Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Apocalyptic Violence: Handel's Messiah and the Jihadist's Mahdi

This is the flag of the Islamic State.  "No god but God" is in white across the top.  "Muhammad is the Messenger of God" is in black inside a white circle.  Spokesmen for the Islamic State explained its flag's design with a prayer: "We ask God, praised be He, to make this flag the sole flag for all Muslims.  We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid . . . the Mahdi at the holy house of God."  The house of God is the Ka'ba in Mecca.  The Mahdi is the Muslim savior who will lead the Muslims in the Last Battle of the Apocalyptic End of Days (McCants 2015, 22).

In his nationally televised speech of December 6 on the threat from Islamic State terrorism, President Obama said this:
"We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world -- including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology. Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim. If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate."
"That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity."
So while the Islamic State "does not speak for Islam," it does speak for an "extremist ideology" that is one of the "interpretations of Islam" that supports religious intolerance and violence.  Obama did not explain the content of this interpretation of Islam or why it is wrong.

One good explanation would be that the Islamic State is founded on an Apocalyptic interpretation of Islam.  This is a vision of the world coming to an end through the Great Battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of Allah that will bring the leadership of the Mahdi, the Muslim savior, who will establish the world-wide rule of the Caliphate that will bring justice to all of humanity in the Day of Judgment. 

The Islamic State was first proclaimed in 2006.  Abu Ayyub al-Masri was one of its main leaders.  When he was appointed the Islamic State's minister of war, Masri explained: "The war is in its early stages. . . . and this is the beginning of the battles. . . . We are the army that shall hand over the flag to the servant of God, the Mahdi.  If the first of us is killed, the last of us will deliver it" (McCants 2015, 32).

Apparently, this is what has attracted young men and women from around the world who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the jihadist army of the Islamic State.  It's thrilling to think that one is fighting in the Great Battle in which the world will come to an end, with the triumph of the believers over the infidels.

One of the prophecies attributed to Muhammad is that the Day of Judgment will come after the Muslims defeat Rome at al-A'maq or Dabiq, two places close to the Syrian border with Turkey.  In 2014, Islamic State fighters took the village of Dabiq, and they were jubilant that they were fulfilling prophecy.  When a masked British member of the Islamic State beheaded an American aid worker in Dabiq, he declared: "Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive" (McCants 2015, 105).

In the Republican presidential debate last night, Rick Santorum alluded to this when he warned that if the U.S. were to move troops into Syria, this would be seen as confirming the Apocalyptic prophecies used by the Islamic State.

When we see horrific violence like that carried out by the Islamic State, we are often inclined to think the perpetrators must be sadists or psychopaths who lack any moral sense.  But the Apocalyptic violence of the Islamic State shows how the most brutal violence is often morally motivated.  The ISIS jihadists are convinced that what they are doing serves a higher moral good--the final defeat of Satan and the salvation of humanity.  I will come back to this point in some future posts on the evolutionary psychology of moral violence.

In looking for the coming of the Mahdi at the end of history, Muslims have built on the Apocalyptic thinking of Jews and Christians who have looked for the coming of the Messiah at the end of history (Filiu, 2011).  For Christians, this will be the Second Coming of Jesus as the Messiah.  (Much of this Apocalyptic thinking is probably derived from the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia.)

"Apocalypse" is derived from a Greek word for "uncovering," and it refers to the disclosing or revelation of hidden realities about the movement of history to some final end.  One of the primary sources of such thinking is the last book of the New Testament, which is called The Apocalypse or Revelation.  This biblical text has been interpreted in many different ways (see Kirsch 2006; McGinn, Collins, and Stein, 2000).  But the most influential interpretation sees it as a prophecy of the end of the world.  The satanic Antichrist will become a powerful ruler, who will oppress and persecute Christians for seven years, which is called the period of Tribulation.  Jesus will then descend to earth and lead an army of saints and martyrs to defeat the satanic armies of the Antichrist at the Battle of Armageddon.  Once he is defeated, Satan will be bound in a deep pit under the earth.  Jesus will then rule over an earthly kingdom for a thousand years.

At the end of this millennium, Satan will break out of his confinement; and Jesus will be forced to lead a second battle to finally defeat Satan.  The dead will then be resurrected, and all human beings will be judged by God.  The earthly world will be destroyed and replaced by "a new heaven and a new earth."  The believers will live forever in perfect happiness in Paradise.  The unbelievers will be punished forever in Hell with Satan.

By the end of the nineteenth century, some American fundamentalist Christians were persuaded by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)--an Anglo-Irish preacher--to add two prophecies to this Apocalyptic story: the Rapture and Christian Zionism.  Darby found the prophecy of the Rapture in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (I Thess. 4:16-17).
Darby saw this as a prophecy that the true Christians would not have to suffer the seven years of Tribulation under the power of the Antichrist, because just before the arrival of the Antichrist, all Christians living and dead would be transported--raptured--from earth to Heaven.  They would be brought back down to earth once Jesus returned to defeat Satan and the Antichrist.

Darby did not reflect on Paul's suggestion in this passage that this prophecy would be fulfilled in his own lifetime--"we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds."  If this is so, then we would have to say that Paul's prophecy was mistaken.  Similarly, in the book of Revelation, it is repeatedly said that the Apocalyptic prophecies "must shortly come to pass," and "the time is at hand" (1:1-3; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20).  Now, after two thousand years, we still have not seen the fulfillment of these prophecies that were originally presented as what must "shortly come to pass."  That has been a recurrent problem for these prophecies.  In almost every generation, people have believed that the Apocalyptic events were soon to occur, only to be disappointed.  Considering this past record, there is no reason to believe that the Islamic State's Apocalyptic predictions will be fulfilled.

In addition to the Rapture, Darby made a second contribution to the Apocalyptic prophecies.  He reasoned that at the end of history all of the biblical prophecies would have to be fulfilled, including the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible about the restoration of the Jewish community in Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem.  Darby inferred, therefore, that before the end days could come, the Jews would have to reclaim the land of Israel.

Consequently, those fundamentalist Christians who accepted Darby's interpretations of the Bible became Christian Zionists who supported the establishment and expansion of the Jewish state of Israel.  The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the Israeli liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967 were seen by Christian Zionists as dramatic evidence that the end of the world was drawing near.  This explains why American fundamentalist Christians have been such strong supporters of Israel.  This Christian-Jewish alliance is strange, however, in that these Christians foresee that at Judgment Day all of the Jews that have not been converted to Christianity will be condemned to burn eternally in Hell.

The continuing appeal of this Christian Apocalyptic vision is indicated by the astonishing success of recent books predicting that the Rapture, the Antichrist, Armageddon, and the Last Judgment are coming soon.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth sold over 20 million copies.  Beginning in 1995, Tim LaHaye's novels in the "Left Behind" series have sold over 50 million copies.  In the beginning of his first apocalyptic thriller--Left Behind--LaHaye portrays a commercial airline pilot called Rayford Steele, who discovers that half of his passengers have suddenly disappeared from the plane.
"I'm not crazy!  See for yourself!" screams a flight attendant.  "All over the plane, people have disappeared."
"It's a joke.  They're hiding, trying to--"
"Ray!  Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind.  These people are gone!"
All around the world, all of the true Christians have been raptured into Heaven, so that they will not suffer through the Tribulation.  LaHaye then tells the story of how the Antichrist takes control of the world.  The Antichrist is a Jewish politician with his headquarters in Iraq.

The Apocalyptic story told by the Islamic jihadists is rather different.  They haven't adopted Darby's ideas about the Rapture and Zionism.  From Muhammad's prophecies, they see the final battles as a fight between Islam and the infidels (including Christians and Jews) led by the Antichrist.  The Mahdi and Jesus will lead the Muslims against the Antichrist and the infidels.  At the Last Judgment, the Muslims will be saved for eternal bliss, and the infidels will be condemned to eternal punishment.  The violence of jihadist fighting, including suicide terrorism, is all morally justified as serving the end of divine judgment and redemption of the believers.

A few years ago, Joel Richardson, in his book The Islamic Antichrist (2009), pointed out the remarkable parallels between the Christian and Muslim prophecies of the Apocalypse, but with the roles of bad guys and good guys reversed.  He argued that the Islamic Mahdi is actually the Antichrist, and thus Satan will be using Islamic jihadists to carry out his great battle against Christianity in the End Days.

A few days ago, I found myself thinking about the problem of Apocalyptic violence while attending a performance of Handel's Messiah with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  Two years ago, I wrote a post about the Messiah as a defense of orthodox Christianity against Deism.  But this time I began to wonder whether Handel and Charles Jennens (who wrote the libretto) had revised the Apocalyptic story of the Bible to make it less violent.

The most familiar and most popular part of the Messiah is the Hallelujah Chorus, movement 44, the last movement of Part Two, which uses lines from the book of Revelation: "Hallelujah!  For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah! The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.  King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Revelation 19:6, 11:15, 19:16).

The libretto of the Messiah is remarkable for what it leaves out of the story in Revelation.  Nothing is said about the two battles--Armageddon and the Final Battle.  There is no reference to Satan or the Antichrist.  And nothing is said about the condemnation of the damned to eternal punishment in Hell, which leaves us with the impression that everyone will enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven.  Consequently, almost all of the bloody violence of Revelation is eliminated.

The only violence in Messiah comes in the four movements (40-43) immediately preceding the Hallelujah Chorus.  It is said that the "nations" and the "kings of the earth" have risen up against God and the Messiah.  God will have to defeat them.  "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Psalms 2:1-4, 9).

Many listeners have found this part of Messiah disturbing in its suggestion that God enjoys torturing people.  In his commentary on Messiah, Calvin Stapert observes: "'Thou shalt break them' is . . . out of balance unless it is taken in the context of Messiah as a whole, for in it God's love far overshadows his anger" (132).

Thus, if there were an Islamic version of Handel's Messiah, it would give no support to the Apocalyptic violence of the Islamic State.


Filiu, Jean-Pierre. 2011. Apocalypse in Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kirsch, Jonathan. 2006.  A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization. New York: HarperCollins.

McGinn, Bernard, John J. Collins, and Stephen J. Stein, eds. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum.

McCants, William. 2015. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Stapert, Calvin. 2010. Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Foolish Panic over Terrorism

By any objective standard, terrorism is a very minor problem.  It is certainly not, as so many political commentators have been telling us, an "existential threat" to civilization. 

The greatest harmful consequence of terrorism is not the killing of innocent people by terrorists, but the foolish panic over terrorism that leads us to wage a "war on terrorism" that inflicts far more harm on us than any terrorist attack.

Consider what we know from the scientific study of the history of terrorism, which is summarized in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (pp. 344-361).

Let's take Pinker's definition of terrorism--"premeditated violence perpetrated by a nonstate actor against noncombatants (civilians or off-duty soldiers) in pursuit of a political, religious, or social goal, designed to coerce a government or to intimidate or convey a message to a larger audience" (345). 

Excluding the deaths during the 9/11 attack, over the thirty-eight years from 1970 to 2007, the number of people killed by terrorists in the United States was 340.  The peak attacks were Timothy McVeigh's bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 165, and the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, which killed 17.  The recent attack in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people, which makes it the deadliest attack since 9/11.  But think about this.  As disturbing as the killing of 14 people can be, this is a very small number compared with the number of people killed every day by other means.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attack.  But even this is a small number compared with the yearly deaths of 40,000 Americans in traffic accidents, 20,000 in falls, 18,000 in homicides, and 24,000 from accidental poisoning.  As Pinker notes, more Americans are killed every year by peanut allergies and bee stings than by terrorist attacks.

Moreover, the rate of deaths per 100,000 people per year has been trending downward since 1970 in the United States, Western Europe, and worldwide.  In Western Europe and worldwide, the highest peaks of terrorist killings came in the 1970s and 1980s.  This was the period of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Freedom Fighters in the U.K., the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the ETA (a Basque separatist group) in Spain, the Japanese Red Army in Japan, and the Front de Liberation du Quebec in Canada.

Any sensible person looking at this history should agree with John Kerry's observation in an interview during the presidential campaign of 2004: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance.  As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution.  We're never going to end illegal gambling.  But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise.  It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."  As Pinker says, this is an example of what is called a "gaffe" in a political campaign--"something a politician says that is true."

Indeed, George Bush and Dick Cheney immediately said this remark showed that Kerry was "unfit to lead."  Kerry was forced to reverse himself, and he has never again told this truth--that terrorism is a "nuisance" that should be reduced, but it "isn't threatening people's lives every day."

Of course, the problem is that the emotional perception of the risk from terrorism as an apocalyptic "existential threat" has no relationship to the objective reality of terrorism as a minor problem for most people around the world.  Our evolved psychology of fear inclines us to exaggerate the risks from terrorism because terrorist attacks are shocking and surprising, and so it is hard for us to realistically and objectively assess such risks.  Evolutionary psychology should be able to identify and explain our evolved propensities for mistaken judgments in our assessment of risks, and thus alert us to the need to avoid the foolish exaggeration of the dangers from terrorism.

Americans were so disturbed by the 9/11 attack that they were willing to support the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as a proper response to the threat of terrorism, even though the American casualties in those wars outnumbered the deaths from the 9/11 attack, and even though the economic costs for those wars were astounding.  The huge investment in the Department of Homeland Security and the loss of liberty from government surveillance of citizens adds to the harm that Americans have inflicted on themselves because of their unreasonable fear of terrorism.

Moreover, anyone who studies the history of terrorist groups can see that most of them fail, and they all eventually die.  Social scientists like Max Abrahms and Audrey Cronin have shown that terrorist organizations almost never achieve their objectives.  One of the primary reasons for this is that as terrorists broaden their attack on innocent people, they lose popular support and provoke punishment.

No terrorist group has ever taken over a state.  It might appear, however, that the Islamic State has succeeded in establishing a caliphate ruling over territory from Iraq to Syria.  But based upon the past failures of terrorist groups to establish their own states, one can predict that the Islamic State will also fail.  In fact, the recent mass migration of people out of the areas controlled by the Islamic State, which includes some disillusioned former Islamic State fighters, and the internal fighting between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda indicate the likely coming collapse of the Islamic State.

By some estimates, the United States has spent over $1 trillion dollars in counterterrorism operations, which has also cost the U.S. many casualties (in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).  The odds that any American will be killed by a terrorist is about 1 in 4 million per year.  Do the likely benefits of such counterterrorism activity outweigh the likely costs?  Wouldn't any reasonable person have to say no?

We should see that terrorism is idiotic, and our panic over terrorism is foolish.

I wrote a long series of posts on Pinker and declining violence from October of 2011 to January of 2012 and in April of 2014.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

The Evonomics of Classical Liberalism and the Illegal Economy

"Evonomics" is the term adopted by David Sloan Wilson and his colleagues for what they call "the Next Evolution of Economics," which they see as economics founded on evolution and complexity science.  Two months ago, they started a website to promote their ideas.  A recent lecture by Wilson summarizing his position is on YouTube.

The term "evonomics" was first coined by Michael Shermer in an article in Scientific American (January, 2008), which Shermer applied to the expanding evolution of trade to explain the economic evolution from hunting-gatherer societies to modern commercial societies.

In one of his first posts at the website, Wilson identified the evolutionists who think about economics as belonging to three groups.  The "Right-leaning evolutionists" include me, Shermer, and Matt Ridley.  The "Left-leaning evolutionists" include Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, and Peter Singer.  Those holding the center in the political spectrum include Jonathan Haidt and Robert Frank.  (Although Haidt has said he's a "centrist," I have claimed in various posts that his moral psychology actually supports classical liberalism.)

I have argued that Darwinian evolutionary science has shown that Adam Smith was right about almost everything.  In his defense of what he called "the natural system of liberty," Smith was right to see that the social orders of morality, markets, law, and politics can arise as largely spontaneous orders, which emerge as unintended outcomes from the actions of individuals pursuing the satisfaction of their individual desires.  The Darwinian science of evolutionary order has confirmed this central idea of Smithian classical liberalism.

Wilson's rejection of the "Right-leaning evolutionists" and of what he calls their "free market fundamentalism" suggests that he thinks I'm all wrong about evolution supporting classical liberalism.  But from my reading of some of the essays posted at his website, it seems that much of what he and his colleagues are saying supports the classical liberal idea that social order emerges best through the largely spontaneous orders of free markets and limited government.

Wilson scorns the Homo economicus model of human nature--the idea that human beings are narrowly selfish in their rational maximization of their utility.  But here Wilson is in agreement with Adam Smith.  Although Smith saw the self-interest side of human nature, especially in The Wealth of Nations, he also saw the natural morality of human beings that arises from their natural desire for a mutual sympathy of sentiments, which he explained in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Smith's account of how morality evolves from kinship, reciprocity, and social norms enforced through praise and blame has been confirmed by Darwin (in The Descent of Man) and by recent studies of the evolutionary psychology of morality.  In support of Smith's insight about the mutual dependence of morals and markets, the cross-cultural economic game experiments conducted by Joe Henrich and his colleagues have shown that people tend to have a deeper sense of fairness when their societies show extensive experience with markets.

Wilson might seem to reject classical liberalism when he endorses Bernie Sanders's argument that the United States should adopt the socialist policies of Norway and the other Nordic social democracies.  But in fact the success of the Nordic countries over the past thirty years has come from their moving away from socialist central planning and towards classical liberalism.  The recent history of the Nordic countries has shown a reduction in public social spending, taxation, and government regulation of society and business, beginning in the 1980s.  In doing that, they adopted some of the policies proposed by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and other classical liberals for reducing governmental intrusion into social and economic life and for reforming the welfare state in ways that make it compatible with the classical liberal principles of individual liberty and free markets.

In Sweden, for example, public spending as a share of GDP had reached 67% by 1993, but now it's down to 49%.  Public debt as a share of GDP fell from 70% in 1993 to 37% in 2010.  Sweden has cut the marginal tax rate by 27% since 1983 to 57%, and it has cut the corporate tax rate to 22%, much lower than in the United States.  Unemployment compensation was reduced.

Friedman helped the Frazer Institute--a classical liberal think tank in Canada--to develop a method for measuring and ranking "economic freedom" in countries around the world.  They now have ratings for 152 nations.  All of the Nordic countries have high rankings.  Finland is #7, and Denmark is #14.  Thus, they rank higher than the United States, which is #17.  Sweden is #29.  Norway is #31.  Iceland is #41.

The Heritage Foundation--another classical liberal think tank--has a similar "Index of Economic Freedom."  Denmark ranks at #10, ahead of the United States at #12.  The other Nordic countries rank high once again--Finland at #19, Sweden at #20, Iceland at #23, and Norway at #32.

Thus, these Nordic capitalist welfare states survive and flourish only because of their high levels of economic freedom and capitalist institutions.  This is all part of that most momentous turn in human evolution that began in the 17th century and accelerated in the 19th century, first in Holland and then in England and North America--that massive increase in prosperity and population that was made possible by classical liberal institutions and the morality of the bourgeois virtues.

I also see support for classical liberalism in the essay by David Colander and Roland Kupers--"I, Pencil Revisited: Beyond Market Fundamentalism"--that is posted on the Evonomics website.  This essay is an excerpt from their book--Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Problems from the Bottom Up.

Leonard Read's "I, Pencil" is a famous essay among classical liberals, which presents the ordinary wooden pencil as the product of thousands of people working around the world being coordinated by global markets without any central planning by a single mind or group of minds.  Colander and Kupers agree that this does illustrate how markets create complex order from the bottom up without central planning and control. 

But they also criticize Read as a "free-market fundamentalist," because he does not mention the role of government in providing the "institutional structure" that makes markets possible.  They have the pencil explain:
"Someone had to protect the property rights upon which the market is based, someone had to guarantee that the contracts between individuals would be enforced, and someone had to be on the lookout for lead, for the safety of machines, and similar problems, which is not addressed might well lead a society to undermine the institutional structure that produced me.  Government is one of the important organizations that creative people have set up through which rules are established and maintained.  It is both the referee, and the rules committee.  This means that in our country it is government that is ultimately responsible for enforcing property rights, establishing standards which society believes are acceptable, and providing a court system to adjudicate differences of opinion, as there inevitably will be."
This is a restatement of the classical liberal argument for the coevolution of free markets and limited government.  From Locke and Smith to Hayek and Friedman, classical liberals have emphasized the need for liberal governments that secure the rights to life, liberty, and property, and thus provide the legal framework within which free market can coordinate social order.  Liberal governments must be limited to these ends, so that they do not attempt to centrally plan social order from the top down, and thus leave markets to coordinate life through an evolutionary bottom-up process.

Colander and Kupers agree with this.  They explain: "There are two ways to coordinate--from the top-down, with an established institution such as government doing the coordination, and from the bottom-up, letting new organizations develop to solve collective problems that develop as multiple people interact.  The problem with having the government solve coordination problems is that it often does so in ways that undermine the creative energies of individuals.  Instead of seeing people as having the ability to solve problems on their own, established institutions, such as government may try to solve the problems for them and in the process often create barriers to creativity."

I agree with this.  But I would point out that while they recognize that coordination arises best "from the bottom-up, letting new organizations develop to solve collective problems that develop as multiple people interact," they don't recognize that this applies to the governance of property rights and contracts.  They seem to assume that only a public government acting through a coercive legal system can secure property and contracts,

On the contrary, as I have indicated in my previous post, private governance is often better in enforcing property and contracts than is a public government.  Most of those contracts in international commerce that make possible the production of pencils probably contain clauses that commit the parties to the contract to private arbitration to settle any disputes.  The governmental court systems are simply too costly and inefficient to solve the problems of international commerce, and consequently business people must solve their own problems through systems of private governance, which include private profit-making arbitration firms.

Moreover, while Colander and Kupers recognize that governments trying to solve social problems often create "barriers to creativity," they don't recognize how people get around those barriers by entering the illegal economy and generating a spontaneous order of social norms of property and contract outside the legal system.

What I have here called "the illegal economy" is also called "the informal economy," "the shadow economy," or "the underground economy."  These are the terms for the economic activity of people who are not legally registered with or regulated by a government, who conduct their business in cash, and who don't pay taxes on their income.  These people are often forced to do this because the burdens of onerous government regulations and taxes make it impossible for them to make a living within the legal rules.  For example, taxes in Brazil can make up 90% of the price of some goods; and consequently, many goods are smuggled into Brazil from Paraguay, where taxes are much lower. (One of the best studies of the illegal economy around the world is Robert Neuwith's Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy [Anchor Books, 2012].)

In 2009, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that over half of all the workers in the world are in the illegal underground economy.  The OECD also predicted that by 2020 over two-thirds of the workers of the world will be working underground.  Economist Friedrich Schneider studies shadow economies, and he has estimated that the total economic value of the activity in shadow economies is over $10 trillion a year.  If this were the economy of an independent nation, this would be second only to the GDP of the United States, which is $14 trillion a year.

Most of the economic development in the developing world--particularly in Latin America, Africa, and many parts of Asia--is through the economic self-development of the illegal economy.  In Lagos, Nigeria, the largest city in Africa, over 80% of the working people are in the underground economy.

Much of the global trade between the developed and developing countries is through the illegal economy.  For example, poor people in Nigeria working in illegal markets can save enough money to travel to China, where they buy Chinese goods illegally and then have them smuggled back into Nigeria for sale, avoiding restrictive trade laws and huge import duties.  There are some estimates that as many as 300,000 Africans are living in Guangzhou, the south China trading city formerly known as Canton.

This confirms Adam Smith's insight that the evolved human propensity "to truck, barter, and exchange" is so strong that it can be expressed in a complex economic life even without the support of a legal system, because people can solve their own economic problems for themselves through self-organizing social orders. 

For example, Neuwith describes how street merchants in Lagos have set up their own private courts for settling disputes between dealers and customers.  One arbitrator explained: "Arbitration is our work.  Most often we arrive at a peaceful solution.  This is how we have harmonized the market."  This is what one should expect from human beings who have evolved natural instincts for cooperation.

Smith thought illegal economic activity could be seen as an expression of the "system of natural liberty" or "natural justice."  So he suggested that we should identify a smuggler as "a person who, though no doubt highly blamable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so" (Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund edition, p. 898). 

Smugglers are part of the greatest evolutionary story of humanity, which is the progressive improvement in human life that comes from human beings asserting their freedom to trade.

David Sloan Wilson disagrees.  He thinks that we need the governmental elites to teach us that what we think we want is not what we "really" want--that we need to be "nudged"--by the government--to want what the elites want us to want.

Some of my posts on David Sloan Wilson can be found here, and here.

My posts on the "Darwinian Left" can be found here and here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Evolution of Private Governance and the Fictions of Anarchism and Statism

As naturally social and political animals, human beings have evolved to live in social orders that arise as self-regulating spontaneous orders.  Every evolved human society has some form of governance.  In most of their evolutionary history, human beings have lived in foraging bands, in which governance has been through customary norms enforced by social punishment of wrongdoers and informal or episodic leadership.  Since the Neolithic Revolution, most human beings have settled into agrarian societies with more formal, bureaucratic, and centralized governments.  Since the end of the Middle Ages, many modern states have claimed a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence, which was Max Weber's definition of the state.

Foraging bands have often been identified as anarchistic societies, because as what anthropologists call "stateless societies," they seem to lack any governmental rule.  But if "anarchy" is taken in its literal sense of "no rule" or "no governance," then foraging societies are not anarchies, because they do have some form of governance, even if the governance is informal, fluctuating, and decentralized.  In fact, pure anarchy is a fiction, because no human society can endure for long without some governance.

Some anarchist theorists had implicitly conceded this point.  For example, the best history of anarchist thinkers and movements is Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (2010).  Anarchists begin by distinguishing between society and the state, he indicates, and then they argue that a society can be a self-regulating order of governance without a state.  He writes: "Pure anarchy in the sense of a society with no concentration of force and no social controls has probably never existed.  Stateless societies and peasant societies employ sanctions of approval and disapproval, the offer of reciprocity and the threat of its withdrawal, as instruments of social control.  But modern anthropology confirms that in organic or 'primitive' societies, there is a limited concentration of force.  If authority exists, it is delegated and rarely imposed, and in many societies no relation of command and obedience is in force" (12).

But if it is true that "pure anarchy . . . has probably never existed," and is therefore a fiction, it is also true that pure statism has never existed, and is therefore a fiction.  If we accept the Weberian definition of the state as an absolute monopoly on the legitimate exercise of force, then such a state has never existed, and can never exist, because human beings have evolved to form spontaneously ordered groups for their governance, and while  authoritarian states might vigorously try to suppress such private governance, liberal states will be more open to such private governance, and no state can ever succeed in successfully claiming an absolute monopoly on governance to the exclusion of private governance.

Authoritarian states will create maladaptive societies that promote violence and poverty, while liberal states will create adaptive societies that promote peace and prosperity, because liberal states provide more room for the private governance that arises from the naturally evolved nature of human beings.  Consequently, liberal states will tend to prevail in competition with authoritarian states through evolution by cultural group selection.

Although he does not present his argument against the background of human evolution, that's the picture of human social evolution and political theory that I draw out of Edward Peter Stringham's new book--Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life (Oxford, 2015).  A good summary and discussion of Stringham's argument can be found at "Cato Unbound".

Stringham's argument is ambiguous.  On the one hand, he has argued for "Hayekian anarchism"--in an article coauthored with Todd Zywicki in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 78 (2011): 290-301, and in Chapter 13 of his book (206-225).  His argument is that given Hayek's reasoning about how spontaneous orders evolve without central planning or deliberate design, he should have seen that the logical conclusion from this is anarchism, but instead Hayek insisted that anarchism was impossible, and that the spontaneous order of markets depended upon laws coming from monopolistic government.  Hayek should have seen that his argument for market competition as superior to central planning supported a free market for governance without any need for a monopolistic government.

On the other hand, Stringham seems to pull back from explicitly arguing for pure anarchy, and he suggests that Hayek might have been right in his classical liberal endorsement of limited government that leaves "room for greater experimentation and competition among providers of governance," because "even where governments are pervasive, so too is private governance" (225-26).  Here he seems to agree with my conclusion that even if pure anarchy--the absence of any government--is impossible, every government must leave some room for a free market of private governance, and a liberal government will leave lots of room for this.

In developing my evolutionary interpretation of Stringham's account of private governance, I will read Stringham against the background of Morris Hoffman's The Punisher's Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury, which has been the subject of a previous post.

Stringham seems to agree with Hoffman's claim that human beings have three evolved instincts--to cooperate, to cheat, and to punish cheaters.  He also seems to agree with Hoffman that social order requires three rules that are driven by the common problems of property and promise.  The first rule is that transfers of property must be voluntary.  The second rule is that promises must be kept.  The third rule is that serious violations of the first two rules must be punished.

If "property" is understood broadly to include one's self-ownership, one's liberty, and one's possessions, then the rule protecting property encompasses both criminal law and the law of torts.

If "promises" are understood as legally enforceable agreements for exchange and cooperation, then the rule securing promises would encompass contract law.

The punishment required by the third rule is manifest at three levels.  Through first-party punishment, we punish ourselves with conscience and guilt.  Through second-party punishment, we punish our tormentors with retaliation and revenge.  Through third-party punishment, we act as a group in punishing wrongdoers with retribution.

Stringham agrees with Hoffman about all of this.  The disagreement, however, is that Stringham sees--correctly, I think--that third-party punishment does not have to be monopolized by the modern state, as Hoffman assumes, because third-party punishment can be enforced through private governance.

Hoffman argues that as shaped by human evolution, most human beings instinctively punish themselves for cheating, or even thinking about cheating, through conscience and guilt.  Guilt is retroactive blame, feeling pained by the thought of our past misconduct.  Conscience is prospective blame, imagining the pain we would feel if we were to engage in some misconduct.  Such conscience and guilt requires empathy--being able to imaginatively put ourselves in the situation of others and feel the pain they might feel from our injuring them.

Hoffman points to the evidence for the neural correlates of conscience and guilt in particular parts of the brain, and for the diminished capacity for conscience and guilt when there is some innate or acquired abnormality in these parts of the brain.  So, for example, reduced connectivity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) of the brain seems to be associated with psychopathic psychology.  Psychopaths--those with little or no capacity for conscience and guilt--are the exception that proves the rule that most human beings have some instinctive propensity to punish themselves for violating moral rules against harming others.

Stringham agrees with this, in claiming that the most personal form of private governance is individual self-governance, which provides the internal moral constraints that support our human capacity for spontaneously forming voluntary associations.  Embracing the theory of human nature as Homo economicus, many economists ignore morality in assuming that cooperation requires external constraints on behavior.  But Stringham thinks Adam Smith did not make this mistake, because his Theory of Moral Sentiments shows how the moral sentiments arise spontaneously from human nature in society, which constitute the moral support for markets.  (Hoffman mistakenly attributes to Smith the Homo economicus model of human nature that sees "humans only as relentlessly selfish creatures" [18].)

Like Hoffman, Stringham sees the experimental work with behavioral economic games (such as the Ultimatum Game, the Trust Game, and the Public Goods game) as refuting Homo economicus and supporting Homo moralis.  Moreover, some of this research conducted cross-culturally around the world by anthropologists like Joseph Henrich confirms that markets and morals are mutually dependent.  The higher the degree of "market integration" in a society, the more likely are people in that society to express a sense of fairness in their playing of economic games.

The importance of internal character in sustaining good character is suggested, Stringham indicates, by the fact that the rate of crimes inside prisons is a hundred times higher than outside the prisons, although prisons are much more policed than life in the outside world.

Historically, bankers deciding on loans have judged the moral character of borrowers in considering whether they will feel a moral responsibility to pay back their loans.  Today, Stringham observes, lenders often can't have much personal knowledge of the character of borrowers.  But they can use credit scores as a proxy for character.  A credit score can be a sign of an individual's moral self-governance.

And notice that this self-governance through the punishment of conscience and guilt arises as a form of spontaneously ordered private governance that does not depend on legal coercion by a public government.

If conscience and guilt fail to restrain us from cheating, Hoffman observes, we must then worry about the punishment coming from our victims or their family and friends.  For most of our evolutionary history, the primary punishment of wrongdoers was retaliation and revenge (delayed retaliation). 

The law of self-defense--that everyone has the right to retaliate against attacks on their lives, their health, or their property--is universal, and it is supported by neural circuitry in the amygdala, the insula, the vmPFC, the cingulate, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC).  If people play the Ultimatum Game while they're in a brain-scanning machine, we can see the enhanced activity of this neural circuitry when they refuse unfair offers, and thus inflict a costly punishment on the other player.

As Stringham points out, the simplest way to punish cheating and promote cooperation is to act according to the principle of reciprocity--treat others as they treat you.  Boycott those who have cheated you.  Cooperate with those who have been cooperative with you.  As a result, those with the reputation for being cheaters will be punished, because no one will cooperate with them; and those with the reputation for being cooperative will be rewarded, because they will enjoy the benefits of cooperation with others. 

This is the lesson of Robert Axelrod's famous experiments with the iterated prisoner's dilemma in The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), in which the most successful strategy was the simple strategy of tit-for-tat: cooperate on the first play of the game, and then on all subsequent plays, reciprocate whatever the other player has done on the previous play--cooperating when he has cooperated, defecting when he has defected.  This was a system of private governance, because it showed how cooperation could evolve in a world without the coercive law enforcement of a monopoly government.

As Chris Boehm has shown in his Moral Origins, the evolution of cooperation and morality in foraging bands has depended largely on the reciprocal altruism of reputation, so that people with a good reputation for obeying social norms are rewarded, and those with a bad reputation for violating those norms are punished.  Stringham shows how this evolved reputation mechanism continues to support social order in modern commercial societies.

The emotions that we feel when we punish wrongdoers for harming others can be very strong, but usually they are not as strong as they are when we are punishing those who have harmed us directly.  For that reason, third-party punishers can move towards a more impartial judgment, Hoffman argues, which is what we look for in the rule of law.

Treating our families as extensions of ourselves turns second-party punishment into third-party punishment.  But this familial third-party punishment is not likely to be as impartial as punishment coming from someone who is unrelated to the victim or the wrongdoer.  Originally, those dominant individuals who acted as mediators or judges of disputes in the band or tribe exercised third-party punishment on their own.  But in some special cases, they might have delegated this to select groups of people, which would have acted as the first juries.

From brain-scanning, there is some evidence for the neural correlates of third-party punishment.  The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex seems to be active both when people are engaged in third-party punishment (in weighing punishment for hypothetical criminal behavior) and when they are engaged in second-party punishment (in retaliating against unfair players in economic games).  This suggests that the modern legal system--with a centralized government enforcing punishment--could have been built on the cognitive mechanisms that evolved for retaliation and revenge.

The detailed rules and procedures for third-party punishment in modern legal systems show the vagaries of historical contingency in the cultural evolution of law that is highly variable across legal systems.  But still these modern rules and procedures can manifest general patterns rooted in ancient human instincts for punishing. 

For example, one ancient form of punishment for the most severe crimes was ostracism or banishment from the community.  Although prisons are a relatively new invention in legal history, Hoffman observes, imprisonment can be seen as a new way to punish people by ostracizing or banishing them from the community, either temporarily or permanently.

Throughout most of human history, Hoffman observes, the rules protecting property and promises were enforced through private punishment, because wrongdoers were punished by individuals, families, and social groups.  But as the state grew in size and complexity, the state began to punish private wrongs as public wrongs.  Hoffman explains:
". . . Eventually, the state in its modern form has occupied the field of punishment to the exclusion of private enforcement, and in the course of that occupation ostracism has reemerged in the form of prison.
"As the size and complexity of our social organizations grew, traditional social ostracism became impossible.  A drunk might be shunned in his hometown, but not in towns miles away.  Complex trading and distribution networks could not risk having key components fail simply because one of their members was being ostracized.  So today we ostracize criminals physically, by forcing them to live in their own separate prison societies, rather than shunning them socially while permitting them to remain in our physical midst." (166)
Is this really true?  Does legal punishment by the modern state exist "to the exclusion of private enforcement"?  Did the turn to imprisonment by the state mean that "traditional social ostracism became impossible"?

Stringham answers no.  To see why he disagrees with Hoffman, consider the common characteristics of the following: gated communities, apartment complexes, shopping malls, office complexes, amusement parks (like Disney World), corporations, shopper's clubs, country clubs, churches, hotels, Amish communities, fraternal organizations, schools, stock exchanges, credit card networks, cell phone carriers, and Internet shopping (like eBay).  These are all voluntary clubs that engage in private governance that protects property, enforces contracts, and punishes cheaters through social ostracism.

When sellers and buyers meet on eBay, they are strangers who need to trust one another, so that they can engage in a contractual exchange without being cheated.  Hoffman would seem to say that they must depend upon governmental agents--regulators, police, and courts--to enforce their contracts and punish those who cheat.  But how likely is it that a buyer on eBay who is cheated by a seller will file a lawsuit in a government court?  He is more likely to report the cheating to eBay, and someone at eBay will arbitrate the dispute.  Sellers with a history of cheating will be ostracized from the eBay club, because the profitability of eBay depends on the private enforcement of rules of fair trading by excluding those who violate the rules.  Like all the other voluntary clubs listed above, eBay relies on private governance to enforce its rules, because the courts of the public government are too expensive and too inefficient.

Similarly, when one joins a credit card network, one signs an agreement that probably includes a clause stating that any disputes will be settled by a private profit-making arbitration agency (such as the American Arbitration Association).  Once again, government courts are simply too expensive and too inefficient to be reliable for settling disputes for credit card companies.  When borrowers refuse to pay their credit card bills, the ultimate punishment is exclusion from the credit card club and a poor credit rating, which is an example of a multilateral reputation mechanism, in which those with a reputation for cheating are ostracized from the club.

People who move into a gated community might join a homeowner's association that governs their community.  The sidewalks, the streets, the street lights, the landscaping, and the security guards who patrol the community are all privately managed.  The residents pay for all of this through their dues.  Some gated communities are as large as small cities.  Celebration, Florida, which was built by the Walt Disney Company, now has 10,000 residents.  Today, over 60 million Americans live in private communities with private governance.

We often assume that enforcing the rules of property and contracts must depend ultimately on the monopoly government of the state.  As Stringham points out, even most of the leading proponents of free markets--including Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and James Buchanan--have all argued that markets cannot work at all if there is no central government to define and enforce property rights and contracts.  But this ignores the many cases of private governance presented by Stringham.

The question we need to ask, Stringham suggests, is whether governmental agents--politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and police officers--have the knowledge, incentives, and ability to solve social problems in a cost-effective way.  When the answer is no, it is possible that the entrepreneurial providers of private governance might have the knowledge, the incentives, and the ability to solve social problems in a cost-effective way.

We must wonder, however, whether even when private governance does work, it does so under the shadow of public government.  For example, Stringham tells the history of private police forces in San Francisco from the 1840s to the present.  In the early history, the private police even had the power of arresting people and conducting trials.  He also tells the story of private policing in North Carolina.  But in all such cases, the powers of private policing seem to depend upon governmental legislation, so that private governance is regulated by public government.  Similarly, when Stringham speaks about private arbitration in the United States, he is silent about the importance of the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 in authorizing and regulating private arbitration, although he does note that "statutes that legalize binding arbitration have the downside of requiring arbitrators to follow many of the bureaucratic procedures of government courts" (201).

Moreover, Stringham is almost completely silent about the need for military defense.  He mentions this in only one footnote (164, n. 15).  He doesn't explain how military defense could be privatized.  And when he describes the legal system in Ango-Saxon England as "decentralized and largely private" (200), he is silent about the importance of Anglo-Saxon kings as war leaders, and how the need for military leadership led to a more centralized monarchic government.  The Norman conquest of England in 1066 shows the crucial importance of military defense.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that both pure anarchism and pure statism are impossible, because even stateless societies have some governance, even the most authoritarian states allow some private governance, and liberal states leave lots of room for private governance.  The greater freedom for private governance provided by liberal states allows for adaptive flexibility in solving public problems in ways that promote peace and prosperity, and consequently liberal states will outcompete illiberal states through cultural group selection, which includes competition in war.

Some of my previous posts on anarchism can be found here, here, here, here, here., here, here, and here.