Saturday, December 25, 2004

God and Politics

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:

Within the past two years a new word has moved into the English lexicon. “Blog”. Blogs are the effectively people’s scrap books put up onto the internet. Although most scrape to the level of perceptiveness, aptly described of a “link…to a Dominion Post article about John Tamihere standing down as Minister, and then…incisive commentary like, ‘wow. A minister is standing down. This could be bad for Labour’.”, a few manage to rise above this with good analysis and good debate, and an example of good debate found on a politician’s blog roused your correspondent to a bit of analysis.

The argument was on the ideological loading of NCEA economics questions, and more precisely the fact that they currently turn away from the virtues of the market and instead look to the government to dispense assorted mannas. After the pro and anti market forces had initially sized each other up, discussion moved on to just what should be taught in schools - and a curious thing happened. One of those who had made noises about vouchers and abolishing state education was a creationist, and his opponent, decrier of free market ideology as "just as flawed as communism", turned out to be a strident evolutionist.

Why is this curious? Because once the emotions are stripped away the combatants have surprisingly similar outlooks. When distilled, creationism of whatever stripe looks at the complexity of the natural world and basically throws up its hands. "Inanimate" matter, even with the help of the laws of chemistry, physics, and selection, cannot possibly have within it the powers of organisation to mould itself into an eye or flagellum, and so there must be a greater organising power that make sure that the eyes and flagella were put and stay where they are supposed to be.

Now let us look at those who are against capitalism. They look at the provision of education or health and surrender in a similar fashion. Humans, even with the powers of volition and free will, cannot possibly organise for themselves provision of healthcare or education and so must turn to a greater organising power to supposedly ensure that these and other "social services" are accounted for.

That the two positions are fundamentally identical is one thing, of more interest is which position, assuming the choice is mutually exclusive, is the more rational. The theory of Evolution has been with us for only 145 years, since 1859 when Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species”. That it took until so recently for someone to tie the evidences together suggests that evolution is not immediately evident. Also relevant is the fact that not everyone is a biologist, or needs to be. Many people get along just fine without knowledge in biology and disagree with evolution because they don't know how it works, and what they assume evolution entails does not appeal to them, or just strikes them, as in chemicals organising themselves into the human eye, as absurd - . This generosity, it must be said, does not extent to creationists.

What about capitalist theory? That has been with us for almost twice as long as evolution, since 1732 when Richard Cantillon published "Essai Sur la Nature du Commerce en Général" some 40 years before Adam Smith. Again it is still fairly recent, and one can claim that a large part of the delay in the discovery and articulation of capitalism and resistance to it since is because capitalism does not correlate with how we intuitively assume the world works. If one accepts Paul Rubin's thesis in "Darwinian Politics" - our minds evolved to understand a world very different from ours, namely the Pleistocene between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago.

One example should suffice to explain the contrast. Trading in the Pleistocene was a zero-sum game. If I have something, then you do not. The only reason I could have acquired wealth is because I have either used underhand tactics to trick you, bullied you, or stumbled over a natural resource. Even barter of vegetables for meat does not lead to the creation of anything extra, the zero-sum pie is just moved around a bit. There is little room here for today's economy with wealth creation, entrepreneurship, or investment. Since any disparity in the Pleistocene world must be due to foul play, inequality leads to feelings of envy - and this is still very much the case. When things of value were created, it was through hard work. This "labour theory of value" has remarkable persistence. Adam Smith believed in it and it is a central tenet of Marx's thought. The idea that value is completely subjective and that without someone to value your labour your effort is worthless seems grossly unfair and wrong to the Pleistocene mind.

Those paying attention will have noticed an important difference regarding the two positions. The first is more accident than design, and is solved by learning about evolution. The second is more design (or evolution) than accident. One can claim that opposition to capitalism is a vestigal relic programmed in to cope with a long distant past. Is this relevant? The answer is no.

Whatever the cause of either misunderstanding, both can be solved by learning. Humans have evolved a large brain with the ability to control our beliefs in accordance with the evidence. Despite its seeming to cut against the grain of how we think the world should work, simple observation and comparison of how well nations with open economies fare against those with closed. The Cato Institute’s trade openness index did just this when it compared how ninety-one countries fared between 1980 and 1998. The twelve most open countries had a GDP per head in 1998 of US$23,387 with average having grown at 2.5% annually. The average GDP was seven times more than what one would expect in one of the twelve least open, and their incomes grew at a miserly 0.3 percent per year.

Now for the judging. The award, such as it is, for least damnable position goes to the anti-evolutionist. He can claim ignorance since he doesn’t need to understand biology to get by in life and it is hardly fair to damn someone for not believing in something they do not understand or need to (once again, this generosity does not extend to creationists). Secondly, what we are asking the anti-evolutionist to believe really is quite amazing, that chemistry and circumstance can lead to the complexity we see around us with nothing to guide it.

Why does the anti-capitalist fail? For pretty much the opposite reasons. Since questions of economics effect us all it is intellectually inexcusable to persist in opposing the evidence proving that freedom works and is better than compulsion.Unlike the evidence for evolution which is found in a textbook, the evidence that freedom works is obvious. Secondly, capitalism isn’t scary or amazing. It is simply how civilized people behave, voluntarily trading value for value with each other for mutual benefit. This includes everything from chocolate to computers, and ideally health and education.

Finally, countering much of the natural world, humans have volition and free will. Stating that these qualities and the people that possess them not only cannot but should not be allowed to freely organise services from pensions to health-care is arrogant and, since it is so wrong in light of the evidence, evil as well. In order to prosper and even to survive people need to be allowed to live to their potential and keep the fruits of their successes, even with the danger of failure. As Frank S. Meyer wrote: “….freedom can exist at no lesser price than the danger of damnation; and if freedom is indeed the essence of man’s being, that which distinguishes him from the beasts, he must be free to choose his worst as well as his best end. Unless he can choose his worst, he CANNOT choose his best.”

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