Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dangerous Ideas, Part 2

Continuing to delve into What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (see my last post), I’ve been finding more things that challenge my thinking, which is of course what we should all be doing all the time but don’t—it’s a lot more comfortable to read only things we know in advance we’re going to agree with.

With my libertarian inclinations, I had to take a look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s piece entitled "The Free Market". Coming just after Matt Ridley’s "Government Is the Problem, Not the Solution", which was of course right in my comfort zone, this essay takes the opposite tack, challenging the value of the free market.

Csikszentmihalyi is bothered by what he sees as the triumph of free-market ideology, to the point where "it is embraced as a final solution to the ills of humankind". He claims that this overreach "risks destroying both the material resources and the cultural achievements our species has so painstakingly developed" and says that things like health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety "need to become part of our social and political agenda".

Well. I had somehow received a vague impression that health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety were on the social and political agenda, but I could be wrong. Let’s take a look at Csikszentmihalyi’s charges and see if they hold up. To begin with, we should ask whether his claim that the free market reins supreme is accurate. A key tactic in political polemics is to exaggerate the gains of one’s opponents, as when the Dittohead right fumes that President Obama is dragging us down the road to socialism. Get people alarmed about the apocalypse and they’ll be ripe for your pitch.

Csikszentmihalyi’s claims seem a little fevered: who exactly is embracing the free market "as a final solution to the ills of humankind?" (Note the use of the inflammatory phrase "the final solution".) Certainly not the Republican Party, which is enthusiastically behind any number of market-thwarting measures, from agricultural subsidies to windfall taxes on oil companies any time the price rises. If Csikszentmihalyi is aiming at genuine free-market ideologues like, say, Milton Friedman, he should be aware that Friedman’s prescriptions have never been more than imperfectly implemented anywhere. (Even in Chile, where free-market ideology was adopted with reasonable enthusiasm, there were always exceptions, such as limitations on capital flows.) And Csikszentmihalyi should actually go and read Friedman, whose temperate (and genuinely liberal) views were a very long way from considering anything to be a "final solution" to our problems.

Such caricatures, of course, are a favorite tool of the polemicist. Csikszentmihalyi’s statement of the free-market position is that it "must take precedence over any other value." Any other value? Who believes this? Who opposes efforts to disrupt human trafficking networks on the grounds that the market must be allowed to operate? Not me, at any rate, or any free-market advocate that I know of. Basic human rights take precedence over the pimp’s right to buy and sell Romanian orphan girls. And it is the proper role of political powers to ensure this. I don’t know of any responsible figure, not even in the darkest heart of the Republican Party, who really thinks that the free market ought to be "the ultimate arbiter of political decisions".

The whole point about the free market is that economic decisions and political decisions are two different animals. Economics is about the distribution of wealth, while politics is about the distribution of power. When politicians try to make economic decisions, they often get them wrong. That’s why people stood in line for toilet paper in the Soviet Union. The proper role of politics is to take care of the things that are more important than economics, such as the legal and institutional framework of society and collective defense against force and fraud. Those things really are important, and they ought to be enough to keep the politicians busy. But they keep losing sight of the distinction.

Adam Smith’s insight was that an economy, like an ecology, is too complicated for politicians to try to micro-manage it. Smith’s "invisible hand" refers to the self-adjusting mechanism of supply and demand. This mechanism is, at this point, time-tested and widely recognized. Even Csikszentmihalyi admits that it is "based on reasonable empirical foundations." Free market ideology simply means the claim that for the most part, as far as any generalization holds water in the real world, in the long run the supply/demand mechanism will do a better job of providing for people’s material needs than any number of government planning commissions. Of course, we have other needs besides the material ones. Those are what politicians, religious leaders and your mom and dad are properly in charge of.

I don’t think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is entirely clear on the distinction between politics and economics, as shown by his list of desirable social goods above. Some of them, like human rights and public safety, are not goods that lend themselves to an economic market. They’re things that require the exertion or the threat of force to safeguard. They’re political goods. But other things on that list, like health, education and infrastructure, involve goods and services that obey the laws of economics even if Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t think they should. The free market may help to provide them, and inept political interventions may impede their provision. To make that claim is very far from claiming that the free market is the ultimate value.

So I think, on one hand, that Csikszentmihalyi is more alarmed about the triumph of the free market than he needs to be. We’re a long way from seeing the free market hold sway everywhere. And on the other hand I think that Csikszentmihalyi ought to consider that the free market is not inimical to the things he values. The proper mix of public and private provision of things like health care and education will always be a legitimate topic of debate. And rigid absolutism about the free market is no more justifiable than rigid absolutism about the state. But I think it’s equally rare. Hysteria about the dire effects of free-market ideology only muddies the waters.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dangerous Ideas

Ask most people what philosophy is and they won’t be able to tell you. I was a little unclear on the concept myself as an undergraduate philosophy major. It took me a few years of adult vicissitudes and political peregrinations to begin to understand how ideas shape the society we live in.

If you need a jump-start to your philosophical program you might take a look at a book called What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman, the publisher and editor of Edge, a website dedicated to pushing the intellectual envelope. At the suggestion of psychologist Steven Pinker, who provides an introduction, Brockman asked a range of thinkers in a variety of disciplines to discuss ideas they felt were dangerous in the sense that they threatened current conventional wisdom or, in Pinker’s phrase, “corrode the prevailing moral order”.

In his introduction, Pinker gives a long list of provocative questions: Did the crime rate go down in the nineties because of the advent of widespread abortion in the seventies? Does allowing security services to use torture make us safer? Do black men have higher levels of testosterone? Are Ashkenazi Jews smarter? Has religion precipitated more genocide than Nazism? Would functioning markets, i.e. auctions, in organs and adoption rights improve outcomes for transplant recipients and unwanted babies? Do women and men have different aptitudes?

Whatever your ideological orientation, you’re likely to find some of these questions unsettling. Pinker discusses the argument for limiting discussion of dangerous ideas but comes down on the side of rational discussion of even the most provocative notions. And then the fun starts, with contributors throwing out ideas like, “We Have No Souls”, “Everything Is Pointless”, “Groups of People May Differ Genetically in Their Average Talents and Temperaments”, “Science Must Destroy Religion” and “Science Will Never Silence God”. You may have noted that there is no particular partisan slant, which is a refreshing feature. Pinker adduces the lynch-mob response to Lawrence Summers’s suggestion that discrimination is not the only reason for women’s underrepresentation in science as an example of how even academia, supposedly the citadel of rational discussion, behaves like the Spanish Inquisition when received ideas are threatened. The book’s agenda is to open minds.

I’ve just started dipping into the book, but already I’ve found ideas I endorse whole-heartedly and others that challenge me. One essay that caught my eye was “The Evolution of Evil” by psychologist David Buss. Buss suggests that killing can be a perfectly rational response to any number of circumstances and that we have an evolutionarily hard-wired predilection to violence, particularly with regard to “outgroups”, members of another tribe. My reaction was, “Well, of course.” Why anyone should find this surprising is beyond me. But apparently there are still people who, as Buss says, “refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology or exposure to media violence.”

I’ve never had a problem with Buss’s dangerous idea: the religion I was raised with calls hard-wired evil Original Sin. But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize it. What’s important is to recognize that we need moral codes to set limits to our violent predilections. And if you toss religion out the window, you’d better come up with some other way of encouraging people to set limits on their own behavior, and fast.

But other ideas here do unsettle me, particularly Eric R. Kandel’s “Free Will Is Exercised Unconsciously” and Clay Shirky’s “Free Will Is Going Away”, both of which call into question our traditional notion that people are capable of making choices and bear the responsibility for those choices. I’m a big fan of the idea of responsibility: if you fail to hold people responsible for their behavior you find pretty quickly that there are few limits on their behavior. I think the idea of free will has crucial social utility even if the neural scientists can’t quite pin it down. But truth is important, so we have to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion.

I’m not ready to write it off. I’d throw out the hypothesis that free will is in a sense optional: if you believe you have it you probably do exercise it at least occasionally, while if you don’t believe in it you really are allowing yourself to be buffeted by the deterministic winds. Does that mean you have an excuse for misbehavior?

That’s a philosophical question, and there are lots of them we need to be thinking about, because they determine how we arrange our institutions to handle the messiness of human life. Philosophy needs to be more than just an academic refuge for the inarticulate, and this provocative book puts it back where it belongs, smack in the middle of our public debate.

Sam Reaves