engage in trade gave away about 45 percent. What they called “market integration” was by far the strongest predictor of fairness and generosity.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        To describe an evolutionarily stable strategy as “market integration” seems passing strange to me.

    • Michael Nuwer
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Another point about this quoted sentence. The experiment is called an ultimatum game. When it is modified in such a way that the “proposers” (the persons who decides the fractions of the split) are competing with one another, then the offer is pushed closer to zero. For example, eight proposers make offers in a first stage. The four who earned the most in the first-stage can then play a second-stage (with a different player). So, perhaps capitalism and market competition will erode the social bonds that encourage fairness.

  8. JamesK
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    “Yes, businesses usually have to treat their customers fairly to survive…”
    Or at least make their customers “think” they’re being treated fairly. It seems to me that the basic relationship between businesses and customers (and other businesses) is in fact an adversarial relationship where each attempts to “maximize profit” at the expense of the other.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Treat customers fairly to survive? Hell no, that only happens in a genuinely free market and with genuine competition because people who care about their hard-earned money will go to the folks who aren’t screwing them over. We know monopolies and cartels all too well.

  9. Tyro
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    This libertarian/capitalist streak seems like Shermer’s pet blind spot but many sceptics have them and many even confuse their political and economic beliefs with scepticism in general. It’s a reminder that we’re all human but beyond that it’s rarely enlightening.

    What is less excusable is writing for Templeton. I would really like to know how he justified that decision!

  10. Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I’m not all that surprised. Shermer’s libertarianism has always been his skeptical blind spot.

  11. Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Well, a big part of the problem is that capitalism is a utopian ideal dependent on assumptions that simply don’t occur in reality.

    You can get away with teaching introductory Newtonian physics assuming frictionless interactions, but you can’t actually build a useful machine that way. Similarly, you can teach basic economic theory assuming perfect informational transparency and rational actors that always make decisions in their best self-interest, but an actual economy based on such assumptions will blow up quite spectacularly.

    Sadly, the Randite Libertarians have as sophisticated an understanding of economics as a seventh grader does of physics. Michael Shermer just demonstrated that for us.

    Jerry, here’s a definition for you to ponder: morality is a strategy (in the game theory sense) for behavior, and the quality of a moral system may be measured by the success of those who follow it.

    Thus, a person or corporation that eschews long-term success in favor of short-term gains is less moral than one that does the opposite. All of your examples fit this definition. A company that cuts corners and sells tainted food will catch hell from consumers and regulators. A society that lacks sufficient regulation will waste more of its resources cleaning up such messes. An economic system (such as ours) which systematically externalizes risks (for example, BP won’t even pay a fraction of the costs resulting from the spill) is both immoral and doomed to failure.

    In contrast, a society that protects its members by providing for universal police, fire, medical, and unemployment insurance will prosper more than one that fails to do so (because a higher proportion of its population will be productive) and is therefore more moral. Similarly, a society that permits small numbers of people to hoard almost all the vital resources at the expense of the overwhelming majority will be less successful in the long term, and therefore less moral, than one that ensures a more equitable distribution of wealth.

    Lastly, you should note that, in every case, the example I presented as moral “feels” more moral than the other. Selling healthy food is more moral than selling tainted food. Regulations ensuring people don’t go around giving huge numbers of people food poisoning are moral. Preventing corporations from wreaking havoc on a continental scale are moral, as are mechanisms that place the burden for cleaning up messes (including “normal” industrial pollution, also including CO2 emissions) on those who cause them. When the royal family eats cake while the rest of the country starves, that’s immoral.

    The good news is that simple Darwinian forces will ensure that the overall trend is to a more moral society — and historical observation supports this. Even the most barbaric modern cultures, such as those based on Sharia, are more moral than Hammurabi’s Babylon. The bad news is that there’s nothing preventing us from selecting ourselves out of the societal gene pool.

    I could go on for hours, but that should be enough to give you an idea.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Peter
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      But the morality of capitalism is counterintuitive. By rejecting such naive, bleeding heart, communistic morality, and embracing a more laissez-faire capitalism, the libertarians have the advantage over us of a)being actually *more* moral, b) being more rational for rejecting that sort of emotionalism for the counterintuitive, but flawless logic of free-market morality, and c) as a bonus they don’t have us stealing from them and calling it taxes.

  12. Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I think Jared Diamond has a much better grasp of the cost/benefit ratio concerning capitalism. In his book “The Third Chimpanzee” he argues that the agricultural revolution led to as much impersonal dehumanization and exploitation as it did progress.

    I’m reminded of Herbert Marcuse’s “Eros and Civilization” where he states: “Intensified progress seems to be bound by intensified unfreedom.”

    Capitalism is, at best, an indifferent shark. Shermer needs to lay off the David Nolan essays, stop accepting checks from The Simpletons, and go back to editing.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      I’m reminded of Herbert Marcuse’s “Eros and Civilization” where he states: “Intensified progress seems to be bound by intensified unfreedom.”

      The industrial revolution is evidence that progress can lead to less freedom. It is not very hard to make the case that most people were better off in terms of health and freedom before the IR.

      • Tyro
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        Really, how so?

        When I look at a few simplistic measurements such as life expectancy and infant mortality as a proxy for health, we’re immensely better off. Poor countries like India have doubled l.e. in the past 100 years.

        • Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          The industrial revolution at first resulted in horrible conditions for workers. Factory workers were pretty much property of the factory owners. It took unions and worker protection laws to put a stop to it.

          • Tyro
            Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

            But farm workers were debt slaves (or actual slaves) to land owners pre-IR except they lacked all of the benefits that industry provided.

            Since unions arose as a result of industry, I would argue that they are a part of the *revolution* in IR, rather than as some external force mitigating the IR. Your description also sounds like you’re taking the IR as influencing only a few years rather than as a change which lasted many decades.

            How do you explain the huge growth in population, life expectancy and average income?

            • Matt Penfold
              Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

              Life expectancy dropped initially. Average income did not change much, but since in the towns and cities food cost more, and there was far less opportunity to produce your own, average incomes effectively decreased as well. Farm labourers could normally keep a pig and some hens, and had a patch of ground they could cultivate and grow veg in most instances.

              Working hours tended to be longer in factories as well. Whereas the hours of agricultural workers tended to be seasonal, with long hours only at certain times of the year like harvest, those in factories were consistently long.

              It was not until the late Victorian period that living conditions for industrial workers could be said to have improved to the levels of agricultural workers per-revolution. And that only after Government intervention to force employers to improve those conditions, so hardly a victory for the free-market.

            • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

              How do you explain the huge growth in population, life expectancy and average income?

              Sure, average income and life expectancy went up. But what about the median?

            • Tyro
              Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

              I wonder if we’re missing something. When do you think the IR ended, and when do you think its influence ended?

              I get the feeling that you’re looking at a couple of years when I think it’s commonly considered to last at least a century, with the Second Industrial Revolution lasting into the 20th Century at least, if not still continuing today.

              Wikipedia sources say that population in England was stable pre-IR and boomed right after: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_revolution#Population_increase

            • Matt Penfold
              Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

              Oh, and the what is widely regarded as the first attempts to form a union occurred with the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Who were agricultural workers, not factory workers.

              They tried setting up the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest about the lowering of agricultural wages in the 1830s.

            • Tyro
              Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

              Matt – I’m not trying to argue with you, I’m trying to understand you. Your claims contradict everything I’ve seen and heard about the IR. Since that isn’t very much, I’ll happily admit that I could be badly misinformed, indeed I’m looking to correct my views.

              But it appears as if you’re artificially limiting the scope of the IR’s influence while focusing in on some problems (which, considering the hardscrabble life in pre-IR England was hardly a utopia either).

              As a modern comparison, some argue that trade with China is bad because some Chineese workers are in sweatshops. While true, this is a tiny portion of the effects and says nothing about pre-factory work. I feel the same narrow focus here.

              Do you have anything a little broader to back up your claims? Since IR is seen by many as one of the biggest societal changes in millenia, I would also like to consider the influence over decades or centuries rather than over a couple years.

            • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

              @Tyro, re when the industrial revolution ended: the IR was the period of change that lead to the industrial age. This change didn’t happen at the same time in every location, or in every market, which is why it is indeed said to be spread out over a century or so.

              You might argue we still are in the industrial age (maybe depending on whether you think we’ve entered the information age), but to say we are still in the industrial revolution seems to take all meaning out of the word “revolution”.

            • Tyro
              Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

              Deen – but doesn’t that still credit the IR with the industrial age we’re living in today? I guess that’s where I have a hard time, sorting out how to say where the IR’s influence ends. If the changes the IR introduced led to doubling our lifespan even if it was a sawtooth path, it it fair to say that the IR reduced life expectancy?

            • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

              Deen – but doesn’t that still credit the IR with the industrial age we’re living in today?Sure. But that doesn’t mean that the IR gets credit for everything that we have today. Other stuff has happened before then and since then. One of them is the development of the germ theory of disease, which has probably contributed more to increasing the life expectancy than anything else.

            • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

              Sorry, blockquote fail…

      • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Oh, come now. Even the third world has longer life expectancies, less infant mortality, and lower infection rates than in the wealthiest nations at any time before the Industrial Revolution.

        And, even considering the hard-right turn the States has taken in the past decade, we still have far more civil rights than a serf farming for the local nobility could even dream of.

        And it cannot be overstated: even the poorest of the poor in America has access to resources that were beyond magical fantasizing for the wealthiest emperor in all of history. Walk in to a library, sit in front of a computer, pull up the ‘Net….

        And even the bottom of the working class has cars, TVs, cell phones, microwave ovens, refrigerators, indoor plumbing, emergency health care….

        Hell, for that matter, compare it with a half a century ago. Blacks in the South had to be careful which drinking fountain they drank from, and the only way a Black man would ever see the inside of the Oval Office was if he was dusting the furniture. Polio ran rampant; heart surgery really wasn’t an option; and cancer was a death sentence. Not only did GPS and satellite TV not exist, but space itself was almost entirely off-limits.

        Yes, the past decade has been a very bad one in America. Things we used to ridicule the Soviets for are now common and go unremarked upon. (Internal passports, checkpoints everywhere, gulags and secret police that take people away in the middle of the night, a uniform political structure with little serious differences of opinion, a noble constitution that’s ignored in practice, and don’t even think of photographing a bridge.) Yet, with all that, we’re still far better off than we would have been before the Industrial Revolution.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Matt Penfold
          Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          Does no one read history anymore ?

          If you compare the life expectancy, income, infant mortality and rates of infection pre and post Industrial Revolution you will find they all increased post-revolution, especially amongst those working in factories.

          This was mainly because factory workers and their families were living poorer housing, in greater density and with less access to fresh food.

          Farm labourers were not serfs pre-revolution either.

          Of course things later improved, but they did so in the face of opposition from most of the factory owners, not because of them. For example it was not factory owners who decided to not employ child labour, it was the Government passing laws preventing the employment of children under a certain age in any employment, and of all children in certain types (normally the most dangerous) of employment. The right to unpaid holiday only came about because the Government forced the owners to offer it, and the same applied when it came to paid holidays.

          There were a few industrialist that were more enlighten, and provided better housing and working conditions for their employees. But even this often came with strings attached. Many banned their employees from drinking, even when not working. Remember this was a time when religious temperance was popular. And many would expect to see their employees in church of a Sunday.

          • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

            I think we’re discussing two entirely different things, here.

            Your original statement that kicked off my rant (and, I suspect, Tyro’s as well) was:

            It is not very hard to make the case that most people were better off in terms of health and freedom before the IR.

            As I read it, you were asserting that life was better before the Industrial Revolution than it is today, which is a notion I find absurdly preposterous.

            If, instead, as I think is the case from your reply, you are arguing that life immediately preceding the Industrial Revolution was better for a significant portion of the population than it was immediately afterwards…well, you probably can make that case successfully.

            However, I would also find such a fine-grained examination as useful as that of a climate change denialist who carefully picks a particular small slice of the climate record to demonstrate that there was no statistically-significant warming during that period. It’s a true statement that tells a lie.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

              But the point is that capitalism led to workers being exploited during the IR. It required government intervention to make sure the average worker could fully benefit from the IR.

        • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          Sawtooth progress noted and to be expected (even as we have moved toward accelerating our own extinction). But how does any of this thread address the question of whether capitalism is innately conducive to morality? The tangential comfort experienced by a fractional percentage of those living in technologically advanced countries is a non-sequitur.

          • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

            *This is addressed to the thread as a whole rather than one individual’s comment.

          • Matt Penfold
            Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

            Well I would argue that since working and living conditions deteriorated following the IR it shows that capitalism alone does not always bring about improvements in those conditions. And surely morality is not unconnected with living and working conditions.

            • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

              And surely morality is not unconnected with living and working conditions.

              Surely that’s preposterous nonsense, else you’re claiming that American Slavery was not a moral issue.

              Cheers,

              b&

            • Matt Penfold
              Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

              Surely that’s preposterous nonsense, else you’re claiming that American Slavery was not a moral issue.

              I am note sure if you have understood me correctly.

              My position is that working and living conditions have a moral dimension to them, in that I would argue that to make them worse is immoral and to improve them is moral.

            • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

              Ah — my apologies. I misread the double negative.

              b&

            • Matt Penfold
              Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

              Ah — my apologies. I misread the double negative.

              A bad habit of mine, sorry.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes, like Nature, Capitalism doesn’t care. It’s also generally very difficult to get people to give you a sensible working definition of Capitalism. It seems to me that to the average Joe Capitalism is everything and nothing all at once. It remains a god, defined as people wish it to be and thus placed beyond scrutiny.

      Modern economics is quite a disparate set of ideas, but many ideas have been tested and shown to work, though there are also many vague ideas like Shermer’s which are only supported if you carefully select your data and make claims that “it’s impossible to disprove” or “difficult to prove (meaning unproven) but true”. One of my favorites is the modern stock trading system – in my opinion a phenomenal failure (and guaranteed failure) due to the decoupling of the value of stock from actual productivity and corporate profits and dividends. And yet people will continue to point to the facts that folks like Warren Buffet have made a fortune trading stocks as if this were proof that the modern stock market is not hopelessly broken.

  13. Divalent
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Yes, the more you interact with others, the more you will trust them, so the default “human nature” response to dealing with strangers (low level of trust) can be overcome with experience. Big deal. But it’s worth pointing out that we also have developed a variety of means to facilitate trust, such as financial instruments and standards of behavior backed by civil and criminal penalties to assure a likelihood of compliance, and the behavior of all actors takes place in an arena where these potential penalties are known. Imagine how rapidly trust would evaporate if our legal system were suddenly to collapse.

    IMO, the most important factor that ensures a high level of trust in our economic system is that our laws penalize (albeit, imperfectly), defector behavior, and so tip the scales much farther in the direction of cooperation than would be the case without such laws. What explains the low levels of trust in less developed societies is the absence of external pressure against potential defectors; the people who live in such societies are not behaving irrationally or less optimally than conditions warrant.

  14. Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I find it simply astounding that the person who wrote this could also be the same person to hold the views expressed in the video below.


    ~Rev. El

  15. Jack
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Calling ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’ a good book is a stretch.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t read it myself, but Shermer likes to quote himself and the quotes from that book make me think it’s not a science-based book but only a science-sounding one.

    • Frank
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      “Why People Believe Weird Things” is indeed a good book, but ones opinion of it is bound to be influenced by other books one has read, particularly books read before “Why People Believe Weird Things.” I read Shermer’s book when it was originally published in 1997. It was the first book about skepticism I’d ever read and was very informative and eye-opening. It makes for an excellent introduction (or at least did at that time) to skeptical thinking and various cognitive errors that result in irrational thinking. There may be better primers on these subjects now – 13 years later(I don’t know) – but Shermer’s book taught me a great deal about critical thinking and got me moving in the direction of skeptical thought. There are examples he used in that book that I still use to illustrate certain cognitive errors.

  16. Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I don’t see that capitalism leads to “civilized virtue”, as Shermer states.

    If I act in a certain way because I feel it is the right thing to do, that is a virtuous act. If I do it because there would be adverse consequences if I didn’t, that is an amoral self-preserving act.

    There is no virtue in doing something just because it is in your best self interest.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. I concur. Shermer is proposing, by proxy, that the free-market is a decontextualized, self-correcting entity that gravitates towards optimal good. Like science, ethical considerations have to be considered a priori, ad hoc, and post hoc. Morality only emerges if it is nurtured and reinforced during the “ascent” of whatever industrialized goal is trying to be achieved.

  17. Charles Sullivan
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    The monkey cucumber/grape experiment need not be interpreted as monkeys having a sense of fairness. It could simply be that the monkey with the cucumber recognizes that he didn’t receive the reward he wanted (the grape), and then he makes a fuss because of his selfish desire for the grape.

    Philip Kitcher suggests that a sense of fairness involves psychological altruism. As he puts it:

    “…protests on the part of the aggrieved party don’t do much to demonstrate a sense of fairness. Of course, if the lucky capuchin were to throw down the grape until his comrade had a similar reward, that would be very interesting!”*

    * from Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers (p.131).

  18. Darrell E
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Shermer seems to be caught up in how logical and plausible his just so story is, but it is amazing given the huge amount of countervailing evidence how he could take it seriously.

    I’ve have spent my career to date in one of the key sectors of our economy. It is rife with immorality from top to bottom. Any business in this particular sector that is determined to operate strictly legally and fairly is automatically at a disadvantage in the market.

    The large majority of the other players in the market will be lying, cheating, stealing and misleading their way right past you in the majority of the instances in which you find yourself in competition with them. And the customer you are competing for either will not care for anything but the cheapest price, whatever the level of qualification or lack thereof, or will be ignorant, with the same results.

    One of the major problems with this sector is that the liars, cheaters and stealers have over time changed the market environment to favor their immoral and unfair tactics, in two main ways. First, they have managed to change some of the rules. Second, over time they have created precedents at all levels which are now regarded as just the way things are done.

    Shermer’s hypothesis seems laughably absurd to me. My hypothesis is that humans must use their morality as a guide to devising appropriate regulatory mechanisms for our markets in order to limit the liars, cheaters and stealers. Capitalism rewards “whatever it takes” to make more than anyone else, and that is just about the opposite of promoting morality. Our markets encourage people to do things that they themselves understand are immoral.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      A company always has more information about its product than its customers. They are the only ones that can give customers that information, so they also have the power to withhold that information. Hiding some of that information from their customers and competitors can give them an advantage. The system therefore naturally rewards secrecy and dishonesty.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

      It reminds me of the situation in many third world countries – building a bridge can cost 2-6 times what it would cost in the developed nations thanks to all the bribery. If you don’t bribe, you have no hope of winning a bid for a project even though you can easily offer the lowest price simply by not offering any bribes at all.

  19. Lester Ballard
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    People have mentioned Shermer’s “blind spots”. What are some of yours?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      This comment is completely irrelevant to the discussion. Please stay on topic.

    • Barry
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Did someone ask a question? I didn’t see it.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      If I knew, would they be blindness or prejudice?

  20. PoxyHowzes
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    The analogy to evolving hunter-gatherers misses an important factor — the time value of assets. A hunter who killed something that provided more meat than he could eat before it became inedible could only value the excess food at zero, unless he could gain something by “investing” the excess while it was still edible — that is, by sharing it with folks who will give him something later.

    Capitalism still struggles with the time value of assets: A warehouse full of 2008-vintage Blackberrys would have a value fast approaching zero if not already negative. “Investing” that asset (i.e., sharing it) with, say, some third-worlders might well be a “virtue” carried out in the hope of future benefit from those third-worlders.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Since my study of hunter-gatherers indicates hey usually traveled in groups and were basically egalitarian, their need for meat may have been independent of time-value. The most common view I have read of hunter-gatherers suggests they had to “work” about five hundred hours per year to sustain their community and that their possessions seem limited to necessities suggests to me that any comparison to a capitalistic or consumption model is irrelevant.

  21. Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Ah, but don’t you understand? The Invisible Hand will surely expose all the hanky-panky, and the Rational Actors will vote with their dollars, and the problem will thus solve itself.

    Incidentally, contrary to popular belief, porcine aerodynamics is a trivial subject to master. Start by modeling the pigs as frictionless spheres….

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Ack…that was supposed to be a reply do Darrell E’s #18….

      b&

    • Michael Nuwer
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      The invisible hand is invisible because it doesn’t exist.

      (this is a favorite line of Joe Stiglitz)

  22. Tyro
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Surely that’s preposterous nonsense, else you’re claiming that American Slavery was not a moral issue.

    I wonder how Shermer views debt slavery – it seems like this would be a natural part of capitalism. What about anti-capitalist protections like public health care, public schools, public libraries, public fire departments, public sanitation, and public highways. What about consumer protection acts, bankruptcy protection (which ties back to debt slavery), and all the other rules which exist to fight the excesses of capitalism?

    With all the flag-waving and better-dead-than-red jingoism, many people forget that a truly free capital market would be pretty grim for most of the society and the few countries that have flirted with this approach have become cautionary tales of deprivation, greed and societal upheaval. Not a pretty sight.

    Yet whenever these stories get told, it’s always capitalism which gets the credit which always appears more than a little blind to evidence and uncritical, big failings for a supposedly sceptical thinker.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      To be fair, it seems pretty evident that red baiting and its modern equivalents has much more to do with tribalism and Machiavellian power politics than rational ideology.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      And then there’s the irony that with subsidies, tax loopholes and breaks, essential monopolies, political clout, and all the rest, the richest corporations are getting some of the most welfare…But we don’t call it that…it’s “incentive.”

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:18 am | Permalink

      The answer to the debt slavery question is that the victim is obviously not receiving enough respect – something which never happens in a libertarian society. Of course back on planet earth it happens all the time, and the poor buggers don’t have the resources to demand their share of respect.

  23. Barry
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I recall Shermer and Harris in debate against Deeeeeepak and some other woo merchant. He was keen to attack Chopra, quite rightly for his woo-mongering. What on earth is he doing taking money from the biggest woo supporters (in Templeton) out there?

  24. bhoytony
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve been doubtful about Shermer ever since I heard him say in an interview that all sceptics should be libertarians.
    I don’t discount everything he says now, but I am much more “sceptical” about it.

    • Frank
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s really quite simple:
      Skepticism leads to libertarianism as capitalism leads to morality.

      These two assumptions are perfectly consistent with one another…in that they are both perfectly nonsensical.

  25. Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Tainted milk, tainted meat, salmonella-infected eggs, other kinds of cost-cutting that endangers consumers, putting antifreeze in wine, selling illegal knockoff handbags—these too are the fruits of capitalism.

    Yes, and even more basically, so is underpaying workers, and so is forcing them to work in dangerous conditions.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Curiously enough, all those are examples of externalized expenses — which is the economist’s fancy term for what us mere mortals think of as theft and vandalism for fun and profit.

      I could make lots of money by running a meth lab in my home and dumping the toxic waste in my neighbor’s yard. Doing so would make me a pariah and get me thrown in prison.

      BP makes lots of money by running oil wells on public property and by dumping the waste in the air and water. This makes them capitalist heroes deserving of huge government subsidies.

      Capitalist economists assume that pigs are weightless, frictionless spheres and therefore capable of intercontinental flight. If the cost of an iPhone included the cost of a decent standard of living (including health care) for the workers, the cost to clean up the toxic waste of manufacturing, the cost to restore to their pristine condition the mines from which the raw materials came, the cost to sequester the carbon used to transport it overseas, and all the other hidden costs…well, I can guarantee you, you wouldn’t see anywhere near as many of them on the street.

      We’re making moonshine from the seed corn, shitting on the rug, and burning the furniture to make a pretty bonfire. The only way this drunken orgy can last is if we can find a magical inexhaustible supply of energy — and find it fast. Oil has already peaked and still nobody has any alternatives in place.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Gingerbaker
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        “Capitalist economists assume that pigs are weightless, frictionless spheres and therefore capable of intercontinental flight.”

        ROFL!

        Are those, by chance, capitalist pigs?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        The rest is too much economic theory to bother with. I don’t think it agrees in general, though.

        But this: Peak oil is, a failed, hypotheses on oil fields. (Apparently it can’t predict the tail very well, besides being an after-the-fact free parameter heuristic IIRC.)

        I believe the market models is that oil will plateau out over decades in the middle of this century. I guess those spherical oil fields would say “sell your stocks”, while the spherical economists would say “but not yet”.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          And then I say “bother with” it is me personally: an economic theory naive person. Others may knock themselves out. :-D

      • MadScientist
        Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:21 am | Permalink

        Hehehe; “externalized expenses” always gets me laughing – I always thought of that as mining-speak for “someone else’s goddamned problem”.

  26. Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Shermer has always been an accommodationist, which is why I’ve always had reservations about Why People Believe Weird Things – since before “accommodationist” was the term for Shermer’s view, which at the time I noted it I called (in a note) “the old ‘no conflict’ approach.” It’s on page 132. There’s also an unpleasant little item about singling out an atheist in the audience at a debate with Duane Gish, and telling him he was doing more harm than good.

    Shermer is “uncivil” about and toward atheists.

    • Andy
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      I love Shermer on so many issues, but Ophelia’s exactly right here. I think he still prefers to call himself an agnostic (even though he’s, you know, an atheist).

      Bottom line: Someone who has been such a vigorous defender of science and rationality should have nothing to do with Templeton. As Jerry said, Templeton seeks to blur the line between science and “faith,” thereby harming the integrity of science at large.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      Add me to those who stopped paying attention to him some time ago. In addition to all the rest, he’s always seemed to me to be so interested in self-promotion.

      When I happen to look at his newletters before deleting them, they seem to have a lot of ‘look where I went, whom I dined with, what’s coming out in my media empire,’ etc…(Guess that capitalist thing is working out well for him.)

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Top down then.

    I don’t think there is a disagreement on the general problems with Shermer’s thesis. To add something to the discussion:

    My analysis is that Shermer’s thesis moves from being based on the naturalistic fallacy on one end, that a working market is a good thing, to the moralistic fallacy on the other: we can strip away the good human interaction to the point that we have a push button system for stocks (say).

    The later is one of the factors that makes modern war so devastating, precisely because human interaction becomes removed to pushing buttons for rocket launchers.

    I don’t see capitalism as innately conducive to morality. It is, at best, orthogonal to it.

    While that immediately follows from my analysis, I have the damnedest time defining morality. Obviously we can be observed to take moral actions, and we can recognize (i.e. model) moral behavior and moral explanations in ourselves and others.

    The best definition I have found that it involves judgment on qualities of behavior, not necessarily restricted to models of “good” vs “bad”. [HT: swedish Wikipedia.]

    It is then no wonder that it is so elusive, because while it is a well defined behavior, it isn’t well defined as such, everyone from individuals up to societies will have their own morality.

    Shermer is a well known—and well respected (including by me)—skeptic,

    While I can respect his travel from religious to skeptic, I have never been able to respect his lingering willingness to believe which was evident already after short exposure to his writings.

    This exemplifies in matters small and big such as the religious claim of fine-tuning, over theological claims such as “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God”, over his recent faitheist accommodationism up to and including his former anti-science AGW denial.

    In this case I cannot respect but only tolerate his opinions within freedom of religion and freedom of expression respectively. Just because he is a science writer doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to earn my respect.

  28. Clive
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that it seems to me that anyone who thinks capitalism – which however broadly you define it is a recent form of social organisation relative to tens of thousands of years of human existence – is just the playing out of normal human behaviour is an ahistorical (or historically illiterate) crank it is hard to believe anyone takes seriously.

    That he thinks capitalism – a system premised on inequality, which continually increases global inequality, and which just lately has plunged the world into an economic crisis for which, as usual, the poorest pay – is the basis for *morality* only makes him an utter crank to be pointed and laughed at.

  29. Doc Bill
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m a great fan of Shermer and have subscribed to Skeptic for many years.

    Poor guy, he’s been on the front line for so long he seems tired of it all.

    I watched him “spar” with JonBoy Wells recently. Wells lied through his teeth as usual and Shermer was, like, we agree to disagree. WTF??

    If you can no longer use the spurs, hang them up, Michael!

  30. Utakata
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Someone should of renamed his essay, Why Michael Shermer Believes Weird Things. Just saying…

  31. Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    If I may, I’d like to point out my review of The Mind of the Market:

    http://www.daylightatheism.org/2008/02/mind-of-the-market.html

    I was expecting a book on science, but it turned out to be a shoddily argued libertarian tract. Shermer may no longer be a devotee of Ayn Rand as a person, but it seems he’s retained belief in her philosophy – and its manifest flaws – without modification.

  32. oldfuzz
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Shermer writes, “As every economist knows, the market system, based on the free exchange of goods, is the greatest prosperity-generating machine ever invented.” begging the question, what does prosperity-generation have to do with ethics? There is enough historical evidence from every form of economic system that economics and morality may be mutuallly exclusive. (The economists I know don’t know what Shermer knows.)

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      I personally think sentences starting with “As every X knows…” tend to be red flags for either an argument from authority or a begging of the question.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        Unless it begins with, “I know…” then it be an invitation to a skirmish.

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      It is an abductive consequentialist argument.

      If anything, the historical evidence shows that a central coercive state monopoly is mutually exclusive with ethics.

      • Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        But a private monopoly is just fine?

      • oldfuzz
        Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Is this related to disjunctive syllogism?

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:25 am | Permalink

      I don’t believe you meant mutually exclusive, but perhaps something like “mutually independent”? Or, if you’re referring to a mathematical model, perhaps “orthogonal” or, in plainspeak, “unrelated”.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        I did mean mutually exclusive and agree it is variably coupled in different economic systems. Thanks for the comment.

  33. Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Are people here reacting against Shermer because they have studies the issue in-depth and have a more or less left-leaning political position well-supported by empirical evidence, or just because they disagree with him on economic and political issues, dismissing him with the “libertarian” epithet (with the same snarl that creationists have when they use the term “Darwinist”)?

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      So you think “libertarian” is an epithet? Is that really what you wanted to say?

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Which issue is it that we need to study in depth? From a basic analysis of Shermer’s claims, any scientist (or even a thinking person who does not consider themself a scientist) can conclude that Shermer does not present compelling evidence for his case – only anecdotes and other unsupported claims.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      I’ll just speak for myself. Shermer suggests that free and fair trade was a natural social development when human interaction expanded beyond kin groups. The fact that most of human history is conquest and colonization suggests, to me, that Shermer is trying to weave a libertarian myth.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      That: unlimited growth in a finite world is impossible, is a rock-solid mathematical certainty.
      As such it needs no ‘in-depth study’, and is immune to political leanings.

    • Dan L.
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      1) One doesn’t need an in-depth study of economics to see that Shermer’s skepticism is not applied to his views on economics. For example, he doesn’t seem to be willing to ask a few salient questions:
      a) Why are so many young capitalist democracies so rife with corruption? How do we square this with the inherent “morality” of market capitalism?
      b) How does one justify basing free market/prosperity arguments based on the US economy? The US has not had a free market economy since before the depression, and its greatest periods of growth have occurred since then.
      c) Is there a possibility the market thesis is wrong? It’s common in economics to assume the players in a market are rational, self-interested, and have access to perfect information, but all three of those assumptions seem fishy to me. Is it possible that it’s information asymmetry itself that leads to growth? That’s just one alternative thesis, but it would suggest that capitalism is inherently manipulative rather than inherently moral.
      2. Does “left-leaning” just mean skeptical of explanations derived from economic theory to you? I don’t consider myself left-leaning, but I also don’t have any sort of religious beliefs about markets the way Shermer or Alan Greenspan do.

    • Neil
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Interesting to note that when people do not like the political implications of an argument, the frequency of ad hominem responses is very high.

  34. Observer
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    It’s very easy to “prove” that the unfettered free market produces virtue. All you have to do is define “virtue” as “that which the free market produces.” That’s really all the Randian types are doing.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      You mean “Rayndian” don’t you? (Or am I the only one who spells it that way.)

      • MadScientist
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        D’oh – my memory for names is really getting screwed as I age. For some reason I keep thinking “Anne Raynd” rather than Ayn Rand. But no – shouldn’t my memory be perfect? After all, godmadeit.

  35. MadScientist
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s just Mike pushing Rayndian Libertarianism (really a strange blend of fascism and anarchism) without actually typing out “Libertarian(ism)”. I don’t think Shermer actually understands how to conduct scientific experiments and has no grasp of how results are interpreted and verified. So a few chimps and monkeys share – so what – how many *don’t* share. Nor is the chimp anecdote even remotely related to his claim – for example, how did Capitalism foster the morality of the chimps?

    For every claimed example of how “capitalism” (when Mike uses the word it seems to imply Raynd’s libertarian version of capitalism) promotes morality, how many counter-examples can we find in which it doesn’t? The numerous counter-examples (which are really so common they rarely make the news) are conveniently ignored.

    Some people are greedy, some are nice, and there will be greedy people and nice people regardless of Capitalism (in any form) – just look at the now defunct Soviet Union, or China in the years before Deng Xiaoping.

    I’m afraid Shermer likes to conflate morality with evolution and his libertarian ideals; it must be Michael’s Spandrels.

  36. littlejohn
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Shermer’s a psychologist. We all speculate a bit outside our fields, but he seems to think he’s an authority worth listening to on everything from biology to economics.
    He’s not ever a very good writer (as a professional writer and editor I’m rendering that opinion within my own field).
    I don’t dislike him, but I don’t take him seriously.

    • Peter
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      I think his degree is in sociology.

      • littlejohn
        Posted September 1, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        Nope. Bachelor’s and master’s in psychology, doctorate in history of science.

  37. littlejohn
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    And I’m not a good typist. I meant “not even,” not “not ever.” Stupid fingers.

  38. oldfuzz
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Anyone know why The BigQuestionOnline doesn’t allow comments on Shermer’s posting? …or is it me? I can comment everywhere else and, yes, I’m logged in…

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Ohmigod. It’s supposed to be BigQuestionsOnline. BigQuestionOnline is a Russian identity theft operation. :)

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted August 29, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

        Fucked up the attributes. Serves me right for trying to be a smart ass.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Oops… My mistake. I can’t handle more than one question at a time. Fortunately my identity is of no value.

  39. Neil
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Although our moral capacity is evolved, and no doubt rooted in the advanced mental processing that allows us to “put ourselves in the shoes of another”, Shermer is right about the expression of our morality being rooted in society. Perhaps not capitalism per se (I am sure that Swedes as moral as we are), but certainly in social systems that have advanced liberty and science. Adam Smith himself proposed this in his second most famous book–A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

    I am amused by those who propose evolutionary explanations for contemporary moral standards. Do they not realize that the medieval mob gleefully watching some poor wretch be disembowled or the Nazis running the death camps had the same evolved capacities that any of us have?

    Expressions of morality are most certainly sociological, even if capacities are biological.

  40. psypro
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Like many others in reply on this blog, I have always found Shermer to be suspect, and a bit creepy. Indeed, given his heralded acceptance by the atheistsphere, I began to question why I, seemingly alone, found his skepticism off-putting. His Skeptic magazine, despite the accolades of atheistic leading lights, is not, really, very good. Sophomoric, at best. Nothing even close to, say, the Skeptical Inquirer. So, what was the source of my, uh, skepticism? His own writing. He cannot and does not write like Dawkins, or Hitchens, or Dennett. By that, I don’t mean the exceptional quality of those writers: obviously, few of us could meet such standards. I mean the content: there are few of his editorials, or other pieces that ever came across as clear skeptical pieces, and even fewer as atheistic. They always just seemed to ride the current zeitgeist (e.g., homeopathy is silly, acupuncture sucks, or doesn’t, and so on).

    As with others in response here, when I found years ago that he also espoused let us just say economical and political prospectives that one, uh, should be somewhat skeptical of, I though discretion was the better part of valour, and just abandoned his writings and his magazine, for which I have received censure along the lines of “but he is one of us (whatever that may be), you MUST support him!”. Sorry, no. As with Penn Jillette, enough is enough.

    • psypro
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      I should have mentioned, Shermer is delivering an address at the U of L in a few days . Needless to say, I won’t be there, but if you click the link, you can see its advertised, allegedly skeptical background.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:30 am | Permalink

      I know what you mean; I got a 1-year subscription to Skeptic Mag and didn’t renew; Skeptical Inquirer is far better.

  41. Sigmund
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    Shermer gave a talk about a year ago that was available online (it might have been on Point of inquiry) where he outlined his liberterian-‘skeptical’ view of economics in which he contrasted the social welfare systems of the US and Europe. In the US there is a lot of church involvement, either pure charities or in the sort of partly governmental funded “faith based initiatives” that deal with the needy. In Europe the social welfare system has been almost entirely taken over by the state. Although he didn’t explicitly state it I got the impression that he disapproved of the European system and saw the US system in a more favorable light for the simple reason that the European system is funded through higher taxation. It was a political view as to where it is appropriate to draw the line – Shermer seemed to think church responsibility for social welfare, and thus less taxes, is better than less church involvement, a larger role for the state and thus higher taxes. In a way this sort of argument follows the standard accomodationist/(faitheist line – that religion does something useful for some members of society although it was the first time I had heard of lower taxation being touted as one of the advantages.

    • Posted August 30, 2010 at 5:19 am | Permalink

      But churches tax their members too (they call it “tithing”). And their charity often has all sorts of strings attached for those who receive it, like being evangelized at.

      • Posted August 30, 2010 at 5:26 am | Permalink

        Sometimes their charity goes towards things like building a new church so that it can take in more donations, from the people you wanted your money to feed.

        • Posted August 30, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink

          Well, often churches aren’t democracies, so you don’t get to vote how the money is spent. The European welfare states on the other hand are all democracies.

          That’s something that bugs me a lot about libertarians: they will always talk about “The State” as some separate entity. They seem to forget that in a functioning democracy, the state is us.

    • Posted August 30, 2010 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      The general problem with the Chicago school type, is that they would rather spend twice as much on funding a private concern, to do the same thing a government could do at half the price.

      My mother noticed it in auditing, some people will pay more to get out of taxes by hiring the right lawyer and right accountant, than they actually would have paid in the taxes.

  42. Vince
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    The more I’ve read Shermer’s writing on the internet the more certain things have become clear. First, he doesn’t write about skepticism all that much. I think it was in a “Point of Inquiry” interview that he mentioned he was actually kind of bored with traditional skeptical topics. Who could blame him though, he has been involved with them for a long time.

    What rubs me the wrong way is that he seems to take the skeptical community as his personal captive audience to discuss topics that no one came to hear. He frames this as just continuing his work and teaching people about “Why People Believe Weird Things About Money”. But that brings up the second thing I’ve noticed. His grasp of the topics out side of skepticism are sophomoric at best. Mostly he seems to engage in a lot of post-hoc reasoning. And he does a lot of extrapolating from one small study (the results of which, and his interpretation of it, are often questioned by people in the field) to a grand world view.

    When it comes to politics he often sounds like an episode of Rush Limbaugh at worst and the predetermined conclusions of CATO at best. I know at least once an argument on his personal blog, about the economic crash, was something I had seen, almost verbatim, on the CATO unbound blog the day before. Which brings us to the third thing I’ve noticed. He seems to wants to bring people’s attention to the fact that there are conservatives among the skeptic community.

    I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The world is a complicated place. If things were really cut and dried then I don’t think there would be so many different political and economic viewpoints in the first place. Being conservative doesn’t have to mean you are anti-science. On the other hand, it is that very fact that makes such topics inappropriate topics for the skeptical community. For example, there isn’t a hard scientific answer to the question about how much free reign markets should have. There is a wide range of opinion even among well respected members of the economics profession.

    Perhaps in recognition of this he seems to have scaled back his arguments somewhat. Now it is simply trade that all economists agree about. Well, OK, and?? Is there someone arguing that all trade is bad? Is he suggesting that the overwhelming majority of liberals want no markets? Who is he supposed to be educating exactly?

    Most people that object to parts modern globalization, for example, do so for specific reasons, not just a blind hatred of trade. I’ll give an example. The Heckscher–Ohlin model of international trade is often called the 2nd most important idea in trade theory behind Ricardo’s comparative advantage. It predicts that in a country like the US , where capital is relatively abundant, more open trade will increase demand for that capital and decrease demand for unskilled labor. The net result will be that, although overall wealth will increase, open trade will make capital absolutely better off than before and labor absolutely worse off than before. This is mainstream theory not some liberal plot or denial of economics. That is exactly what has happened. To make matters worse though, it has made unskilled labor worse off in other countries too, in contrast to what the model predicts. It seems that the model is being overwhelmed by other factors such as the large number of squatters and subsistence farmers being pushed off their land due to agriculture liberalization. Shermer doesn’t display any grasp of these finer points and seems to attribute resistance to just a dislike of trade in general.

    His arguments about morality are pretty pathetic. He is of course making an argument from evolutionary psychology, a contentious subject even in areas much better supported that his. His ideas of the form, “If goods do not cross borders, armies will, ” are frankly laughable. Someone called him on this once at the Beyond Belief convention. Scott Atran pointed out that in the early 1900’s the world had about as much free and open trade as it does now but it was shortly followed by a World War. Shermer seemed a little taken aback and made some comment about it definitely being a process of “two steps forward one step back,” or some such nonsense.

    He isn’t all bad of course. He is often a go to guy when a show on woo needs a skeptical voice. Jr Skeptic’s book on evolution for kids is something I may pick up once my little one gets older. As for his other books I think there are better ones on just about every topic he has written about, but hey, the guy has to try to make a living. I could be wrong but it seems like skepticism is his main source of income. That he is writing for Templeton is a little disturbing but I don’t think he should be completely written off like some seem to think (just mostly).

  43. John Wagner
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that Shermer is one of the only Skeptics that uses logic and reason to identify the extreme failures of big government socialism when compared to the great improvements to the societies that embrace free markets and capitalism. Religious foolishness is embraced by as many Democrats as Republicans and at some point you have to set religion aside and simply look at what promotes the best quality of life for all of the poeple…..and that is free market capitalism and liberal democracy. The Left sucks up to socialism and Utopias like fundamentalist Religions suck up to gods and heavens. We should be able to correct the flawed thinking of “capitalism haters” using history and facts……gods are a whole other problem!

    • Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      It seems to me that Shermer is one of the only Skeptics that uses logic and reason to identify the extreme failures of big government socialism when compared to the great improvements to the societies that embrace free markets and capitalism.

      That’s sarcasm, right?

      • John Wagner
        Posted August 30, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        “Key factors determine a country’s economic ranking including the business environment, infrastructure, tax rates, and the general ease of operations within that country.”

        http://www.economywatch.com/economies-in-top/top-ten-economies.html

        Free markets encourage these conditions…..so, you are uninformed or being sarcastic…right?
        There are no perfect societies but free market ideas are essential for those in the top ten…..

        • Posted August 31, 2010 at 4:16 am | Permalink

          Well-run democratic governments encourage these conditions too. Your source pretty much says so in the very next sentence after the one you quoted:

          The world’s top ten economies can be determined by examining factors such as growth prospects, business environments, infrastructure, educational levels of the citizens, and governmental policies and institutions. [emphasis mine]

    • tveb
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      The problem is that no such thing called “capitalism” exists in reality. We do not have a “free” enterprise system, we have a “private” enterprise system. We have the state protecting and bailing out these so-called “private” entities who have a gun to our collective heads. We have–in the real world–socialism for the few and “capitalism” for the labor force. The difference between us and communist states like the former USSR is that in the latter a few state bureaucrats had a stranglehold over all economic activities (and the labor force), while here a slightly larger group of owners and investors do. Sure the latter is more efficient than the former (but ask yourself “efficient” to what end?)and somewhat more humane since people have certain “political” rights, like the right to contract your labor, and elect political representatives who could mitigate certain aspects of your situation (but not all). But all this within some basic parameters that “politics” cannot really change: corporations and investors always come first (the larger the investor the more the influence); investors and financial wealth holders have the primary say over the structure and shape of the economy. If their preferences produce a positive externality for the rest of us, all is well and good (that is to say that whatever happens –economically–to the rest is incidental). Otherwise we are often fucked, over and over (at least once every 10 years or so). I should not have to elaborate.

      So shove your capitalism and “free” enterprise system.

    • Sigmund
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      Don’t be ridiculous. Even in western Europe, where being a socialist is not regarded by the general public as akin to being a proud Stalinist or Nazi, there is almost zero idolizing of communist systems. The type of ‘socialist’ systems that are highly regarded tend to be the Scandinavian democracies – which are secular societies that are based on regulated capitalism alongside strong state education, health and welfare systems. These systems are not utopias but the evidence suggests they have a thing or two to teach the US.

    • Dan L.
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Liberals have religious belief in “socialism” (according to conservatives) and conservatives have religious faith in markets.

      At best, you can argue that markets with fewer restrictions are correlated with higher standards of living. You certainly won’t be able to demonstrate cause without begging the question. But I think you’ll have a tough time demonstrating cause as well. You’ll have to argue why the US having higher infant mortality rates and lower literacy rates than European socialist states is consistent with the US having a higher standard of living, for example. Or why WWII led to a huge economic boom despite the fact that the market wasn’t free during the war. Or why standards of living were so low in the 19th century when markets were as free as any time in history.

      The important part of skepticism is to try to prove your own pet theories wrong. It’s not just telling everyone else that they’re blind fools.

      • Dan L.
        Posted August 30, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        “correlation as well,” not “cause as well”

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Ha! Great Poe! You had me going for a minute there: always a mark of effective dry satire.

  44. Kyle
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I’ve always liked Shermer. True his economic position has always bothered me, but we all have our faults. I believe he’s done put in a significant amount of effort to promote science, skepticism and critical thinking. Any time there are loonies on TV to promote their absurdities, Shermer is there to try and put them in their place. I consider him one of the quintessential writers in my ‘conversion’ from a faith-based person to a rational one along with Dawkins and Hitchens. What I find most disturbing about this is the fact he wrote for Templeton, when he has in the past criticized it for what it truly is.

  45. Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I need hardly point out that businesses and other bulwarks of capitalism often cheat, or fail to behave in ways we’d consider virtuous, when they think they can get away with it.

    Businesses are not necessarily “bulwarks” of capitalism. They can quite easily be bulwarks of corporatism or statism too, depending on the nature of their relationship with the government. So, citing bad behavior among businesses doesn’t necessarily refute Shermer’s point.

    In his book, The Mind of the Market, Shermer readily acknowledges that bad behavior can and does occur among businesses, but he argues this is far, far from the norm (pg. 217). If avarice, rather than viture, was the natural product of market capitalism, it would have collapsed long ago.

    I think Shermer is generally correct. In societies where market capitalism isn’t the norm, where the state is heavily involved in the economy, you see endemic levels of corruption.

    • Posted August 30, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Actually, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, among the states with the lowest levels of corruption are the Scandinavian and Western-European countries, where there is an important role for government in regulating the market and providing social security. They are not free-market economies in the Libertarian sense. The US, where “socialism” is a dirty word, only comes in at #19, more than a point behind the lowest ranking Scandinavian country.

      • Posted August 30, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        Actually, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, among the states with the lowest levels of corruption are the Scandinavian and Western-European countries

        Sorry, but I fail to see how this answers the general rule I cited. The Scandinavian countries and Western Europe, while generally overall less free economically than the U.S., are barely so. In the U.S., the government also has an important role in regulating the market and providing social security, so the apparent contrast you make among them is not all that significant.

        • Posted August 31, 2010 at 3:46 am | Permalink

          It shows that there is no clear correlation between government involvement and corruption. There are clearly other factors at work. In no way does this argument from corruption support deregulation in western nations.

          The source you cite with the economic freedom index doesn’t actually support your thesis. It happens to contain data on corruption as well as government spending (the only measurement in there that seems to directly measure how much the government is involved in the market). If I plot these in a scatterplot and try and find a correlation, I see no obvious correlation. In fact, calculating the correlation coefficient, it seems the correlation is the other way: higher government spending index (lower spending) results in lower freedom from corruption index (more corruption).

          • Posted August 31, 2010 at 8:18 am | Permalink

            In no way does this argument from corruption support deregulation in western nations.

            The discussion revolves around levels of economic freedom, not strictly about deregulation.

            It happens to contain data on corruption as well as government spending (the only measurement in there that seems to directly measure how much the government is involved in the market).

            Yes, it does contain data on corruption, but it’s one factor among nine others. And government spending is a poor proxy for government’s involvement in the market, since a country could have relatively high GDP/tax ratio and be minimally involved in the market (most of the spending could go to social services). Taxes, however, drag and distort economic activity, which is they’re included among other measures.

            If I plot these in a scatterplot and try and find a correlation, I see no obvious correlation.

            You must be kidding. I plotted a country’s overall score against its corruption score and found the correlation to be striking. It’s far, far more obvious than the one comparing spending and corruption, which is all over the map.

            • Posted August 31, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

              Well, I did what you suggested and looked at the taxes. I plotted the Freedom from Corruption index against the Fiscal Freedom Index, which measures taxation. Guess what? A negative correlation again. So much for that theory.

              To be fair, there does appear to be a positive correlation between the Financial Freedom Index (which measures government involvement in the financial sector) and Freedom from Corruption index, although the variation is still quite large. I doubt that the correlation is strong enough to conclude a causal relationship, especially considering all the possible confounding variables.

              Of course the overall score correlates with the corruption score – the corruption score is 10% of the overall score. Corruption will also directly influence several of the other categories, like the Business Freedom Index (which includes things like the cost of starting a business) or Investment Freedom Index. Corruption is even explicitly mentioned as a factor that was used to determine the Property Freedom Index. So the correlation between freedom from corruption and the overall score is pretty much by design.

    • Posted August 31, 2010 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      Businesses are not necessarily “bulwarks” of capitalism. They can quite easily be bulwarks of corporatism or statism too, depending on the nature of their relationship with the government.

      Irrelevant. I can point to businesses that behave badly without being corporatist or statist quite easily.

      In fact a lot of businesses behaving badly do so when the are still small and unstable. A fair chunk of them are indeed one man shows.

      • Posted August 31, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        Irrelevant. I can point to businesses that behave badly without being corporatist or statist quite easily.

        It’s not irrelevant to the point Dr. Coyne tried to make. Simply because a business acts badly is not necessarily reflective of market capitalism as a whole.

        You have to look at the overall picture.

  46. Holey Cow
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps we might consider being more pragmatic and less doctrinaire about “our side’s” associations by formulating a threshold: You can take money from a dubious organization if you don’t compromise intellectual honesty (wouldn’t we rather have a Shermer bleed some Templeton loot instead of a backstabber like Ayala?). However, you don’t get to take money from a dubious organization AND espouse palpably dubious positions. In that case, you get shitlisted.

    What I’m arguing for is not to automatically kneejerkingly throw people under the bus based solely on their associations as unsavory as they might appear as a lot of people did with Ayaan Hirsi Ali upon learning of her affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute.

  47. Posted September 1, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    In reply to Deen’s post:

    Well, I did what you suggested and looked at the taxes.

    Sorry, I meant to suggest that taxes, as the flip side of government spending, are not all that indicative of government involvement in the market. You can have have both a relatively free economy and a relatively high tax rate (e.g., New Zealand).

    Of course the overall score correlates with the corruption score – the corruption score is 10% of the overall score.

    When the other factors are plotted one-by-one against the overall score, you don’t see as striking as a correlation as you do between the corruption score and the overall score.

    So much for that theory.

    Corruption is even explicitly mentioned as a factor that was used to determine the Property Freedom Index.

    Corruption within the judiciary.

    So the correlation between freedom from corruption and the overall score is pretty much by design.

    I don’t think so. If it was “by design”, then why even include the other factors? They’d be redundant.

    In any case, the Index of Economic Freedom (IEF) is not the only set of country rankings of economic freedom; there is also the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) report. This report includes 42 independent factors. Corruption (i.e., bribery) is among them, but obviously its score would impact a country’s overall rank far less than the IEF rank.

    I compared EFW country rankings against the Corruptions Perception Index you linked to above. What did I find? The same striking correlation between a country’s economic freedom rank and its corruption rank. The plot points create a practical thick straight line.

    In sum, not only is Coyne’s argument against Shermer false, but insofar as corruption is a proxy for “immoral economic behavior”, Shermer appears to be correct that the freer a country’s economy is, the more it promotes virtuous economic behavior (or at least lessens the opportunities for bad behavior).

  48. Kimpatsu
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I’ve always been irritated by Shermer’s assertion (pace Adam Smith) that it is the self-interest of the butcher that drives economic success. The butcher isn’t a butcher out of love of his trade, but because he wants to make money. The problem is that just because his greed is good idea IS the way things are, that doesn’t mean things are the way they SHOULD BE. People should be striving to overcome their venality. And Shermer’s claim that trade makes people less likely to go to war with each other is just plain ludicrous. Japan, China, and Korea all trade with each other, but the reason they don’t go to war against each other isn’t because of their trade; it’s because China has the world’s biggest army, which is then offset by a huge US military presence. Take the US away, and China would overrun both the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago in days. No, capitalism is an evil construct because it ENCOURAGES greed, rather than opposing it. Any economic system that does not have a built-in morality is going to harm people at some stage. It’s the nature of the beast.

    • Posted September 3, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      The butcher isn’t a butcher out of love of his trade, but because he wants to make money.

      Er, he wants to make money so he can provide a living for him and his family. His vocation is merely the means to accomplish that. Do you seriously regard this as greedy or “venal”? What else do you suggest he should do?

      And Shermer’s claim that trade makes people less likely to go to war with each other is just plain ludicrous.

      “Ludicrous”?

      No, capitalism is an evil construct because it ENCOURAGES greed, rather than opposing it.

      Please define “GREED” as you understand it. Given what you’ve wrote so far, it seems you don’t understand it well at all.

      Any economic system that does not have a built-in morality is going to harm people at some stage.

      All economic systems have a built-in morality. The question is, what morality is built into it.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] response from Shermer Over at HuffPo (where else?) Michael Shermer responds not only to my critique of his Templeton piece on the morality of capitalism, but to those of you who chimed in with [...]

  2. [...] & My Critics Written by admin Uncategorized Apr 16, 2011 In his endearingly titled blog, "Michael, we hardly knew ye," the venerable evolutionary biologist and slayer of creationist dragons Jerry Coyne (author of Why [...]

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