Category Archive: Justice
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“Title IX” was never intended to regulate romantic relationships on campus. So how did we get here? Robert Shibley, Executive Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, explains.
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Do “Title IX” rules on campus protect women or restrict them? Watch the Unsafe Space Tour panel discussion with Tom Slater and Ella Whelan of Spiked Magazine, Robert Shibley of FIRE, and Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason.
Special thanks to Reason for helping us relocate the panel discussion on very short notice.
Comments Off on Life isn’t fair, but can government help that?
Luck egalitarianism is, roughly, the view that inequalities in life prospects resulting from luck are unjust. (There’s a lot to nit pick about that characterization, but it’s a start.) If Amy has better job opportunities than Bob because she happened to have parents who could afford to send her to a fancy private school, that’s unfair.
You might even think it’s unfair that Rob Gronkowski makes so much more money than, say, me simply because he was gifted with 6’6” height and fast-twitch muscle fibers that enable him to run a 4.68 40 yard dash. Even if we both work equally hard at our crafts, Gronk will earn more than me because his natural talents are more marketable than mine. But it’s not like Gronk earned those talents; he just got lucky and won the genetic lottery. So it’s wrong for him to make so much more money than I do.
Suppose, for argument’s sake, this account of distributive justice is correct. What institutional conclusions follow? Luck egalitarians suggest that the income disparities between people like me and Gronk show that free markets are unjust. It’s the job of the state to correct for these kinds of market-generated inequalities via regulation and redistribution.
As I detail in my book, luck egalitarians (and fellow travelers who might not apply the label to themselves) are nearly unanimous in their rejection of free market regimes. Here’s a small sample:
- “Laissez-faire capitalism (the system of natural liberty) secures only formal equality and rejects both the fair value of the equal political liberties and fair equality of opportunity.” (John Rawls)
- “Market allocations must be corrected in order to bring some people closer to the share of resources they would have had but for these various differences of initial advantage, luck and inherent capacity.” (Ronald Dworkin)
- “Desert as a principle of justice, then, rather than justifying the distributional consequences of free market choices, requires precisely the elimination, or at least the minimization, of the differential brute luck that characterizes the free market […]. The adoption of desert as a principle of justice seems to result in a much more demanding requirement, as far as its implications for the regulation of the market are concerned, than a commitment to voluntariness as a legitimating condition for the imposition of obligations, even when this is suitably revised so as to square up with a defensible account of voluntariness and force.” (Serena Olsaretti)
I could go on, but you get the point: the market generates luck-based inequalities and the state reduces them.
One problem with this argument is that you don’t clinch the luck egalitarian case against free markets by simply showing that they create luck-based inequalities. What you need to do is show that the alternative is better. To use an old analogy of mine, showing that Steph Curry misses over half of his three point shot attempts doesn’t justify benching Steph Curry. To justifiably bench Steph Curry, you’d need to show that his replacement would do better. Similarly, luck egalitarians need to show that a highly regulated market with extensive redistribution will have less luck-based inequality than a libertarian regime.
Here’s a reason for doubting that claim: those who benefit from inherited wealth, elite education, and natural talent in the market also benefit from those factors in politics. Put very roughly, political power will concentrate in the hands of the rich—the very people the political power was created to regulate and restrain. Thus, we might naturally expect such power to be used to increase rather than decrease the advantages of the rich.
Interestingly, this is Rawls’s own view. He says that a
“reason for controlling economic and social inequalities is to prevent one part of society from dominating the rest. When those two kinds of inequalities are large, they tend to support political inequality. As Mill said, the bases of political power are (educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination, by which he meant the power to cooperate in pursuing one’s political interests. This power allows a few, in virtue of their control over the machinery of state, to enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.”
By Rawls’s own lights, the rich will use their “(educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination” to acquire political power and “enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.” But now we can see a problem for Rawls’s view. The people that Rawls wants the state to control (those with property, education, and so on) are the same people that Rawls thinks control the state itself. So how can the state control the rich if the rich control the state? Shouldn’t we instead expect state intervention into the economy to favor the rich? Indeed, this is exactly what we see in many cases: subsidies, licensing, trade restrictions, housing regulations, and so on tend to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
Of course, we cannot definitively establish a conclusion about the effects of regulation and redistribution on luck-based inequalities by doing a priori institutional analysis. But at a minimum, luck egalitarians shouldn’t rule out libertarianism as a viable institutional option at the level of philosophical theory. Perhaps libertarianism and luck egalitarianism are compatible after all.
Originally published at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
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Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University makes the case that when people become too wrapped up in identity politics, they can lose sight of how to affect the change they want to see in society.
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Why does America put so many people in jail? Is it because we have lots of guns? Lots of criminals? Or lots of laws turning nonviolent people into criminals? Watch this UNSAFE SPACE debate featuring Heather Mac Donald and Prof. Thaddeus Russell.
UNSAFE SPACE is a live show and podcast where comedians do standup on controversial topics, then have a discussion with experts and the audience. See more at UnsafeSpaceShow.com. To view the debate in its entirety, see the full episode here.
Comments Off on Reddit AMA with Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University
Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy.
Professor Somin has written extensively on constitutional theory, federalism, political ignorance, property rights, immigration, and a wide range of other important policy issues. He is a prolific contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy blog hosted by the Washington Post, and his work has been featured in other major publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, USA Today, and Forbes. He’s also the author of several well-received books, including Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, Second Edition, 2016), and The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Fans of Learn Liberty will recognize Professor Somin as the star of our popular video, I Can’t Breathe: How to Reduce Police Brutality, and as a regular contributor to our blog, where he has written about the politics of sci-fi and fantasy series such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones.
Mark your calendar for Tuesday, September 19th at 3:00pm ET and join us for a conversation at Reddit.com/r/Politics where you can ask him anything!
Update: The AMA is now live!
Comments Off on Breaking the wheel of Westeros: why heroes aren’t enough
In a famous scene in Season 5 of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen compares the struggle for power in Westeros to a spinning wheel that elevates one great noble house and then another. She vows that she does not merely intend to turn the wheel in her own favor: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
In the world of the show, Daenerys’s statement resonates because the rulers of Westeros have made a terrible mess of the continent. Even those who are not sadistic (like King Joffrey), or venal (like many of the leaders of the great houses) do little to benefit the common people, and often end up making their lot even worse than before. Their conflicts have left Westeros devastated and poorly prepared to face the menace of the undead White Walkers, who are about to invade from the north. Even such seemingly idealistic leaders as Ned and Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon end up exacerbating the carnage rather than improving things.
Even in earlier, more peaceful times, the ruling class mostly preyed on the people rather than provide useful public goods. Both George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series and the HBO series based on it drive home the point that Westeros’s political system is dysfunctional and that its problems go beyond the flaws of any one ruler.
Daenerys’s desire to “break the wheel” suggests the possibility of a better approach. But, what exactly, does breaking the wheel entail?
Good Intentions and Flawed Execution
Even in the late stages of the still-ongoing Season 7, Daenerys seems to have little notion of what it means beyond defeating her enemies and installing herself as Queen on Westeros’s Iron Throne. She recognizes that Westeros’s previous rulers — including her father, the “Mad King” Aerys – committed grave injustices. But it is not clear how she intends to avoid a repetition of them.
Even if Daenerys herself can be trusted to rule justly and wisely as an absolute monarch, what will happen after she is gone? Recent occupants of the Iron Throne have had a short life expectancy. None of the last five have died a natural death. In a recent episode, Daenerys’s chief adviser, Tyrion Lannister, asked: “After you break the wheel, how do you make sure it stays broken?” Daenerys has no good answer to this important question.
Unlike most of the other rulers we see in the series, Daenerys has at least some genuine interest in improving the lot of ordinary people. Before coming to Westeros, she and her army freed tens of thousands of slaves on the continent of Essos. She delayed her departure from Essos long enough to try to establish a new government in the liberated areas that would — hopefully — prevent backsliding into slavery.
Nonetheless, it is not clear whether Daenerys has any plan to prevent future oppression and injustice other than to replace the current set of evil rulers with a better one: herself. The idea of “breaking the wheel” implies systemic institutional reform, not just replacing the person who has the dubious honor of planting his or her rear end on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. If Daenerys has any such reforms in mind, it is hard to say what they are.
Daenerys most recently restated her desire to break the wheel in episode 4 of season 7, when she announced it to a group of captured enemy soldiers. Immediately afterwards, she proceeded to execute two of the prisoners, Lord Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon, because they refused to swear allegiance to her. Daenerys orders one of her dragons to burn them to death.
Lord Tarly is a far from sympathetic character, one who has committed significant injustices. Dickon was, arguably, complicit in some of them. Nonetheless, this is an example of Daenerys ordering a brutal execution of prisoners without any due process, primarily because they refused to “bend the knee” to her.
It is not a massive injustice on the scale of those committed by her enemies and predecessors. But it also does little to reassure the people that the new regime will be fundamentally different from the old. Life and death are still decided by the word of the king or queen, with no institutional safeguard against the abuse of such arbitrary power.
The King in the North
Daenerys’s failure to give serious consideration to institutional problems is shared by the other great leader beloved by fans of the show: Jon Snow, the newly enthroned King in the North. Perhaps even more than Daenerys, Jon has a genuine concern for ordinary people. He at one point even sacrificed his life in an attempt to save them (he was later, of course, resurrected). Unlike Daenerys — to say nothing of the other contenders for the Iron Throne — Jon seems to have little in the way of lust for power. He clearly did not really want the northern lords to make him King in the North, and views the position as more a burden than a privilege.
To an even greater extent than Daenerys, however, Jon does not have any real notion of institutional reform. Almost by default, he accepts traditional institutional forms, including the kingship of the North itself. In fairness, Jon has been preoccupied first with retaking the North from the villainous Ramsay Bolton, and later with preparing for the war against the White Walkers. But there is little evidence that he even perceives the need for institutional change, much less has a plan to effectuate it.
Heroes and Villains vs. Institutions
What kind of institutional reform can realistically be achieved in Westeros? It is difficult to say with certainty. The continent is, after all, a fantasy world, and only its creators can really say what might be possible there.
But in Medieval Europe, on which Westeros is roughly based, parliaments, merchants’ guilds, autonomous cities, and other institutions eventually emerged to challenge and curb the power of kings and nobles. These developments gradually helped lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the economic growth that led to modern liberal democracy. Few if any such developments are in evidence in Westeros, which seems to have had thousands of years of economic, technological, and intellectual stagnation.
The characters in the books and the TV show are not the only ones who largely ignore the need for institutional change. We the fans are often guilty of the same sin. Few fans watch the show with an eye to institutional questions.
Rather, we are fascinated by the doings of the more prominent characters. Who will prevail in the struggle for power? Who will score an impressive victory in battle or single combat? Will Cersei ever completely alienate her increasingly disillusioned brother Jaime, with whom she has had a longstanding incestuous relationship? Will Daenerys and Jon finally develop the long-foreshadowed incestuous relationship of their own? Unbeknownst to either, she is likely his aunt.
These are the kinds of questions that excite many fans. Relatively few wonder whether and when Westeros will get a parliament, secure property rights, or establish some semblance of the rule of law.
All of this is entirely understandable. Most of us read fantasy literature and watch TV shows to be entertained, not to get a lesson in political theory. And it is much easier to develop an entertaining show focused on the need to replace a villainous evil ruler with a good, heroic, and virtuous one, than to produce an exciting story focused on institutional questions. Writers and showrunners tend to follow the former approach.
The Star Wars series, one of the few sci-fi/fantasy franchises even more popular than Game of Thrones, is just one of many pop culture products that exemplify the same trend. Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire is comparatively unusual in even raising the possibility that institutional reform is the real solution to its fictional world’s problems, and in making this idea one of the central themes of the story.
The Real World Has a Dangerous Wheel of Its Own
However understandable, the pop culture fixation on heroic leaders rather than institutions reinforces a dangerous tendency of real-world politics. The benighted people of Westeros are not the only ones who hope that their problems might go away if only we concentrate vast power in the hands of the right ruler. The same pathology has been exploited by dictators throughout history, both left and right.
It is also evident, in less extreme form, in many democratic societies. Donald Trump won election by promising that he could solve the nation’s problems through his brilliant leadership if only we gave him enough power: “I alone can do it,” he famously avowed at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Before him, Barack Obama promised that he could transcend the ordinary limitations of politics and bring “change we can believe in.”
More generally, voters are prone to support charismatic leaders who promise to change the flawed status quo, without giving much thought to the possibility that the new policies may be as bad or worse than the old. They also rarely consider the likelihood that real improvements require institutional reform, not merely a new leader. The spinning wheel of Westeros has its counterpart in the wheel of American politics, where one set of dubious politicians replaces another, each promising that they are the only ones who can give us the “change” we crave.
For all its serious flaws, our situation is not as bad as that of Westeros. But we too could benefit from more serious consideration of ways to break the wheel, as opposed to merely spin it in another direction. And our popular culture could benefit from having more stories that highlight the value of institutions, as well as heroic leaders. However much we love Daenerys and Jon, they and their real-world counterparts are unlikely to give us a better wheel on their own.
Comments Off on Expert Answers on the Drug War: Highlights from Prof. Jeff Miron’s AMA
Last week, Professor Jeffrey Miron joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.
The conversation focused on Dr. Miron’s 30+ years of study on the effects of drug criminalization. Check out some of the highlights below.
Comments Off on Reddit AMA with Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University
The Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series continues on Wednesday, August 9th, with renowned economist and professor, Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University.
Dr. Miron has written over 100 op-eds for publications such as the New York Times, Washington Times, Boston Herald, CNN, Time, Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Newsweek. He has also written several books, including Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition (2004) and Libertarianism: from A to Z (2010). You may recognize him as the star of one of Learn Liberty’s all-time fan-favorite videos: “Top Three Myths of Capitalism.”
Mark your calendar and join us for the conversation on Reddit, Wednesday, August 9th at 3:00pm ET, where you’ll have the chance to ask him anything!
UPDATE: The AMA is now live!
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Why did the police start using militarized tactics and equipment on American citizens? Dr. Abby Hall says the line between law enforcement and war is getting dangerously blurry.
Comments Off on What Charles Darwin owes Adam Smith
The following is a lightly edited, slightly condensed transcript of the talk “Adam Darwin: Emergent Order in Biology and Economics,” presented by Matt Ridley at the Adam Smith Institute in 2012.
I’ve called my lecture “Adam Darwin” to stress how congruent the philosophies of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin are. The common theme, of course, is emergence — the idea that order and complexity can be bottom-up phenomena; both economies and ecosystems emerge. But my purpose really is to explore not just the history and evolution of this shared idea but its future: to show that in the age of the Internet, Adam-Darwinism is the key to understanding how the world will change.
The Common Ancestry of Evolution and Economics
Darwin’s debt to the political economists is considerable. He spent formative years in Edinburgh among the ghosts of Hume, Hutchinson, Ferguson, and Smith. When he was at Cambridge in 1829, he wrote, “My studies consist in Adam Smith and Locke.” At his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood’s house in Staffordshire, Darwin often met the lawyer and laissez-faire politician Sir James Mackintosh, whose daughter married Charles’s brother-in-law (and had an affair with his brother).
On the Beagle, he read the naturalist Henri Milne-Edwards, who took Adam Smith’s notion of the division of labor and applied it to the organs of the body. After seeing a Brazilian rainforest, Darwin promptly reapplied the same idea to the division of labor among specialized species in an ecosystem: “The advantage of diversification in the inhabitants of the same region is in fact the same as that of the physiological division of labor in the organs of the same individual body — subject so well elucidated by Milne-Edwards.”
Back in England in the 1830s, through his brother Erasmus, Darwin fell in with the radical feminist and novelist Harriet Martineau, who had shot to fame because of her series of short fictional books called Illustrations of Political Economy. These were intended to educate people in the ideas of Adam Smith, “whose excellence,” she once said, “is marvelous.” I believe it was probably at Martineau’s suggestion that, in October 1838, Darwin came to reread Malthus (a person with whom Martineau was on very close terms) and to have his famous insight that death must be a non-random and therefore selective force.
Parenthetically, it’s worth recalling the role of anti-slavery in bringing Martineau and Darwin together. Darwin’s grandfather Josiah Wedgwood was one of the leaders and organizers of the anti-slavery movement, a friend of Wilberforce, and the maker of the famous medallion “Am I not a man and a brother?” which was the emblem of the anti-slavery movement. Charles Darwin’s aunt Sara gave more money to the anti-slavery movement than any woman in Britain. Darwin had been horrified by what he called, “The heart-sickening atrocities of slavery in Brazil.” Abolition was almost the family business. Meanwhile, Harriet Martineau had just toured America speaking against slavery and had become so notorious that there were plans to lynch her in South Carolina.
Today, to a bien pensant intellectual, it might seem surprising to find such a left-wing cause alongside such a right-wing enthusiasm for markets, but it should not be. So long is the shadow cast by the top-down determinism of Karl Marx, with his proposal that the state should be the source of reform and welfare, that it’s often forgotten how radical the economic liberalism of the political economists seemed in the 1830s. In those days, to be suspicious of a strong state was to be left-wing (and, if you’ll forgive the pun, quite right, too).
Today, generally, Adam Smith is claimed by the right, Darwin by the left. In the American red states, where Smith’s emergent decentralized philosophy is all the rage, Darwin is often reviled for his contradiction of dirigiste creationism. In the average British university by contrast, you will find fervent believers in the emergent decentralized properties of genomes and ecosystems, who nonetheless demand dirigiste policy to bring order to the economy and society. Yet, if the market needs no central planner, why should life need an intelligent designer, or vice versa?
Ideas evolved by descent and modification just as species do, and the idea of emergence is no exception. Darwin at least partly got the idea from the political economists, who got it from the empirical philosophers. To put it crudely, Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire, who begat Hutchinson and Smith, who begat Malthus and Ricardo, who begat Darwin and Wallace. Darwin’s central proposition was that faithful reproduction, occasional random variation, and selective survival, can be a surprisingly progressive and cumulative force. It can gradually build things of immense complexity. Indeed, it can make something far more complex than a conscious deliberate designer ever could. With apologies to William Paley and Richard Dawkins, it can make a watchmaker.
Each time a baby is conceived, 20,000 genes turn each other on and off, in a symphony of great precision, building a brain of 10 trillion synapses, each refined and remodeled by early and continuing experience. To posit an immense intelligence capable of comprehending such a scheme, rather than a historical emergent process, is merely to exacerbate the problem — who designed the designer?
Likewise, as Leonard Reed pointed out, each time that the pencil is purchased, tens of thousands of different people collaborate to supply the wood, the graphite, the knowledge, and the energy, without any one of them knowing how to make a pencil. Says Smith, if you like, “This came about by bottom-up emergence, not top-down dirigism.” In both cases, nobody’s in charge, and crucially, nobody needs to understand what’s being done.
Why Innovation Happens
So far, I’m treading a well trodden path in the steps of Herbert Spencer, Frederick Hayek, Karl Popper, and many others who’ve explored the parallels between evolutionary and economic theory. But the story has grown a lot more interesting in the last few years, I think, because of developments in field of cultural and technological evolution. Thanks especially to the work of three anthropologists — Rob Boyd, Pete Richardson, and Joe Henrich — we are beginning now to understand the extraordinary close parallels between how our bodies evolved and how our tools and rules evolve. Innovation is an evolutionary process. That’s not just a metaphor, it’s a precise description. I need you to re-examine a lot of your assumptions about how innovation happens to disenthrall yourself of what you already know.
First, innovation happens mainly by trial and error. It’s a tinkering process, and it usually starts with technology, not science, by the way, as Terrence Keeley has shown. The trial and error may happen between firms, between designs, between people, but it happens. If you look at the tail planes of early airplanes, there’s a lot of trial and error, there’s a lot of different designs being tried and eventually one is decided.
Exchange is crucial to innovation, and innovation accelerates in societies that open themselves up to internal and external exchange through trade and communication — Ancient Greece, Song China, Renaissance Italy, 16th century Holland, 19th century Britain — whereas innovation falters in countries that close themselves off from trade — Ming China, Nero’s India, Communist Albania, North Korea.
More ever, every innovation, as Brian Arthur has argued, is a combination of other innovations. As L.T.C. Rolt, the historian of engineering put it, “The motorcar looks as if it was sired by the bicycle out of the horse carriage.” My favorite example of this phenomenon is the pill camera, which takes a picture of your insides on the way through. It came about after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.
Adam Smith in other words, has the answer to an evolutionary puzzle: what caused the sudden emergence of behaviorally modern human beings in Africa in the past hundred thousand years or so? In that surprisingly anthropological first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, Smith saw so clearly that what was special about human beings was that they exchanged and specialized.
Neanderthals didn’t do this — they only ever used local materials. In this cave in Georgia, the Neanderthals used local stone for their tools. They never used tools from any distance away, from any Neanderthal sites. But when modern human beings move into this very same area, you find stone from many miles away being used to make the tools, as well as local stone. That means that moderns had access to ideas, as well as materials from far away. Just as sex gives a species access to innovations anywhere in its species, so exchange gives you access to innovation anywhere in your species.
When did it first happen? When was trade invented? At the moment, the oldest evidence is from about a 120,000 years ago. That’s when obsidian axes in Ethiopia and snail-shell beads in Algeria start traveling long distances. These beads are made from marine shells, but they’re found a hundred miles inland. And we know from modern Aborigines in Australia that long-distance movement of man-made objects happens by trade, not migration. So it’s not that people are walking all the way to the Mediterranean and picking up shells and walking all the way back again; they’re getting them hand-to-hand by trade.
Now that’s 120,000 years ago — ten times as old as agriculture — but I suspect it goes back further still. There’s a curious flowering of sophisticated tool kits in Africa around a 160,000 years ago, in a seashore dwelling population, as evidenced by excavations at a place called “Pinnacle Point.” It came and went, but careful modeling by some anthropologists at the University College London suggests that this might be a demographic phenomenon: a rich food supply led to a dense population, which led to a rich toolkit. But that’s only going to be true if there is exchange going on, if the ideas are having sex — dense populations of rabbits don’t get better tools. Once exchange and specialization are happening, cultural evolution accelerates if population density rises, and decelerates if it falls.
We can see this clearly from more recent archeology in a study by Melanie Klien and Rob Boyd. In the Pacific, in pre-Western contact times, the sophistication of fishing tackle depends on the amount of trading contact between islands. Isolated islands, control for island size, will have simpler fishing tackle than well-connected islands. And indeed, if you cut people off from exchange networks, human progress not only stalls, it can go backwards.
The best example of this is Tasmania, which became an island ten thousand years ago when sea levels rose. Not only did the Tasmanians not get innovations that happened after this time, such as the boomerang, they actually dis-invented many of their existing tools. They gave up making bone tools altogether, for example. As Joe Henrich has argued, the reason for this is that their population was too small to sustain the specialization needed to collaborate in the making of some of these tools. Their collective brain was not big enough — nothing to do with their individual brains, it’s the collective intelligence that counts.
As a control for this idea, notice that the same thing did not happen in Tierra Del Fuego. The Fuegan Indians continue to progress technologically. The reason for this is that the Magellan Strait is narrower than the Bass Strait, so trade continued and the Feugan Indians had access to a collective brain the size of South America. Whereas, as the Tasmanians had access to a collective brain only the size of Tasmania.
The Collectivism of Markets
Now for me one of the most fascinating implications of this understanding of the collective brain is just how touchy-feely liberal it is. I’m constantly being told that to believe in markets is to believe in selfishness and greed. Yet I think the very opposite is true. The more people are immersed in markets, the more they collaborate, the more they share, the more they work for each other. In a fascinating series of experiments, Joe Henrich and his colleagues showed that people who play ultimatum games — a game invented by economists to try and bring out selfishness and cooperation — play them more selfishly in more isolated and self-sufficient hunter-gatherer societies, and less so in more market-integrated societies.
History shows that market-oriented, bottom-up societies are kinder, gentler, less likely to go to war, more likely to look after their poor, more likely to patronize the arts, and more likely to look after the environment than societies run by the state. Hong Kong versus Mao’s China, 16th century Holland versus Louis the XIV’s France, 20th century America versus Stalin’s Russia, the ancient Greeks versus the ancient Egyptians, the Italian city-states versus the Italian papal-states, South Korea versus North Korea, even today’s American versus today’s France, and so on.
As Voltaire said, “Go into the London stock exchange and you will see representatives of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt.”
As Deirdre McCloskey reminds us, we must not slip into apologizing for markets, for saying they are necessary despite their cruelties. We should embrace them precisely because they make people less selfish, and they make life more collective, less individualistic. The entire drift of human history has been to make us less self-sufficient and more dependent on others to provide what we consume and to consume what we provide. We’ve moved from consuming only as widely as we produce to being much more specialized as producers and much more diversified as consumers.
That’s the very source of prosperity and innovation. It’s time to reclaim the word “collectivism” from the statists on the left. The whole point of the market is that it does indeed “collectivize” society, but from the bottom-up, not the top-down. We surely know by now after endless experiments that a powerful state encourages selfishness.
Let me end with an optimistic note. If I’m right, that exchange is the source of innovation, then I believe that the invention of the Internet, with its capacity to enable ideas to have sex faster and more promiscuously than ever, must be raising the innovation rate. And since innovation creates prosperity by lowering the time it takes to fulfill needs, then the astonishingly rapid lifting of humanity out of poverty that has happened all over the world, particularly in the last 20 years, can surely only accelerate. Indeed, it is accelerating. Much of Africa is now enjoying Asian Tiger-style growth. Child mortality is plummeting at a rate of five percent a year in Africa. In Silicon Valley recently, Vivek Wadhwa showed me a $35 tablet computer that will shortly be selling in India. Think what will be invented when a billion Indians are online.
In terms of human prosperity, therefore, we ain’t seen nothing yet. And because prosperity is an emergent property, an inevitable side effect of human exchange, we could not stop it even if we wanted to. All we could do is divert it elsewhere on the planet (which is what we in Europe seem intent on doing). “Adam Darwin” did not invent emergence: his was an idea that emerged when it was ripe. And like so many good ideas, it was already being applied long before it was even understood. And so I give you Adam-Darwinism as the key to the future.
Comments Off on Freaking out over tiny risks: A case study from a moral panic
Diandra Toyos claims that she and her children were nearly victims of human trafficking. In a Facebook post that quickly went viral, she wrote of a recent visit to her local Ikea with her three children:
“I noticed a well dressed, middle aged man circling the area, getting closer to me and the kids. At one point he came right up to me and the boys, and instinctively I put myself between he and my mobile son. I had a bad feeling. He continued to circle the area, staring at the kids.”
“Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking. This is happening all over. Including the United States. It’s in our backyards.”
A back-of-the-envelope critical review reveals this claim to be nonsense on its face. We are to believe that this woman spent over half an hour in the store (by her own admission), all the while (apparently) thinking someone was attempting to kidnap her children.
One can only assume Diandra’s inner monologue went something like this: “Gee, I really do want to avoid having my children kidnapped and sold into slavery, but I really need a sofa at an affordable price. Ours is rather old and lumpy. So I’m going to putter around the store for another 30 minutes. Ooooh! Is that a Taiga desk? I just love midcentury modern!”
“Strains credulity” doesn’t even come close. An explanation more compatible with Occam’s Razor is that some woman thought a dude in Ikea was creepy and wrote about it on Facebook. Film at 11.
And yet — as anyone who has a social media account and friends with children is no doubt aware — these stories are popping up everywhere. A Snopes article documents incidents reported from a Longview, Texas Target store, a Dillard’s in Denton, Texas, and a Kroger in Brownstown Township, Michigan. The full list is even longer, but you get the gist.
Why are people falling for these urban legends when there is so much real danger we need to avoid?
Moral panics vs. data
We are naturally drawn to narratives that inspire panic. This is a phenomenon in American culture that goes back at least as far as the “white slavery epidemic” of the early 1900s. It resurfaced in the 1980s, as we became increasingly paranoid about satanic cults embedded in daycares selecting children for ritualistic abuse (no evidence of such a phenomenon ever materialized). Today, the term “sex trafficking” has made its way into our common discourse as if it were an identifiable phenomenon.
But the data indicate otherwise. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown documents, a Department of Justice report indicates that such incidents of child abduction are exceedingly rare. Such “stereotypical” kidnappings (e.g., by a stranger or “slight acquaintance,” with the intent to detain the child indefinitely, etc.) occurred in the U.S. only 105 times in 2011 (the same number of occurrences as 1997—so no, things are not getting worse). A whopping 92 percent of the time, an abducted child was recovered.
Let’s put this in perspective: in terms of relative risk, compared to the nightmare Ikea scenario outlined above (where presumably a child would be abducted and never returned to his or her family), a child is more likely to experience the following on a yearly basis:
- Death due to an automobile accident (obviously)
- Death due to being struck by a thrown, projected or falling object
- Drowning in a bathtub
- Being bitten or struck by a dog
- Death due to contact with hot tap-water
- Being crushed by falling furniture
(Regarding that last item, I can’t help but point out: the real danger in an Ikea store may be their furniture. One wonders if Ms. Toyos has safely secured her purchased goods to a wall, as Ikea recommends, or if she was too busy fanning the flames of moral panic on social media.)
Cognitive errors and moral panics
Cognitive psychologists have long recognized that people have a tendency to overestimate the occurrence of certain types of rare events. We routinely utilize heuristics — mental shortcuts that are easy ways of performing “quick and dirty” calculations — to make decisions. Heuristics are essential, as it would be impossible to rationally analyze every potential outcome for every decision we make in a disinterested, rational manner. However, heuristics are not without cost.
One classic (and relevant) example is the availability heuristic: we tend to think that events we recall more readily are more likely to occur. A child being abducted from a public place and (presumably) sold into slavery is horrific, to be sure. As such, it occupies a disproportionate amount of space in our minds. We can easily recall that terrible story we read on Facebook about a child who was (supposedly) almost abducted from a grocery store, so we assume that it is a real danger.
But just because a scenario is easy to imagine does not mean that it is likely to occur. Real dangers are far more mundane. And more specifically, the vast majority of kidnappings that occur do not fit the “stranger at Target” motif: they are often committed by non-custodial parents or other family members
Heuristics and the real cost of moral panics
This brings me to my final point: the scenario Toyos outlines is implausible, but the fear it creates is real. The energy we expend worrying about this kind of event could easily supplant efforts to avoid real dangers.
For example: the vast majority of sexual abuse perpetrators are known to their victims. Logically, I should be far more concerned about my children’s babysitters, teachers, and ministers than a random patron in a grocery store. Such conclusions are counterintuitive. I like my children’s babysitters. It’s easy to think that evil lurks in every corner of my local Ikea store, but difficult to imagine that a respected member of my community might actually be dangerous.
If we’re applying proper reasoning, however, we will apply greater scrutiny to people we know than strangers.
This is but one example of how cognitive biases can adversely affect our lives. There are others. For example, the base rate fallacy refers to the fact that we routinely fail to recognize the low underlying rates of a given phenomenon and incorporate that fact into our assessments of risk. Yes, it may be true that one bad sunburn will increase your risk of developing skin cancer by 50 percent. Scary, no? But in fact, roughly 2.2 percent of the population will develop skin cancer in their lifetime — a substantial portion of which have had at least one sunburn (so the risk is baked in). This puts the risk of developing skin cancer — to say nothing of dying of it — as a result of a single sunburn at a fraction of what we would normally assume.
Simply being aware of how heuristics affect our judgments can be helpful. When you come across an article over social media that plays on your fears, ask yourself: how are my emotions being manipulated? What is the real risk? How are heuristics fooling me?
The answer may surprise you.