Skeptic Michael Shermer pleads his case before Jesus and Mr. Deity.
Watch all Mr. Deity episodes at MrDeity.com.
Skeptic Michael Shermer pleads his case before Jesus and Mr. Deity.
Watch all Mr. Deity episodes at MrDeity.com.
On Saturday, September 12, after flying 17 hours from Cluj, Romania to Budapest, Hungry to Zurich, Switzerland to L.A.X., I drove straight to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where there was a big paranormal conference hosted by Dave Schrader of Darkness Radio. Dave is a very open-minded fellow, in the sense that he thought it might behoove his flock to have them hear what scientists think some plausible natural and normal explanations there are for the various supernatural and paranormal phenomena that his members tend to believe in and talk about at such conferences (there was even a ghost hunting expedition on the Queen Mary later that night, but I was wasted from flying for so long and passed on being spooked on the ship).
My keynote talk was Why People Believe Weird Things, a shortened version of which you can see on Ted.com, where I originally delivered this lecture. It includes much discussion about how east it is to fool the brain, perceptual illusions, cognitive missteps such as the confirmation bias, priming effects (where you prime the brain to see or hear the world in a certain way), and especially the power of expectation.
Surprisingly, everyone there was most friendly toward me, even though what I was basically telling them is that pretty much everything they believe about the paranormal is wrong. Many came up after to tell me that they too are skeptical of many of the phony baloney scam artists there are out there who are ripping people off with various flim flams, but of course they added the proviso that not all paranormal phenom are perpetrated hoaxes and that they like science because it can help them to discriminate between the true and false paranormal patterns. Okay, whatever it takes to get people interested in science, however, I did make it clear that to date science has yet to find any conclusive evidence for ESP and the like, so that instead of turning to the paranormal as an explanation for presently unsolved mysteries, why not just leave it as a mystery until science can explain it? In science, I noted, it’s okay to say “I don’t know.”
Here’s some iPhone pics I snapped while waiting for my talk to begin. Included is a pic of Frank Sumption and I. Frank is the inventor of “Frank’s Box,” which I wrote about in the January, 2009 issue of Scientific American. Frank’s Box is also called the “Telephone to the Dead,” and consists of a simplified radio receiver that cycles through the stations at breakneck speed such that one only hears snippets of words and sentence fragments, and it is here where the dead allegedly sneak in their messages to us living (or, where in my explanation, the “patternicity” happens, or the natural tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise. I also snapped some pics of Bruce Goldberg, with whom I once appeared in the mid 1990s on a television show about past lives. Bruce is still churning out the self-published books, now on how he communicates with time travelers from the future. Finally, I will admit that New Agers have the coolest crystals.
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So many of you have taken the time to respond to my blogs thoughtfully that I feel I should comment in kind. In looking through the many comments, however, I see that most of what I would say has already been said by people who responded to my critics. Nevertheless…
First of all, why is it okay to mix science and religion (with atheists eagerly do in debunking religious claims) but not okay to mix science and politics/economics? Why is it okay for liberal atheists to stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly, but when it comes to getting your own (political/economic) beliefs challenged, that’s off limits — NOMA (nonoverlapping magisterial) for science and politics? I don’t see how they are different in principle. Skeptic is a science magazine, not an “atheist” magazine; nevertheless, we routinely deal with religious claims and no one ever complains about that. The closest we have come to political/economic issues is environmentalism (Vol. 9, No. 2 — sold out), overpopulation (Vol. 5, No. 1), and global warming Vol. 14, No. 1). For all three we published several articles; in Vol. 14, No. 1, for example, we published articles both skeptical of global warming and accepting of global warming. So I don’t see what would be wrong with publishing articles pro, con, and neutral on political and economic claims.
One person wrote me a private email that said he thought of me as the next Carl Sagan, but now that I’ve gone to the dark side (turning Right, although I’m as critical of the Right as I am the Left), because Carl was “apolitical.” Carl Sagan was many things, but apolitical was not one of them. Carl was a Liberal and proudly wore his politics on his sleeve, such as when he marched in protest at nuclear sites or testified before Congress about the dangers of nuclear winter. I admire him for having the courage of his convictions, which intimately blended his science and (Left) politics. If you think Sagan was apolitical it is because you happen to agree with his politics and so those ideas seem simply correct, not political. If you don’t share his politics (I share about half of them), then it’s obvious that Sagan was not apolitical.
The liberal bias in the skeptical community was identified by many people in the comments section of my blog, for example by “DR,” “James,” and “Devil’s Advocate”:
… Sadly, there is a lot of hatred toward libertarianism at JREF [he means TAM]. I can be an atheist, believe gay marriage is ok, think nothing of smoking pot, and I won’t get half as much grief from a conservative that I do from an American liberal who reels and squirms when I say that the welfare state is immoral or that free trade and voluntary transactions in capitalism promote fair and just outcomes. It’s like the only reason why I have rationalized this set of morality is because I’m a supremely evil person and must be wrong… —DR
… I’m disappointed, but not surprised by the large group of liberal skeptics. I’ve talked to too many Democrat-card-carrying skeptics that spout the same unoriginal, canned rhetoric and continual spewing hatred of Republicans. For a group that supposedly supports tolerance, they’re anything but tolerant …
I’ve three times over twenty years joined local skeptic groups and all three times there was a presumption that if I was a skeptic, then of course I’m also liberal in my politics. Two times I tried to be what I am but was marginalized, treated like a Goldwater (or Reagan, or Bush) mole. The third time I tried to avoid political discussion, but it was not possible, so, unwilling to lie, I left. My refusal to come over to pure liberalism clearly wasn’t going to be tolerated. All I wanted to do was examine UFO claims and crop circles, but… —Devil’s Advocate
Another critic named John D. Draeger makes a good point that I wish to acknowledge: “He [me] does NOT believe that political persuasions and different economic models for how societies should be run are moral value judgements…. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done.” That’s true, in a democracy the majority rules how to divvy up public funds for social services, and that tends to be more of a value judgment than a science. But as someone else wrote just below that, quite cleverly I think…
First of all, democratic societies can still be evil, as the famous saying goes: “democracy is two wolves and one lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And then in another famous quote (attributed to several), “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. Thus our founding fathers gave us a republic … if we can keep it.
Even this is a value judgment, I agree, but surely we can apply some forms of social science to inform our value judgments. For example, we may as a society make the value judgment that it would be good if every child received a basic K–12 education. I agree with this value judgment, and would add to it the value judgment that it would be equally important for every child to have a computer and Internet access because that is the future of education. So we share that value judgment. However, the next question is a pragmatic one: who is going to pay for this education (and computers/Internet)? Parents? Churches? NGOs? Charities? Government? If the latter — the value judgment we have made — then do parents get to choose among the various government schools of where to send their children? (No.) Do parents who choose to send their children to private schools have to also pay for government schools? (Yes.) Is that fair? You make that value judgment. I don’t think that it is fair. To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.
Some correspondents hated the political diagram because it seems to elevate libertarianism above the traditional left-right spectrum. Okay, then you come up with something other than the left-right linear spectrum to visualize where someone would fall on that line who is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. You draw it and I’ll publish it in a future blog.
Some people hate the word “libertarian.” I’m not crazy about it either, but haven’t thought of a better label. Labels are useful because they enable people to take cognitive shortcuts, but they also lead to shortcuts to nuanced thinking about what someone believes. “Oh, you’re one of those…” full stop. We all do this, of course, but I call myself a libertarian for the same reason I call myself a feminist, an atheist, and a pro-choicer — because it is the accepted language and we have to communicate ideas with language. But I much prefer to be assessed on specific issues.
Several of you said that I am a victim of one of my own central tenets of baloney detection: the confirmation bias, where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore the disconfirmatory evidence. Yes, I will admit, I do this. Everyone does, and we must guard against it, especially when it comes to religion, politics, and economics. To combat this problem, I read the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal Los Angeles Times. I listen to such conservative talk radio hosts as Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Praeger as well as the very liberal Bill Maher. I have read Karl Marx’s books as deeply and carefully as I have read Adam Smith’s books. I have read a host of books from liberal and conservative and libertarian authors on the current economic meltdown. And although I have a few libertarian and conservative friends, because I work in the sciences and in publishing, the vast majority of my friends, acquaintances, staff, co-workers, and colleagues are liberals who I can assure you are never shy about letting me know where they think I’ve gone off the political or economic rails.
Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian worldview is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs that prevent the average Joe or Jane from reaching their full potential. The Constitutional divisions of power in our Democracy — emulated by many others around the world — are a huge improvement from centuries past that allowed or enabled some to succeed at the expense of others. That was a zero-sum world. Over the past 200 years the spread of democracy and capitalism has done more toward achieving a Nonzero world than anything else — more people in more places more of the time have more power and liberty and wealth than any time in the previous four millennium. Therefore, the more we can spread democracy and capitalism the better off more of us will be more of the time.
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In a nutshell, I am a libertarian because conservatives are a bunch of gun-totting, Hummer-driving, hard-drinking, Bible-thumping, black-and-white-thinking, fist-pounding, shoe-stomping, morally-hypocritical blowhards, and liberals are a bunch of tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, sandle-wearing, bottled-water-drinking, ACLU-supporting, flip-flopping, wishy-washy, Namby Pamby bedwetters. There’s a better way. Libertarianism.
Okay, now that I have your attention, let me address the constructive comments posted in response to last week’s blog post on how I became a libertarian, and this week explain why. But first, what is a libertarian? I hate labels, and as you can see from the comments people make certain assumptions based on the label instead of the person and particular beliefs. Nevertheless, labels are cognitive shortcuts, so the shortest thumbnail is this: a libertarian is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. It’s an alternative to the standard left-right linear spectrum, and it allows one to nuance positions on different issues. For example, I am pro-choice, pro gay marriage, and pro separation of church and state, which makes me a card-carrying liberal, right? Well, I am also in favor of lower taxes, cutting welfare programs, privatizing social security, and replacing the income tax with either a flat tax or abolishing it altogether and replacing it with a national income tax, which makes me a card-carrying conservative, right? So what am I?
(Parenthetically, I find it troubling that most atheists, agnostics, skeptics, free thinkers, humanists and secular humanists are liberal. The reason I find this troubling is not because I am not a liberal (although as noted above, I agree with liberals on many issues), but because most people think that the skeptical/humanist movement is (or should be) politically neutral. If it were, there would be roughly a 50/50 split of liberals and conservatives. But it isn’t, and I think that’s a problem. Humanists, for example, are supposed to be in favor of all humans, but when virtually our entire constituency votes Democratic, that means we are missing half the human population! There’s something wrong with this picture. I’m not saying that we should all be libertarians; only that a more politically diversified membership would indicate that our movement is more politically balanced. When I point out this discrepancy to my liberal friends and colleagues, they predictably explain the left-leaning bias as due to the fact that liberals are right! Of course… My conservative friends say the same thing when I note the conservative bias in businesses and commerce related organizations.)
Basically, libertarians are for freedom and liberty for individuals, and we prefer not to have the state involved in either our bedrooms or our boardrooms. This is not a simple hedonistic “I want to move to Idaho and smoke pot and watch porn and the rest of you all be damned” (although I’m sure there are libertarians who want precisely this). Rather, libertarianism is based on the principle that individuals should be free to choose for themselves. Libertarianism is grounded in the Principle of Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, as long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.
There is a very simple reason why libertarians do not like government: it is not just that government is so inefficient (although it is), or that it elevates graft and corruption to new levels of bureaucratic efficiency (although it does), or that it treats its citizens like we’re a bunch of juvenile helpless pinhead morons in need of a nanny to take care of us from womb to tomb (we aren’t and we don’t); it is because it infringes on our freedoms to choose.
Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes “infringement,” but as I outlined in The Mind of the Market, there are at least a dozen essentials to freedom:
Under our current system of politics government clearly has a role in most (but not all) of these 12, but only in the capacity of what we might call Preventative Rights: preventing others from infringing on our freedoms (taking my property, preventing me from speaking or writing or associating, inhibiting my freedom to exchange with others on a voluntary basis, etc.). By contrast, government should not be in the business of Providing Rights: providing goods and services that require the infringement of our freedoms (e.g., taking my property through taxes to pay for someone else’s education, health care, vacations, paternity leaves, etc.).
Basically I believe in individual choice and responsibility. You make your choices and you are responsible for the consequences of those choices. Of course, we are not just individuals living in isolation; we are spouses and significant others, we are members of families and extended families, we are constituents of social communities, and we are citizens of societies. As such, we have a moral obligation to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves (children, the elderly, the infirm), to help those who cannot help themselves (the mentally ill, severely handicapped), and to give aid and comfort to victims of natural disasters and totalitarian regimes, but through private choice and charity.
It is none of the government’s business who I choose to help and give aid and charity to, and I find it deeply morally repugnant that bureaucratic agencies have the legal right to confiscate my wealth through force or the threat of force (taxes), launder my money and waste most of it to run the government organizations that process my money (with dollops allocated for paying for bridges to nowhere and prostitutes for politicians), and redistribute it to people who I do not know. Libertarians are not uncharitable selfish hedonists; we just want the freedom to choose.
Okay, I know, you’re all sick of hearing about the other “L Word,” so for next week’s blog I’ll write about my experiences at the Thinking Digital conference in Newcastle Upon Tyne, the UK’s version of TED.
In reading through the many critical comments in response to my occasional foray into issues political and economic, readers seem to think that there are two Michael Shermers: Mr. Rational Skeptic and Mr. Kooky Libertarian. I will respond to the specific comments, but let me say at the outset that I do appreciate your skepticism of my libertarian beliefs (hey, we should be skeptical of the skeptics, or else we’re not true skeptics, right?!). Perhaps if I provided some background to how I became a Libertarian you can see that there is just one Michael Shermer, and even if you still disagree with my economics, you’ll at least understand where I’m coming from. And do remember that we libertarians are social liberals just like you (I’m presuming that the vast majority of readers of Skeptic, eSkeptic, and Skepticblog are liberals, which itself is a troubling bias in our readership that I’ll address another time). In the meantime…
In the mid-1970s I was an undergraduate at Pepperdine University, a Church of Christ institution with a strong conservative bent at a time when liberals ruled academe. I matriculated there because I was an evangelical Christian who wanted to be a college professor, so theology seemed like the most appropriate field and Pepperdine had a strong theology department (it didn’t hurt that the campus is located in the majestic Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean). But I soon discovered that in order to earn a Ph.D. in theology one had to master four dead languages — Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic — and since I found even Spanish to be taxing, this made my career choice problematic. When my advisors also warned me about the questionable university job market for theologians, I switched to psychology, where I discovered the language of science, which I both enjoyed and mastered. Theology is based on logical analysis, philosophical disputation, and literary deconstruction. Science is founded on empirical data, statistical analysis, and theory building. To me, the latter seemed like a better method to tell the difference between what is real and what is not, what works and what doesn’t, and in any case meshed will with my cognitive style of thinking — for whatever reason, I can sort through data sets and scientific charts much better than I can logical syllogisms and thought experiments.
My introduction to economics came in my senior year when many of the students in the psychology department were reading a cinderblock of a book entitled Atlas Shrugged, by the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. I had never heard of the book or the author, and the novel’s size was so intimidating that I refused to join the ranks of the enthused for months, until social pressure pushed me into taking the plunge. I trudged through the first hundred pages (patience was strongly advised) until the gripping mystery of the man who stopped the motor of the world swept me through the next thousand pages.
I found Atlas Shrugged to be a remarkable book, as so many have. In fact, in 1991 the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club surveyed readers about books that “made a difference” in their lives. Atlas Shrugged was rated second only to the Bible.1 What scientist or scholar wouldn’t find resonance with proclamations such as this: “Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind.”2 Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was so compelling that it took me two decades to discover what I consider to be the shortcomings in its founding principles, which Rand once outlined (“while standing on one foot”) as: 1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality; 2. Epistemology: Reason; 3. Ethics: Self-interest; 4. Politics: Capitalism.3 I am most troubled by Rand’s theory of human nature as wholly selfish and competitive, defined in Atlas through the famous “oath” pronounced by the novel’s heroes: “I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Science now shows us that, in fact, in addition to being selfish, competitive, and greedy, we also harbor a great capacity for altruism, cooperation, and charity, the evidence for which is now overwhelming from a variety of fields from anthropology to neuroscience. But reading Rand, and absorbing the logic of her case for economic freedom and political liberty (she called herself a “radical for capitalism”), led me to the extensive body of work on the science of markets and economies and the philosophy of liberty and freedom, all of which resonated deeply with my personality and temperament.
I cannot say for certain whether it was the merits of free market economics and fiscal conservatism (which are considerable) that convinced me of its veracity, or if it was my disposition that reverberated so well with its cognitive style. As it is for most belief systems we hold, it was probably a combination of both. I was raised by parents who could best be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, which today would be called libertarian, but there was no such label when they were coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s. Products of the depression and motivated by the fear of returning to abject poverty, my parents skipped college and worked full time well into their later years. Throughout my childhood I was inculcated with the fundamental principles of economic conservatism: hard work, personal responsibility, self-determination, financial autonomy, small government, and free markets. Even though they were not in the least religious (as so many conservatives are today), my parents were exceedingly generous to those who were less fortunate — greed is good, but so too is charity.
After Pepperdine, I began a graduate program in experimental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, by which time I had abandoned my religious faith and embraced in its stead the secular values of the Enlightenment and the rigorous methods and provisional truths of science.4 But after two years of enticing rats to press bars in proportion to the frequency and intensity of the reinforcements we gave them, my enthusiasm for practicing this type of science waned while my wonderlust for the real world waxed.5 I went to the campus career development office and inquired what I might do for a living with a Master’s degree. “What are you educated to do?” they inquired. “Train rats,” I replied sardonically. “What else can you do?” they persisted. “Well,” I searched, “I can research and write.” The employment book included a job description for research and writing at Bicycle Dealer Showcase, the trade magazine of the bicycle industry, about which I knew nothing. My first assignment was to attend a press conference hosted by Cycles Peugeot and Michelin Tires in honor of John Marino, a professional bicycle racer who broke the transcontinental record from Los Angeles to New York. I fell in love with the sport, entering my first race that weekend, and for the next two years I learned the business of publishing and the sport of cycling. I wrote articles, sold advertisements, and rode my bike as far and as fast as I could. At the end of 1981 I left the magazine to race full time, supported by corporate sponsors and an adjunct professor’s salary from teaching psychology at Glendale College.
One day in 1981, Marino and I were on a long training ride during which he told me about Andrew Galambos, a retired physicist teaching private courses through his own Free Enterprise Institute, under an umbrella field he called “Volitional Science.” The introductory course was called V-50. This was Econ 101 on free market steroids, an invigoratingly muscular black-and-white world where Adam Smith is good, Karl Marx bad; individualism is good, collectivism bad; free economies are good, mixed economies are bad. The course was popular in Orange County, California (labeled by our neighbors in L.A. County as the “Orange Curtain”), and the time was right with Ronald Reagan as President and conservatives on the ascendant. Where Rand advocated for limited government, Galambos proffered a theory in which everything in society would be privatized until government simply falls into disuse and disappears. Galambos defined freedom as “the societal condition that exists when every individual has full (i.e. 100%) control over his own property,” and a free society as one where “anyone may do anything that he pleases — with no exceptions — so long as his actions affect only his own property; he may do nothing which affects the property of another without obtaining consent of its owner.” Galambos identified three types of property: primordial (one’s life), primary (one’s thoughts and ideas), and secondary (derivatives of primordial and primary property, such as the utilization of land and material goods). Thus, Galambos defined capitalism as “that societal structure whose mechanism is capable of protecting all forms of private property completely.” To realize a truly free society, then, we have merely “to discover the proper means of creating a capitalist society.” In this free society, we are all capitalists.6
Galambos had a massive ego that propelled him to a successful career as a private lecturer, but led him to such ego-inflating pronouncements as his classification of all sciences into physical, biological, and his own “volitional sciences.” His towering intellect took him to great heights of interdisciplinary creativity, but often left him and his students tangled up in contradictions, as when we all had to sign a contract promising that we would not disclose his ideas to anyone, while we were also inveigled to solicit others to enroll. (“You’ve got to take this great course.” “What’s it about?” “I can’t tell you.”) And he had a remarkable ability to lecture for hours without notes in an entertainingly colloquial style, but when two hours stretched into three, and three hours dragged into four, his audiences were never left wanting for more. Most problematic, however, was any hope of translating theory into practice, which is where the rubber meets the road for any economic or political principle. Property definitions are all well and good, but what happens when we cannot agree on property rights infringements? The answer was inevitably something like this: “in a truly free society all such disputes will be peacefully resolved through private arbitration.” Sounds good in theory, but turning theory into practice is never as easy as it sounds in the theory stage.
Nevertheless, I stuck it out to the end, learning more in that one course than I learned in dozens of college courses, absorbing the principles and attempting to apply them in both the academic and business worlds, which I straddled for many years. Marino and I (and our cycling partner Lon Haldeman) turned our cycling passion into a business by founding Race Across America, Inc., with corporate sponsors and a contract from ABC Sports, as well as the nonprofit sanctioning body, Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association. Several appearances on Wide World of Sports gave me the additional recognition and confidence to open Shermer Cycles, a bicycle shop in Arcadia, California. Meanwhile, I expanded my teaching duties by creating new courses in evolutionary theory and the history of ideas at Glendale College.7
Galambos had a protégé named Jay Stuart Snelson, whom I met shortly after taking V-50. Snelson taught courses at the Free Enterprise Institute, but after a falling out with Galambos (a common occurrence in Galambos’ social sphere that also plagued Ayn Rand), Snelson founded his own Institute for Human Progress. To distance himself from Galambos, Snelson’s theory of a free market society was built on the shoulders of what is known as the Austrian School of Economics, most notably the work of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. Mises’ most important work was Human Action, and Snelson’s course was self-consciously built upon it, as gleaned from its title, Principles of Human Action. Snelson demonstrated through a series of scientific principles and historical examples that free market capitalism is unquestionably the most effective means of “optimizing peace, prosperity, and freedom.” As Snelson explained, outlining the countless and varied governmental actions that attenuate freedom: “Freedom exists where the individual’s discretion to choose is not confiscated by interventionism. The free market exists where people have the unrestricted freedom to buy and sell.” Although thieves, thugs, muggers, and murderers confiscate our freedoms, congressmen, senators, governors, and presidents restrict our freedoms on a scale orders of magnitude greater than all private criminals combined. And they do so, Snelson showed, with the best of intentions, because they believe that the “confiscation of the people’s freedom to choose will achieve the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number.” With such good intentions, and the political power to enforce them, states have intervened in business, education, transportation, communications, health services, environmental protection, crime prevention, free trade overseas, and countless other areas.
How these services could all be successfully privatized was the primary thrust of Snelson’s work. He believed that the social system that optimizes peace, prosperity, and freedom is one “where anyone at any time can choose to produce or provide any product or service, hire any employee, choose any production, distribution, or sales site, and offer to sell products or services at any price.” The only allowable restrictions are from the market itself. So employed, systematically throughout the world, a free market society would, as a plaque posted at the Panama Canal (that also served as the Institute’s motto) proclaims, Aperire Terram Gentibus, “to open the world to all people.”
These were heady words for a heady time in my life before formal commitments to career and family were congealed. For several years I taught Snelson’s principles course, along with my own courses on the history of science and the history of war. I also developed a monthly discussion group called the “Lunar Society” — after the famous 18th-century Lunar Society of Birmingham — centered on books such as Human Action. As a social scientist in search of a research project, I accepted Ludwig von Mises’ challenge: “One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature.” We were going to build a new science, and out of that science we would build a new society. I even penned a “Declaration of Freedom” and a speech entitled “I have a Dream II.” What could be grander?!
Well, as Yogi Berra once said: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” I soon discovered that Berra’s principle applies in spades to the economic sphere. We live in a world rather different from that envisioned by my visionary mentors, so I turned my attention to the writings of economists from the Austrian School, and their protégés at the University of Chicago, who were decidedly becoming more mainstream in the 1980s as the country began a systematic shift toward the right.
In 1987 I decided that if I wanted to make an impact on the world through ideas I was going to have to give up my competitive cycling career and complete my graduate studies. I switched fields from psychology to the history of science, and in 1991 I graduated from Claremont Graduate School with a Ph.D., the union card and entrée into academe and professional science. I began teaching at Occidental College, a prestigious four-year liberal arts college in Los Angeles, where I discovered that 1960’s-style liberalism was still thriving. As a young faculty member without tenure, I kept my libertarian mouth shut, and on the weekends joined Jay Snelson in teaching seminars on free market economics at his Institute.
Through Snelson’s institute, and the ideas proffered by the Austrian and Chicago schools, I found a scientific foundation for my economic and political preferences. The founders of the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics penned a number of books and essays whose ideas burned into my brain a clear understanding of right and wrong human action in the sphere of economics. One especially influential essay on my thinking was the wickedly raffish The Petition of the Candlemakers, by Frédéric Bastiat, in which the French economist and social commentator satirizes special interest groups, in this case candlemakers, who petition the government for special favors:
We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light, that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price…. This rival … is none other than the sun…. We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights and blinds; in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures.
Bastiat also taught me the difference between what is seen and what is not seen when governments intervene in the marketplace. A public-works bridge, for example, is seen by all and appreciated by its users; what is not seen are all the products that would have been produced by the monies that were taxed out of private hands in order to finance the public project. It is not just that individual liberties are violated whenever governments interfere with freedom of choice in the economic realm, but that, in fact, the net result is a loss not just for the individuals, but for the collective for which the government action was originally intended.
I read Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty and The Road to Serfdom, I absorbed Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, an exceptional summary of free market economics, and I found Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose to be one of the clearest expositions of economic theory ever penned, and his PBS documentary series by the same name — introduced by the most muscular libertarian in history, Arnold Schwarzenegger — was so powerful that I purchased the series on video and watched the episodes over and over. And first among equals in the giants of libertarian thought who most shaped my thinking was Ludwig von Mises, the spiritus rector of the modern libertarian movement, most notably his magisterial work Human Action.8 Mises’ story is as instructive as it is inspirational. Mises was born in 1881 within the then powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire, and studied law and economics at the University of Vienna under Friedrich von Wieser and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, both followers of Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School of Economics. After serving as an artillery officer on the Russian front in World War I, Mises earned international recognition for his first major book, Socialism, where he spelled out the problems with “economic calculation” in a planned socialist economy. In capitalism, prices are determined from below by individuals freely exchanging in the marketplace and are in constant flux; in socialism, prices are determined from above by government fiat and are slow to change. In fact, Mises demonstrated that socialist economies depend on capitalist economies to determine what prices should be assigned. And they do so cumbersomely.9
In March, 1938, Hitler marched into Vienna, and Mises promptly marched out to the United States, where he began his long and lonely struggle against economic and political tyranny, a lone advocate of freedom in an increasingly socialistic society. The problem, Mises argued, is that interventionism leads to more interventionism. If you can intervene to protect individuals from dangerous drugs, for example, what about dangerous ideas? The following passage resonated with me because his analogue from the physical to the ideological is so effective in conveying the central message of freedom and liberty:
Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous and habit forming drugs. But once a principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. A good case could be made out in favor of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music?10
At the end of almost 900 pages of mind-opening economic revelations, Mises concludes Human Action triumphantly:
The truth is that capitalism has not only multiplied population figures but at the same time improved the people’s standard of living in an unprecedented way. Neither economic thinking nor historical experience suggest that any other social system could be as beneficial to the masses as capitalism. The results speak for themselves. The market economy needs no apologists and propagandists. It can apply to itself the words of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s: Si monumentum requires, circumspice. [“If you seek his monument, look around.”]11
Although capitalism may not need apologists and propagandists, it does need a scientific foundation. In this sense, then, my entire career has been building toward this project, and my tenth book, The Mind of the Market, lays down a scientific foundation for capitalism through three new sciences: behavioral economics, neuroeconomics, and evolutionary economics. It is my goal now to continuing construction on the libertarian edifice, and perhaps one day even attempt to translate theory into practice through politics … libertarian politics of course.
Hayek, F. A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F. A. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hazlitt, Henry. 1946 (1979). Economics in One Lesson. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Friedman, Milton. 1980. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. New York: Harcourt.
Mises, Ludwig von. 1949 (1966). Human Action, 3rd ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
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