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Sunday
Nov062011

The Rational Optimist - How Prosperity Evolves

A rational optimist is someone who has "arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence". In this book, Matt Ridley does three things: (1) he argues that “human progress has, on balance, been a good thing, and that, despite the constant temptation to moan, the world is as good a place to live as it has ever been for the average human being" and that we are wealthier, healthier, happier, kinder, cleaner, more peaceful, and longer-lived than any previous generation, (2) he explains why and how it got that way and (3) he prognoses that it will most probably continue to get better in the future. To support his case, Ridley goes 200.000 years back into human history to seek the deep roots of our species’ success. Not surprisingly he identifies the division of labour, specialisation, and exchange (of goods, services, and ideas) as the essential keys to progress and prosperity, while self-sufficiency, central planning, and protectionism are identified as the enemies of progress. The optimism argued for here is not unconditional: it is only if the former forces prevail over the latter that the evolution of prosperity is highly likely to continue.

 

Ridley builds on the ideas of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin and interprets human society as a product of a long history of “evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism.” He compares the free market with biological evolution. Like the latter, the former too “is a bottom-up world with nobody in charge”. He plausibly holds that “Human history is driven by a co-evolution of rules and tools. The increasing specialization of the human species, and the enlarging habit of exchange, are the root cause of innovation in both”. He sees rules and institutions as evolutionary phenomena too,

 

… emerging bottom-up in society rather than being imposed top-down by fortuitously Solomonic rulers. They come through the filter of cultural selection just as surely as do technologies. And if you look at the history of, for instance, merchant law, you find exactly this: merchants make it up as they go along, turning their innovations into customs, ostracizing those who break the informal rules and only later do monarchs subsume the rules within the law of the land.

 

He takes as his concrete historical example of this phenomena the lex mercatoria of the medieval period. (For an in depth study of medieval merchant law see "The Role of Institutions in the Revival of Trade: The Law Merchant, Private Judges, and the Champagne Fairs" in the anthology Anarchy and the Law). Ridley further gives many historical examples where government bureaucracy has impeded the evolution of prosperity and led to the destruction of wealth. “The inherent illiberalism of the bureaucracy, not to mention its tendency to corruption and extravagance” is pointed out and Ridley’s position is summed up in the slogan: “Merchants and craftsmen make prosperity; chiefs, priests and thieves fritter it away”.

 

After having pointed out the “win-win” or positive-sum nature of trade and its essential role in generating human prosperity, Ridley goes on to note that “yet it takes only a few sidelong glances at your fellow human beings to realize that remarkably few people think this way. Zero-sum thinking dominates the popular discourse, whether in debates about trade or in complaints about service providers.” He continues:

 

… this is a shame, because the zero-sum mistake was what made so many -isms of past centuries so wrong. Mercantilism said that exports made you rich and imports made you poor, a fallacy mocked by Adam Smith […] Marxism said that capitalists got rich because workers got poor, another fallacy.

 

Why do so many people continue to commit such obvious economic fallacies? A large part of the reason is most probably that the human mind is not well adapted to grasp the enormous benefits of trade and other positive-sum interactions; Ridley says that “the notion of synergy, of both sides benefitting, just does not seem to come naturally to people.” This, in turn, is probably because most of the Stone Age transactions rarely benefitted both sides. Ridley quotes Michael Shermer saying that “during our evolutionary tenure, we lived in a zero-sum (win-lose) world, in which one person’s gain meant another person’s loss”. This point is argued at length in Paul H. Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics – The Evolutionary Origins of Freedom.

 

Ridley goes on to argue that this might further explain why so many people see the free market as a necessary evil rather than an unmitigated good, and why so many mistakenly tend to think that “free exchange demands selfishness, whereas people were kinder and gentler before their lives were commercialized” (another version of the myth of the "noble savage" so forcefully demolished by Steven Pinker). As Ridley points out in response to this myth:

 

The notion that the market is a necessary evil, which allows people to be wealthy enough to offset its corrosive drawbacks, is wide off the mark. In market societies, if you get a reputation for unfairness, people will not deal with you. In places where traditional, honour-based feudal societies gave way to commercial, prudence-based economies […] the effect is civilizing, not coarsening.

 

This latter argument has also been made by Pinker in his The Better Angels of Our Nature (and there are indeed some similarities between that book and the present one).

 

Progress without planning, or “spontaneous order”, is another thing that people sadly find hard to grasp intuitively (for the same evolutionary reasons). Ridley quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury saying (probably having in mind Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”) that “Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves”. A funny thing to come from someone who believes in the existence of a divine being! Regardless, the invisible hand of the free market is (in sharp contrast to god) empirically well-based. The empirical evidence of the impotency and tragedy of a centrally planned economy is equally strong.

 

The comparative benefits of the free market over those of democracy are also pointed out by Ridley:

 

If you don’t like the outcome of an election you have to lump it; if you don’t like your hairdresser, you can find another. Political decisions are by definition monopolistic, disenfranchising and despotically majoritarian; markets are good at supplying minority needs.

 

The book also argues that economic progress and social progress go hand in hand (and that the former often drives the latter). Commenting on contemporary politics, Ridley points toward the “bizarre paradox of a conservative movement that embraces economic change but hates its consequences and a liberal movement that loves the social consequences but hates the economic source from which they come”, he quotes Brink Lindsey saying that “one side denounced capitalism but gobbled up its fruits; the other cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them.” Bizarre indeed and it is a pattern that repeats in many western democracies. The classical liberalism that renounces government intervention in both the social and the economic spheres makes much more sense.  

 

This is the kind of book that I wish I could buy in large quantities and hand out to all my friends and relatives. It may not offer the deepest or the best analysis of all of the different topics that it touches upon (including climate change, overpopulation, genetically modified crops, and patents and copyrights, among others), but it is accessible and deals with some very important questions in a compelling and credible manner. Indeed, this is the kind of book that everyone ought to read! 

Wednesday
Oct262011

The Better Angels of our Nature - Why Violence Has Declined

Thomas Hobbes’ idea of a social contract arising from a state of nature, Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection, and Adam Smith's idea that people concerned primarily with their own personal interests will cater to the needs of others in a way that is highly beneficial for all, are surely three of the most important ideas of all time. In more recent times these ideas have been refined and enhanced by applications of results from game theory, genetics and economics. Steven Pinker makes heavy use of all three of these powerful ideas in this massive new treatise on violence.

 

Over some 800 pages, Pinker explains the historical and psychological origins of violent behavior tracing it back to its evolutionary roots in our pre-human ancestors and follows it up to the present day. He covers everything from cruelty to animals and the spanking of children to genocide and nuclear wars. His main claim is that violence has declined significantly over millennia, centuries and decades and that, contrary to common opinion, we now live in the most peaceful time so far in all of history. The reason why many people today tend to think differently is also given a compelling psychological explanation, the gist of which is that we are much more sensitive to violence now than we ever were in the past. Also, the media naturally tends to report violent crimes rather than their absence.   

 

But while the overt agenda of the book is to explain violence (how it is rooted in our human nature and how it has been possible for us to decrease it as much as we have given that human nature has not changed fundamentally), the covert agenda is to make a case for peace. Specifically, Pinker makes an excellent case for civilisation in general and liberal humanism and (scientific, technical, economic, social and moral) progress in particular. It might seem strange to call such a large book covering such a vast topic and time period modest, but Pinker is indeed very careful and humble in his claims and even more so in his predictions for the future.

 

Today violence might be thought of as only one among many important aspects of social life, but it is actually central to human coexistence. It is the very core of politics and the central subject matter of social and political philosophy. This is however not a work in political philosophy as such, but it is an excellent overview of the empirical background of which any reasonable political theory must take note.  

 

In many ways, The Better Angels of Our Nature is a continuation and expansion of the chapter on violence in Pinker’s previous book, The Blank Slate, and it also revisits several other themes from that earlier work including, of course, further debunking of the myth of the noble savage. But here also the myth of "pure evil" is debunked: human nature contains both “inner demons” that incline us toward violence and “better angels” that incline us toward peace. Given that human nature has not changed fundamentally, something in our environment must be the primary cause of the decline of violence. Candidates include the rise of governments, the emergence of “gentle commerce” (aka trade), the greater influence of women (men are biologically more prone to violence than women), Peter Singer’s idea of “the expanding circle” and a general increase in abstract reasoning.

 

Civilization, modernity and the spreading of the ideas of enlightenment humanism (which Pinker associates with Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Smith, Mill among others and notes that it is “also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well”) is praised. Among the culprits, on the other hand, one sticks out: ideology. Utopian ideologies that promise a future paradise (like Marxism, Nazism, Christianity and Islam) have been major forces for violence and led to many mass killings throughout history. Pinker notes that religion also can be a force for peace, but this has been so only when the religion in question has been influenced by humanist ideas.

 

While he does not take that many explicit stances in the book, it becomes clear that Pinker is more of a liberal than a conservative; more of a classical liberal than a contemporary liberal; more of a democrat than an authoritarian; more of a "progressive" than a reactionary; more of an atheist (or possibly deist) than a "man of god"; more of a sceptic than a dogmatic; more of an empiricist than a rationalist; more of an optimist than an alarmist; more of a Humean than a Kantian (even if some parts are heavily influenced by the latter). It remains unclear though, whether he is more of a social contract theorist than a utilitarian. He relies heavily on Hobbes in major parts of the book, but he does also occasionally speak positively about "the greatest happiness for the greatest number".

 

There are simply too many interesting points in this book to comment on them all, so let me focus on what he says about government and democracy. Pinker follows Hobbes in thinking that organised government – the establishment of a Leviathan – was a major force for peace. But Pinker would not support a sovereign with absolute power like Hobbes did. He acknowledges that

 

When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats. This gives a sinister sense of the word pacification: not just the bringing about of peace but the imposition of absolute control by a coercive government. Solving this second problem would have to wait another few millennia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day.   

 

That government is generally more conducive to peace than anarchy in the pejorative sense of that term (meaning disorder) is rather trivial. But whether order is possible without government is an open debate. Pinker notes that

 

Libertarians, anarchists, and other sceptics of the Leviathan point out that when communities are left to their own devices, they often develop norms of cooperation that allow them to settle their disputes non-violently, without laws, police, courts, or the other trappings of government.

 

He goes on to cite the legal scholar Robert Ellickson’s work Order Without Law: How Neighbours Settle Disputes and concludes that

 

As important as tacit norms are, it would be a mistake to think that they obviate a role for government. The Shasta County ranchers [one of Ellickson’s objects of study] may not have called in Leviathan when a cow knocked over a fence, but they were living in its shadow and knew it would step in if their informal sanctions escalated or if something bigger were at stake, such as a fight, a killing, or a dispute over women.

 

It is admirable that Pinker acknowledges the existence of anarchist perspectives (as they are often unfairly ignored), but he does not further acknowledge the growing literature on individualist and libertarian anarchism. For an excellent introduction to this overlooked literature, see Edward P. Stringham’s Anarchy and the Law - an impressive volume that compiles essays and excerpts from books by major thinkers on the topic of ordered anarchy (including an excerpt from Ellickson’s work). If you want a more strictly philosophical treatment of the subject, try John T. Sanders' and Jan Narveson's anthology For and Against the State

 

Pinker sometimes uses laws (against slavery, public executions, etc.) as examples of progress, but perhaps he should have pointed out more clearly that changes in general attitude came first and the new laws came after. Let me quote David Friedman emphasising this point:

 

The modern liberal will claim that it was state legislation, limiting hours, preventing child labor, imposing safety regulations, and otherwise violating the principle of laissez faire, that brought progress. But the evidence indicates that the legislation consistently followed progress rather than preceding it. It was only when most workers were already down to a ten-hour day that it became politically possible to legislate one.

 

Furthermore, as Robert Sugden says in his The Economics of Rights, Cooperation and Welfare on the subject:

 

Wise governments do not risk losing credibility by passing laws that cannot be enforced; and when such laws are passed, wise police forces turn a blind eye to violations of them. […] One implication of this is that governments must, if only as a matter of prudence, take some account of the possibility that the laws they might wish to pass may be unenforceable. The willingness or unwillingness of individuals to obey the law is a constraint on the government’s freedom of action. […] it may be that some important aspects of the law merely formalize and codify conventions of behaviour that have evolved out of essentially anarchic situations […] the law may reflect codes of behaviour that most individuals impose on themselves.

 

The historical processes that Pinker calls "the civilizing process", "the humanitarian revolution" and "the rights revolutions" cannot possibly have been driven by laws. Instead, laws are symptoms of these processes. I’m sure Pinker would agree, and he does indeed identify independent causes for all of these processes.

 

The “solution” that Pinker hinted at to the problem of government tyranny is (not surprisingly) democracy. But it is highly questionable whether democracy really solves anything at all as was noted long ago by Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and many others. Pinker extensively quotes Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace and rightly notes that Kant associated the word 'democracy' with mob rule. In this essay, Kant said that

 

... democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which "all" decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, "all," who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom.

 

That liberal democratic government is more conducible to peace than authoritarian dictatorship is one thing, but as Bryan Caplan argues in his The Myth of the Rational Voter this sets the bar too low. Caplan says further that

 

In the minds of many, one of Winston Churchill’s most famous aphorisms cuts the conversation short: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. But this saying overlooks the fact that governments vary in scope as well as form. In democracies the main alternative to majority rule is not dictatorship, but markets.

 

Pinker is well aware of this and supports both what he calls “the democratic peace” and the “capitalist peace” that together make up “the liberal peace”.

 

The Better Angels of Our Nature is simply an excellent synthesis of the current state of knowledge in a very wide range of relevant disciplines, presented in a way that make these results accessible despite the book's considerable length.

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