Monday, September 29, 2008

Three Cheers for the U.S. House of Representatives

On this blog, I have often complained about the loss of balanced and limited government in the United States because of the failure of the U.S. Congress to challenge the President. But today, I can cheer the House of Representatives for rejecting the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, and thus standing against the pressure from the White House to pass this without serious scrutiny.

Notice how this vindicates the institutional design of the constitutional framers. The design of the House of Representatives--particularly with a short term of two years--was meant to make the House closer to public opinion, while the Senate--with a six-year term--was expected to be more independent of public opinion. And, indeed, here we see that the House has been much more responsive than the Senate to public anger about the bailout, because all the House members have to face the voters in a few weeks.

There are many reasons why this bailout would be disastrous for the United States. But the most obvious is the foolish--and unconstitutional--delegation of virtually unlimited power to the Secretary of the Treasury.

In the original proposal a week ago, section 8 declared: "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency." Read that sentence carefully and think about what it means that an American President would propose such absolute power vested in the hands of an unelected bureaucrat.

The proposal that was debated today has some checks on the Treasury Secretary's discretion. But he still has unlimited authority in deciding what he would buy and how much he would pay. He is not even required to seek the lowest possible price. Under some conditions, he would even have the power to bail out foreign central banks.

The Darwinian conservative accepts Lord Acton's famous maxim--"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"--because this follows from the imperfectibility of evolved human nature as driven by avarice and ambition. Anyone who takes this position could not support anything like the Bush bailout proposal.

We could be seeing here the first move towards a major political realignment in the United States. After all, the majority of the House has just voted against the leadership of the two major parties--including John McCain and Barack Obama. And they have voted on the side of Bob Barr (the Libertarian presidential candidate) and Ralph Nader. Barr has said: "We need to make Wall Street take the hit for its irresponsible investment decisions." Nader has denounced Bush's proposal as "a bailout for Wall Street crooks."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Invisible Hand of Regulation in the Evolution of Language

In a blog post at The Huffington Post, David Sloan Wilson has argued that Adam Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand is dead. In a second post, he has repeated his claim in response to objections from me and from Massimo Pigliucci.

In contrast to Wilson, I think the invisible hand is very much alive. In fact, it is the fundamental idea behind the Darwinian theory of evolution to which Wilson has contributed so much. A good illustration of how the invisible hand works is the evolution of language.

To refute the idea of the invisible hand, Wilson makes two assumptions. First, he assumes that the invisible hand presupposes that all human behavior is motivated by a narrow pursuit of self-interest. Second, he assumes that the invisible hand denies the need for any regulation. He then goes on to argue that scientific research has shown that human beings are motivated not just by narrowly selfish interests but also by a moral regard for others. He also argues that we should reject the idea of "no regulation," because social cooperation requires regulation. So he concludes: "The invisible hand is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead."

I disagree with his conclusion, because I disagree with his two assumptions. Both in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith recognizes the complex mixture in human nature of selfish and social motives. And far from denying the need for regulation, the whole point of Smith's writing is to show how the invisible hand regulates morality and economics. If "regulation" means "rule-governed," then both morality and economics are regulated, because they are rule-governed. But the point here is to explain how those moral and economic rules are originated and revised. Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand explains this as an evolutionary process.

Smith speaks of how a man might be "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention." Thus, the idea of an invisible hand is the idea of an unintended order. Smith's general argument is that all human institutions arise and change as systems of unintended order. It was this idea that Darwin picked up from Smith and the other Scottish philosophers as the basis for his insight into evolution as an unintended order in which apparent design could arise in the living world without the need for an intelligent designer.

Consider the case of language. In fact, Smith's idea of the invisible hand as an unintended order was first stated in his essay on language--"Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages." Language is an unintended order. Language is a highly regulated instrument for communication that has emerged from the verbal activity of millions of people over thousands of years without anyone having intended the outcome by deliberate design. So, for instance, those of us who speak English have inherited our language as a customary legacy of a long history of linguistic practices, and each of us contributes to the evolution of the English language by every utterance we make, without being able to predict or to intend the outcome. Our language has been enriched by a few great minds like William Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible and by the many small minds of ordinary people in ordinary speech.

Some people might think that our English language would be better if we had a committee of English linguists who could reform our language from the top down. But those that see the importance of unintended order doubt that this is either possible or desirable. People who compile dictionaries, people who write textbooks of English grammar, and people like William Saphire who criticize contemporary English usage can have some influence on the future of English. But their influence will be only a small part of a complex cultural evolution in which every speaker of the language contributes something. I don't think "dis" is an English verb. But lots of other people disagree with me, and they seem to be prevailing in the common English usage in my neighborhood of the world.

Language is regulated in the sense of rule-governed, but the rules arise through the unintended order of the invisible hand.

Language is motivated by a complex mixture of selfish and social desires. I need to reach some mutual understanding with others to satisfy my needs, and language is a powerful tool to do that.

Darwin saw fundamental links between the evolution of species and the evolution of languages. The evolution of language was especially important for Darwin's account of human evolution, because language seemed to be a crucial trait for the uniqueness of the human mind.

In The Origin of Species, Darwin argued that "all classification is genealogical," and he thought this was true both for species and for languages. "It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, were to be included, such an arrangement would be the only possible one."

The evolution of new species from varieties is just as fuzzy as the evolution of new languages from dialects. But if we can explain the evolution of languages genealogically without supposing some miraculous intervention by an intelligent designer, we can do the same for the evolution of species. And in both cases, it's evolution by the invisible hand of unintended order.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote: "The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel."

Darwin's ideas about the evolution of language have been largely confirmed by contemporary genetic, archaeological, and linguistic studies--as surveyed, for example, by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. There are remarkable similarities in the historical patterns of genetic evolution and linguistic evolution that apparently reflect the history of human migrations. So, for example, the isolation of the Basques in Spain and France is reflected both in their genetics and their language.

So when we look at this history of genetic and linguistic evolution, we should cheer: Long live the invisible hand!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The New Evolutionary Enlightenment

"The New Evolutionary Enlightenment" is a Spanish blog devoted to evolutionary studies of human nature. Recently, they have been posting interviews with various people in evolutionary studies--such as Howard Gardner, Robert Plomin, Robin Dunbar, and Steven Mithen. The interviews have English translations. This series now includes an interview with me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Clarifying the Debate with Wilson

I need to apologize to David Sloan Wilson, because I now agree with his complaint that I misread his blog post for the Huffington Post. Coming as it did in the context of the federal bailout proposal, Wilson's argument that more federal regulation of markets was required to resolve the present financial crisis seemed to me to endorse the bailout, which I have argued against. But now I can see that this is not a necessary implication of his post.

The critical point is in the last sentence of Wilson's post: "We can argue at length about smart vs. dumb regulation, but the concept of no regulation should be forever laid to rest." I agree with Wilson that the "concept of no regulation" is silly. I am not sure, however, that anyone other than a few anarchists has ever argued for "no regulation." At the very least, free markets require legally defined property rights, the enforcement of contracts, and punishment of force and fraud. And as I have indicated, Adam Smith's WEALTH OF NATIONS ends with a long section on the institutional structures that government must provide to promote commercial activity.

But then the really interesting question is "smart vs. dumb regulation." Wilson has nothing to say about that. But it seems to me--for the reasons I have indicated--that the bailout would be not just dumb but disastrous.

Wilson's Response

I have received the following email message from David Sloan Wilson.

"I enjoyed your recent response to my blog, but I must protest.

"1) My blog presented a general argument and said nothing whatsoever about bailouts, which is a specific course of action. Everything that you attributed to me about bailouts represents you filling in the details, including this passage: 'Wilson says that free markets suffer from a 'lack of regulation' [I did say this] and that the governmental bailout of financial institutions illustrates the need for regulation that will reward cooperation and punish cheaters [this comes from entirely from you]." One reason that the public resents the bailouts is because they reward the cheaters.

"(2) I acknowledged that Smith's views are more nuanced and quickly focused on two less nuanced views; formal rational choice theory and the widespread portrayal of unfettered competition as a moral virtue and regulation as a sin. You miss the point when you return to Smith's nuanced view.

"(3) As you know, Hayek was an early proponent of group selection, which made him an oddball among economists at the time. My own views are also based on group selection, which I review for an economic audience in my essay title 'The New Fable of the Bees.' My work therefore partially supports Hayek's position. According to Hayek, the virtues that work well for small-scale society must be supplemented to remain adaptive in large-scale society, a point that I also make in my blog. Whether Hayek's specific vision regulation appropriate for large-scale society is 'smart' or 'dumb' remains to be seen, but his view does not follow from formal rational choice theory, which is the target of my blog.

"(4) In your blog, you suggest that our current economic crisis is based on too much regulation, not lack of regulation. These seem like perfectly testable hypotheses, and I hope tht you or other experts will flip into scientific mode and appropriately test them, rather than merely countering one possibility with another.

"(5) You ask the following question: 'But how exactly do we get 'smart regulation' in complex, self-organizing systems where no one has perfect knowledge?' Since when was perfect knowledge required to get serviceable answers? That's what science is supposed to do in the face of imperfect knowledge. You leap to the conclusion that solutions must come from the 'regulators who manage our bailouts.' How about folks such as you and me who are trying to function in scientific mode? You leap to the conclusion that solutions require centralization. How about fine-tuning the parameters of a decentralized process?

"(6) In my opinion, we don't want to rely on the raw process of cultural evolution to evolve our solutions. We need to manage the process of cultural evolution so that it leads to benign outcomes at large spatial and long temporal scales. Hopefully, my essay will inform readers that the field of economics has moved beyond rational choice theory and will help move public discourse beyond the mantra that regulation is categorically bad.



I am glad to receive this message from David Sloan Wilson. I read his blog post as endorsing the bailout proposals. If I understand him correctly in this message, he's saying that's a misinterpretation.

He writes: "One reason that the public resents the bailouts is because they seem to reward the cheaters."

"Seem"? Is Wilson agreeing with the public on this, as I would?

But I am still confused. In Wilson's original post, he complained that people don't see the need for regulation such as the proposed bailouts. But now he says that he doesn't think the bailouts are a good idea. Am I missing something?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is There a Darwinian Case for Bailouts? A Response to David Sloan Wilson

Yesterday, I posted my "Darwinian Conservative Case Against Bailouts." I argued that a Darwinian view of human nature supports private property and free markets under the rule of law with limited government, and I argued against the current mania for bailing out financial institutions as a foolish manifestation of market-socialism that will promote economic crisis while rewarding imprudent behavior.

Today, at the Huffington Post, David Sloan Wilson has posted an article entitled "The Invisible Hand is Dead. Long Live (Smart) Regulation". Wilson argues against my position, because he claims that Darwinian science actually shows that the bailout of financial firms is necessary to promote cooperation and punish cheaters. Although I have the greatest admiration for Wilson's contributions to evolutionary theory, I must say that his reasoning here is incoherent.

Wilson says that the guiding metaphor of capitalist economics is "the invisible hand," which assumes that "the narrow pursuit of self-interest miraculously results in a well-functioning society." According to Wilson, Adam Smith was wrong to offer this defense of narrow self-interest in his Wealth of Nations, although Wilson notes that Smith presented "a more nuanced view of human nature" in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Rational choice theory took the invisible hand metaphor literally in trying to explain all human behavior by narrow self-interest. But, Wilson explains, "the collapse of our economy for lack of regulation was preceded by the collapse of rational choice theory," because research in experimental game theory has shown that cooperation arises through moral sentiments that reward cooperators and punish cheaters. Wilson identifies this enforcement of moral norms through moral emotions as "regulation," and he implies that government bailouts of financial firms is an example of such moral "regulation" to secure cooperation.

Wilson then speaks of beehives as examples of "self-organization" that is more than "self-interest." "Beehives and other social insect colonies are indeed self-organized. There is no single bee commanding the troops, certainly not the queen."

For an elaboration of his argument, Wilson recommends reading the book Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life, edited by Herbert Gintis et al.

Wilson then concludes: "We can argue at length about smart vs. dumb regulation but the concept of no regulation should be forever laid to rest."

This is a very confusing essay. First, Wilson attributes the idea of completely unregulated markets based on narrow self-interest to Adam Smith. But he doesn't tell his readers that at the end of the Wealth of Nations, Smith has a long section on the public works and institutional structures that government must provide to facilitate commerce. Smith recognizes the need for regulation. But he worries that governmental schemes for central planning of the economy are often harmful because of the "folly and presumption" of politicians who think they have the knowledge and the virtue to direct an economy in all of its details. Does Wilson disagree with this?

Wilson points to Smith's "more nuanced view of human nature" in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. But he doesn't explain that Smith in that book defends a view of morality based on natural moral sentiments that was taken up by Charles Darwin in his theory of the evolution of the moral sense. Smith saw human beings as social beings who combined self-interest and moral sentiments. In fact, the title of the Gintis book to which Wilson refers captures Smith's view of human nature as moved both by "moral sentiments and material interests." In my book Darwinian Conservatism, I show how Darwinian science supports morality as rooted in moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments, and how such a morality sustains private property, free markets, the rule of law, and limited government.

Wilson implies that Smith's "more nuanced view of human nature" has been lost because "modern economic and political discourse is not about nuance." But, in fact, leading proponents of free market economics like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek have emphasized the importance of cooperation in sustaining capitalist economics. Mises wrote: "It is the social spirit, the spirit of cooperation, which forms, develops, and upholds societies. Once it is lost, the society falls apart again. The death of a nation is a social retrogression, the decline from the division of labor to self-sufficiency. The social organism disintegrates into the cells from which it began." People like Mises and Hayek have stressed the importance of capitalist free markets in promoting extended cooperation through a division of labor. In recent years, a growing number of economists have looked to evolutionary theory to explain how cooperation and "moral markets" emerge from the moral dispositions of evolved human nature.

Wilson says that free markets suffer from a "lack of regulation," and that the governmental bailout of financial institutions illustrates the need for regulation that will reward cooperators and punish cheaters. Really?

Free markets with private property under the rule of law regulate economic behavior by providing incentives to prudence. Individuals and firms with a stake in the outcome make decisions based on their processing of information. The rewards and losses from their decisions are concentrated on them rather than on taxpayers. When individuals and firms take on too much debt and too much risk, they bear the costs of their imprudent behavior.

When the federal government uses taxpayer money to bailout individuals and firms that have made bad decisions because of their greedy imprudence, this rewards such imprudence and punishes taxpayers. We thus create what economists call "moral hazard." When people do not bear the costs of their imprudent behavior, because their losses are insured by the taxpayers, we are rewarding and thus promoting imprudence. How exactly does Wilson think that federal bailouts avoid this problem of moral hazard?

Wilson assumes without argument that our present financial crisis has been produced by a lack of government regulation. Is that true? Or is it possible that this crisis has a lot to do with the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates artificially below market rates to promote more and more borrowing? Is it possible that this crisis has a lot to do with the regulations of the Security and Exchange Commission in raising debt-to-capital ratios for financial firms?

Wilson might respond by saying that he is advocating "smart regulation," but not "dumb regulation." But how exactly do we get "smart regulation" in complex, self-organizing systems where no one has perfect knowledge? Is Wilson assuming that the regulators who will manage our bailouts will have enough knowledge of the economy to know exactly what they are doing? Economists like Hayek have argued that a large, complex economy cannot be centrally planned because the central planners will never have enough knowledge or virtue to be trusted to do such planning. Does Wilson disagree? If so, he needs to explain how a beehive could be centrally planned by a queen and her economic advisers. He also needs to explain why a prudent queen's regulation of her beehive would include bailouts for those bees who consume more than they produce and save.

In today's New York Times (September 21), the front-page article by David Herszenhorn on the bailout proposal opens with these two paragraphs:

"The Bush Administration on Saturday formally proposed to Congress what could become the largest financial bailout in United States history, requesting virtually unfettered authority for the Treasury to buy up to $700 billion in mortgage-related assets from financial institutions based in the United States.

"The proposal was stunning for its stark simplicity: less than three pages, it would raise the national debt ceiling to $11.3 trillion. And it would place no restrictions on the administration other than requiring semiannual reports to Congress, allowing the Treasury to buy and resell mortgage debt as it sees fit."

Read over those sentences very carefully. "Virtually unfettered authority." A proposal of "less than three pages." "No restrictions" other than semiannual reports. "As it sees fit." David Sloan Wilson says that we should be cheering this as wise and moral "regulation." But from my Darwinian conservative perspective, I see no reason to cheer such naive faith in the perfect knowledge and perfect virtue of a few bureaucrats in the Treasury Department.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Darwinian Conservative Case Against Bailouts

The US Government's moves towards bailing out financial firms that have made bad economic decisions shows that the United States has adopted a market-socialist economy. Early in the 20th century, critics of socialism like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek argued that pure socialism could not work because there would be no way to calculate value in a large, complex economy without market prices. Eventually, most socialist thinkers admitted the accuracy of this argument. But then many socialists responded by defending the possibility of market-socialism that would combine market pricing based on private property with central economic planning by government.

The creation in the United States of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac illustrates market-socialism in action. Backed by a government that wanted to provide affordable housing, Fannie and Freddie could act as private firms seeking profits in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, but when the bad decisions of these corporations led to turmoil in financial markets, the government could step in with taxpayer money to cover the losses in the hope of stabilizing markets. Now, it seems an even bigger bailout will be designed to use taxpayer money to cover the bad mortgage debt in financial markets.

From the perspective of Darwinian conservatism, it is easy to see that such market-socialism must fail, because it ignores the human nature of private property, free markets, and political ambition. For conservatives, property is rooted in human nature and thus universal, although the specific forms of property reflect the customary traditions and formal laws of particular societies. For socialists and liberals, property is not natural but a purely social construction that can be deliberately changed, or even abolished, to secure social equality. A Darwinian view of human nature sustains the conservative commitment to property as a natural propensity that is diversely expressed in custom and law.

A system of private property and free markets under the rule of law channels the natural desire for wealth to allocate resources productively in a manner that recognizes the imperfectibility of human beings in their limited knowledge and limited virtue. In such a system, human beings gather economic information and make economic decisions based on their expectation that they will reap the rewards of their good decisions and bear the costs of their bad decisions. This gives them the incentive to be prudent, because they know that their imprudence--such as being foolish in undertaking too much debt and risky investments--will be punished by financial failure.

By contrast, in a market-socialist system, losses are socialized. Business managers and shareholders can reap great profits through foolish risk-taking, while assuming that they will not be punished for their imprudence because any losses will be covered by governmental intervention. This creates distortions in the economy as resources are directed to bad investments, creating financial bubbles that inevitably must burst.

Like all other human beings, political leaders are imperfect in their knowledge and their virtue. Moreover, they are moved primarily by the ambition for power. In a system of free enterprise and limited government under the rule of law, political leaders are not given broad powers to manipulate the economy, because their economic ignorance and their political ambition will lead them to create harmful distortions in the economy. Because of their ignorance, they will not know what decisions would be best for the economy. Because of their ambition, they will respond to political pressures in advancing their political careers rather than working for sound economic outcomes. In a market-socialist economy, those with great political influence can benefit from their access to power, but the economy as a whole suffers from the misallocation of resources coming from the ignorance and ambition of central planners. To deny this conclusion, we would have to assume that government planners can have perfect knowledge and perfect virtue, but such an assumption is implausibly utopian.

Such reasoning from Darwinian conservatism does not allow us to predict specific events that are determined by the contingencies of history. But it does allow us to predict the broad tendencies of economic and political life as shaped by human nature. So we can predict that if the federal government of the U.S. continues its market-socialist strategy of bailing out financial businesses with taxpayer money, the financial crisis will be prolonged, which will create an even greater demand for more bailouts, and the vicious circle will eventually bring a massive economic collapse. If such market-socialism spreads around the world, as seems likely, then the collapse will become global.

Some of the logic of this economic analysis can be found in two recent articles found at the Cato Institute website--one by James Dorn and another by Jagadeesh Gokhale and Kent Smetters.

Today's New York Times (September 20) has an article by Joe Nocera with the title "A Hail Mary Pass, But No Receiver in the End Zone." His conclusion is that the people proposing the new bailout plan have no idea how it will work or whether it will work. But political pressures force them to "do something." His final sentence is that "as much as we might hope that the government finally has the answer, it probably doesn't." The fundamental problem is ignorance. "Nobody understands who owes what to whom--or whether they have the ability to pay. Counterparties have become afraid to trade with each other. Sovereign wealth funds are no longer willing to supply badly needed capital because they no longer know what they are investing in. The crisis continues because nobody knows what anything is worth. You simply cannot have a functioning market under such circumstances."

In a state of such ignorance, the only reasonable thing for the government to do is to do nothing and let the market go through a painful period of adjustment. But instead, government planners will offer rescue plans that only make matters worse, at a cost of over a trillion taxpayer dollars. That's market-socialism.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ron Paul Was Right

When Ron Paul was running in the Republican presidential primaries, he was ridiculed for his warnings that the U.S. financial system as managed by the Federal Reserve and the Department of the Treasury was on the way to collapse. Actually, he and others whose thinking has been shaped by Austrian School of Economics have been predicting this for many years.

Now, we see federal bureaucrats desperately spending hundreds of billions of taxpayers' money in nationalizing financial institutions to avoid a collapse that has building for many years. (We used to call this "socialism.") They do this in violation of the Constitution of the United States, which explicitly states that no spending can occur without congressional authorization. Of course, the Congress has no interest in intervening.

And what do Obama and McCain say? We need more federal regulation.

Wouldn't it be more sensible to say that the federal government should do nothing? Shouldn't we see this as an imbalance in the economy--too much consumption and too little saving and production--created by federal efforts to stimulate the economy? And isn't the only way to work out of this imbalance to endure the pain of a year or so of drastic economic readjustments? Can't we anticipate that federal bailouts with taxpayer money will only prolong the pain?

For an example of the Austrian economics analysis of this crisis, go to an article at the Ludwig von Mises Institute website by Antony Mueller.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Metaphysical Conservatism Versus Evolutionary Conservatism

In thinking about why many conservatives resist Darwinian conservatism, I have begun to suspect that there is a fundamental conflict here between metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism. (Reading Donald Livingston's HUME'S PHILOSOPHY OF COMMON LIFE has helped me to think about this.)

Beginning with David Hume's criticism of the English Puritan Revolution and Edmund Burke's criticism of the French Revolution, conservatives have rejected the rationalistic metaphysics of political revolutionaries as a dangerous attack on social and political order as rooted in historical tradition. Conservatives like Hume and Burke have recognized the need for reforming the traditional orders of society. But they have argued that such reform is best understood as a gradual, evolutionary process within concrete traditions. By contrast, the metaphysical rebellion of revolutionaries attempts a total restructuring of society to conform to some abstract blueprint of rational perfection. The ideological fanaticism of the past two centuries--Marxism, socialism, fascism, Nazism, and so on--manifests the danger coming from such total revolutions of common life by metaphysical thinking.

Darwinian conservatism continues in the tradition of Hume and Burke by explaining the history of moral and political order as arising from a complex interaction of natural evolution, cultural evolution, and prudential judgments. The Darwinian science of morality and politics is a historical science of human social order in all of its concrete historicity. Any presumed total transformation of social life by reference to some abstract, metaphysical conception of perfect order is rejected as an incoherent and destructive form of utopian perfectibility, which disregards the imperfectibility of human life in its evolving historical contingency and particularity.

But there has been a tendency for some conservatives to challenge the metaphysical revolutionaries by appealing to a conservative metaphysics of sacred order. For example, Richard Weaver contended in his Ideas Have Consequences that any healthy cultural order requires a "metaphysical dream"--a set of transcendent standards for moral order. In his VISIONS OF ORDER, Weaver criticized the Darwinian idea of human evolution for promoting moral degradation by subverting the metaphysical image of human beings as standing at the peak of the divine cosmic order.

In THE CONSERVATIVE MIND, Russell Kirk showed this same metaphysical conservatism when he affirmed "belief in a transcendent order" as the first canon of conservative thought and warned against Darwinian science as undermining conservative principles of transcendent order. By contrast, Frederick Hayek criticized conservatives like Kirk for rejecting the theory of evolution: "I have little patience with those who oppose . . . the theory of evolution or what are called 'mechanistic' explanations of the phenomena of life simply because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irreverent or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his position." This was one reason that Hayek was reluctant to call himself a "conservative." And yet he identified himself as a Burkean Whig. He might rightly be called an evolutionary conservative.

In the recent collection of articles from the
Intercollegiate Review--Arguing Conservatism--published by ISI Books, the lead article serving as a Prologue is Will Herberg's "What Is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?" According to Herberg, our moral crisis is not the failure to live up to our shared moral standards but rather our loss of any moral standards at all. This "loss of a moral sense" is "a metaphysical and religious crisis." To restore our moral standards, we need some transcendent, metaphysical law that is "binding on man because it is grounded in what is beyond man," and that requires the transcendent standards of religion.

In the same collection, Robert Kraynak has an article warning that although Darwinian evolution is supported by lots of evidence, conservatives should look to "intelligent design theory" as an alternative to Darwinism, because Darwinian science provides no account of "the ultimate purpose of the universe." Like Herberg, Kraynak assumes that moral order is impossible without invoking a metaphysical standard of cosmic purposefulness.

Carson Holloway, John West, and other critics of my Darwinian conservatism show the same appeal to metaphysical standards of moral order. Holloway says that my Darwinian account of the moral sense as rooted in natural moral sentiments, customary moral traditions, and deliberate moral judgments cannot provide the proper ground for morality, because morality is impossible without some "religiously-informed cosmic teleology." Similarly, West insists that moral order requires some "transcendent standard of morality," a "permanent foundation for ethics," or some source for morality in "irreducible and unchanging truths." West never explains exactly what these "unchanging truths" are. He does often refer to "the Judeo-Christian tradition." But he never specifies precisely what he has in mind. Both Holloway and West speak of the biblical doctrine of human beings as created in the image of God as supporting a universal, transcendent standard of the equal moral dignity of all human beings.

I cannot see how the metaphysical equality of all human beings could be applied in practice as the transcendent standard for all social order. I understand, of course, the importance of the "self-evident truth" of human equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. But even Abraham Lincoln conceded that "perfect social and political equality" was impossible, and that Americans needed to translate this into a "practical equality" compatible with American legal and political traditions. Strictly speaking, universal human equality and liberty would dictate socialist pacifism. And that's why Lincoln and others have had to reformulate the idea of equality to make it consistent with the concrete conditions of particular moral orders.

Did the resolution of the slavery debate in the United States depend on biblical metaphysics? As I have often noted on this blog, many Christians thought the Bible supported slavery and that abolitionism was atheism. How does biblical metaphysics resolve moral debates if we can't agree on the practical moral teaching of the Bible? While Lincoln thought slavery was morally wrong, he also thought it would be imprudent to abolish slavery immediately if that meant violating the Constitution. How do we weigh moral right against the rule of law? Should we say, as some abolitionists did, that the "higher law" must prevail against human law, no matter what the consequences? Shouldn't we worry about the fanaticism of people like John Brown who think they are acting by divine command in cleansing society of evil?

Religious conservatives like Holloway and West believe that morality is impossible without the cosmic purposefulness of "the Judeo-Christian tradition." But which "tradition" is this--Judaism, Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, Mormonism? Are they referring specifically to the Bible as the source of moral and political order? The English Puritan revolutionaries of the 17th century invoked biblical law in their attempt to establish the "kingdom of the saints," and their metaphysical fanaticism had disastrous consequences. I assume that Holloway and West would reject this. But why? Doesn't this show how dangerous it is to look to religious metaphysics for cosmic standards to revolutionize society?

If we want moral and political order guided by "religiously-informed cosmic teleology," how do we avoid theocratic extremism? Not long ago, the Intercollegiate Review published an article by Remi Brague with the title "Are Non-Theocratic Regimes Possible?" His answer to the question was, No. His reasoning was that in the history of the West, the ultimate standard for order was the law of God, and even in modern liberal democracies, the appeal to individual "conscience" implies that this is somehow the voice of God implanted in human beings. He suggests that moral and political order is impossible without the theocratic appeal to the law of God as the cosmic standard for all human behavior.

For such conservatives who invoke the metaphysics of theocracy as the only ground of moral order, a Darwinian conservatism that roots moral order in natural sentiments, cultural traditions, and deliberate judgments must be rejected as insufficient. But shouldn't conservatives be suspicious of such theocratic metaphysics as fostering a dangerous fanaticism?

And if we were to rely on a theocratic metaphysics as the source of order, how exactly would we determine the moral content of that metaphysics? Conservatives like West say that we should look to intelligent design theory. But how do we know that the intelligent designer is a reliable source of moral law? And how to we discern that moral law of the intelligent designer? Actually, West and other proponents of intelligent design insist that, in fact, we cannot know anything about the moral character of the intelligent designer. Certainly, intelligent design theory cannot tell us whether the intelligent designer is the God of the Bible who gives a moral law. So it seems that access to the moral law of "the Judeo-Christian tradition" requires faith in certain traditions of revelation rather than reasoning from common human experience. Does this mean that moral and political order is possible only within religious communities that share the same faith tradition? Is this what Brague means by arguing for the necessity for theocracy?

I agree that religious belief is often important for morality. But this does not require that we appeal to theocratic metaphysics as the only source of moral order. We can see religious morality as emerging through the evolved moral order of human life as shaped by the moral sentiments of human nature, the moral traditions of human culture, and the moral judgments of human deliberation. Evolutionary conservatism can support such a moral order, while avoiding the confusion and fanaticism that come from the "metaphysical dreams" of theocratic conservatism.

This post is related to my post from a few weeks ago on "Religious Transcendence and Natural Evolution."

David Brooks, "The Social Animal"

In today's New York Times (September 12), David Brooks has a column on "The Social Animal". In arguing that conservatives need to recognize the natural sociality of human beings as rooted in their biological nature, Brooks manifests Darwinian conservatism. (Thanks to Andy Schott for bringing this article to my attention.)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Sarah Palin on Teaching Evolution and Creationism

The controversy over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes has been revived by Sarah Palin's addition to the Republican presidential ticket. In her campaign for Governor of Alaska, she was the only candidate who said that if Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in a science class, the students should also learn about alternative ideas from creation science and intelligent design theory. The story in the Anchorage Daily News about this can be found here.

As I have argued in Darwinian Conservatism, on this blog, and elsewhere, I agree with the idea of "teaching the controversy." If students raise questions about criticisms of Darwinian evolution coming from proponents of intelligent design proponents or creationists, why shouldn't they be permitted to study the debate and decide for themselves? My proposal is that students should actually read Darwin himself and see that Darwin recognized the "theory of creation" as the alternative to his theory. If students were to read Darwin along with contemporary statements of evolutionary science and criticisms coming from creationists and ID proponents, students could see that the weight of the evidence and arguments favors Darwinian science. For some of my thinking on this, you can go here and here.

If students were permitted to study this debate, they might see how it opens up some of the deepest questions in the human attempt to understand the natural order of the universe. For example, they might see the ultimate problem of explanation as based on an unexplained first cause. As indicated in the Alaskan newspaper report, the libertarian candidate for Governor pointed to this problem when he asked, "Who intelligently designed the intelligent designer?"

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sarah Palin, Political Animal

In both Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I argue for agreeing with Aristotle that generally among political animals, males are "more hegemonic"--more inclined to dominance--than are females. But I also argue that while this difference in the central tendencies in male and female psychology explains why the highest positions of power are generally dominated by men, some women are temperamentally just as ambitious in their pursuit of political dominance as some men. Women like Queen Elizabeth I or Margaret Thatcher show us that some women can be manly in their spirited desire for political importance.

Sarah Palin is a remarkable illustration of this. She's a political animal who has risen near the top of the American political dominance hierarchy through a combination of persuasive rhetoric, shrewd political judgment, and tough character.

Of course, she is especially remarkable because she has done this while being a mother of five children and living the seemingly normal life of a "hockey mom." Few political women can do this so well. Condi Rice has no husband and no children. Hillary Clinton has one child. Nancy Pelosi has raised five children, but her most intense political activity came after her children had passed out of infancy. For Palin to stand on the stage of the Republican National Convention as Vice-Presidential nominee carrying her five-month-old infant in her arms is extraordinary, and it's obviously part of her powerful rhetorical appeal.

This is as it should be. In a free society, women should be free to compete for the highest levels of political power if they have the temperament to do so. But we can also expect that the natural differences in the propensities of men and women will manifest themselves in that there will generally be more men than women at the top of the political dominance hierarchy. Women like Sarah Palin will be rare. But their rarity only enhances their heroic character as manly women.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Responses to Dan Smail and Richard Richards on "Biopolitical Science"

At the APSA convention in Boston, the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy sponsored a series of three panels on "Evolution and Morality." For one of those panels, I presented a paper on "Biopolitical Science: Darwin, Lincoln, and the Deep History of Politics," which is available at the APSA website. The commentators on my paper were Richard Richards, a philosopher at the University of Alabama, and Dan Smail, a historian at Harvard. Dan and Richard generally agreed with most of what I wrote. But they did raise some questions and indicate some problems. Here I will briefly go over my responses.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, my paper develops a theoretical framework for a biopolitical science that would be a science of political animals. Such a science would move through three levels of deep political history--the universal political history of the species, the cultural political history of the group, and the individual political history of animals in the group. To illustrate the particular application of this biopolitical science, I show how this science helps us to understand Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

Dan pointed to four possible problems. First, Dan questioned whether there really is a natural desire to resist dominance that is always "turned on." After all, doesn't a dominance hierarchy require that the resistance of subordinates be "turned off"? Second, he suggested that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is not a good case to study because it was "an act of the highest altruism." Dan wrote: "it would have been perfectly natural if Lincoln had favored his own group, white people, at the expense of black people. But he didn't." By contrast, Dan spoke of Pope Urban II's proclamation in 1095 calling for a crusade as an example of the more common tendency to brutal attacks on those outside of one's group. Third, Dan doubted that a biopolitical science could really explain specific events, and he suggested that such a science could be better developed through a comparison of two or more cases rather than concentrating, as I did, on one case. Finally, Dan suggested that my claim for modern constitutional republicanism as a revival of the egalitarianism that prevailed in ancient foraging societies showed a "fallacy of Edenism"--i.e. a naive progressivist view of history.

To Dan's first point, I would say that, of course, there is a natural tendency for subordinates to defer to dominants. The ambivalence in our political behavioral repertoire comes from the tension between the natural tendencies to dominance, deference, and resistance to dominance. If some human beings were so naturally subordinate that they never resisted being exploited, they would be natural slaves. But the history of slavery suggests to me that there are no such natural slaves, at least among normal human beings.

To Dan's second point, I would say that the Emancipation Proclamation was not so clearly a purely altruistic act. Lincoln's justified it as a military tactic for strengthening the Union attack on the South, although he worried about the resistance of white Union soldiers who did not see the Civil War as a war of emancipation. In fact, critics of Lincoln have accused him of being a racist who used the slavery issue for his own political and military purposes. Frederick Douglass--the black abolitionist leader--referred to Lincoln as "the white man's President." Keep in mind that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves in the border states on the side of the Union. In other words, Lincoln's issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation is morally complicated. And that very complexity is why it's such a fascinating case for study.

To Dan's third point, I would say that yes any behavioral science must arise from a comparison of cases rather than trying to explain a unique case. But the history of slavery ranges over more than two thousand years. A big part of the interest in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is how it fits into that wider history. The problem of explaining unique cases indicates the distinctiveness of historical sciences like evolutionary biology and political science--sciences that study cases that will never repeat themselves in exactly the same way.

To Dan's final point--about the "fallacy of Edenism"--I would say that my deep history of politics is hardly "Edenic." It seems to me that one cannot explain the amazing revolutionary turn towards democratic republicanism since the eighteenth century without seeing this as satisfying some natural human desire to be free from exploitation, a natural desire that must manifest a human universal of evolutionary history. But this is not utopian, because there is no suggestion that human beings could ever live without any dominance hierarchy at all, which would be the dream of the Marxists or the anarchists.

Richard offered various comments on what he identified as my "pluralistic approach" to explanation. Like Dan, he was generally supportive of my position. But he did indicate a few problems. He wondered whether my biopolitical science would be perceived by many people as too fuzzy in its complexity to satisfy the need for theoretical simplicity that seems to make science possible. Formulating and testing scientific ideas usually requires simplified models that abstract from the complexity of the real world. Richard also wondered whether my explanation of Lincoln's career as motivated by ambition might be seen as based on a "folk theory" of beliefs and desires. It often seems that such intentional states depend on subjective mental experiences that cannot be explained scientifically through objective physical causes.

Richard rightly invoked the famous motto "a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." He agreed with me in quoting Aristotle's advice about not demanding more precision or certainty than is appropriate for the subject matter under study. Because moral and political life is so irreducibly complex, it cannot be fully explained in its historical particularity through simplified scientific models. But actually my framework is capacious enough to incorporate some scientific research based on simplified models. For example, as I said in my post on Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, his use of the "trolley problem" in providing scenarios in moral judgment shows how science demands simplified models. This kind of research could be part of biopolitical science. But it needs to be combined with real world history. Another example of simplified models would be experimental evolutionary game theory. Such game theory models can be tested cross-culturally to provide some experimental testing of evolutionary theories of human behavior. But, again, as with Hauser's simplified trolley problems, this game-theory modeling needs to be combined with real historical cases, which is what I am trying to do.

To Richard's point about "folk theory," I would say that such "folk theory" or commonsense psychology is irreplaceable in the behavioral sciences. The subjective experience of self-conscious, intentional states is not objectively observable. We have personal access to our own subjective experience, and then we attribute comparable experience to others. Others can testify to such experience by verbal report. But we cannot directly observe it as we observe physical events. Human psychology depends upon this. Similarly, with animal psychology, we cannot directly observe "animal minds," and so we must project our conscious experience onto them. This creates the problem of anthropomorphism. But if we are studying animals with brains comparable to ours, and if they are close evolutionary ancestors to human beings, we would seem to be justified in attributing mental experience to them.

Natural science can refine, but it cannot replace, prescientific or commonsense psychology. Our ordinary experience of how beliefs and desires explain human behavior is presupposed by all behavioral science. Without such experience, our scientific modeling of behavior through objective, observational data would not work. So, for example, consider fMRI research in which subjects respond to moral dilemmas, and we look for correlated brain changes. Interpreting these brain images would be impossible if we did not have subjective, commonsense experience of human psychology, and if we could not ask our subjects to verbally testify about their subjective experience.

My idea is that a biopolitical science should encompass laboratory experimentation, evolutionary theory, and traditional research in political history. Some of this work will lend itself to simplified scientific models. But the real-world political history will have all the fuzzy complexity of such history.