Mind Your Tools, Motherfo…

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Critical Thinking: 1) the transformation of intellectual sophistication into absolute moral superiority; 2) a way to make verbal radicals out of functional conservatives; 3) an archaic process for making goat cheese.

So I made the mistake of doing a vanity Google the other day and once again learned the peril authors face making overt political claims. The most obvious problem is – surprise-surprise – the human brain. You say something like ‘trickle down economics does not work,’ and the brain, which is designed to sort, clumps you into some crude category like ‘commie.’

I believe that in many (but not all) economic contexts, markets are far and away the most efficient means of distributing goods and fostering innovation. Food is an example where markets are extremely efficient: you don’t want governments managing your groceries – unless you find yourself in the middle of a famine. I append that ‘unless’ to explain why markets, although great for food in times of relative equilibrium, are horrible when it comes to things like healthcare. The social utility of supply and demand breaks down anytime the individual utility of a commodity becomes existential, which is to say, demand becomes a matter of life and death.  In these situations, the very dynamics that render distribution efficient in times of plenty overturn the applecart.

Given the combination of social super-complexity and human stupidity, centralizing social decision-making is often (but not always) the worst thing to do. I like to show Marxist-leaning friends of mine my wife’s index of jobs and professions, a book that will shortly become the size of a phone-book, I’m sure. ‘This,’ I tell them, ‘is why centrally planned economies had to fail.’ Why? Because in market economies all these social positions come about spontaneously. Could you imagine any bureaucracy capable of developing and administrating the mind-boggling complexity of contemporary economies?

Market economies are social selection mechanisms, the same way brains are neural selection mechanisms and nature is a natural selection mechanism. The economic problems societies pose are generally too complicated for any brain to tackle, so we have a system that – ideally – both fosters and tests a variety of solutions. An experimental system. I am pro-market through and through, where markets actually seem to work. Where they don’t seem to work, I am anti-market through and through. How else should I look at them?

Markets are simply social tools. Who gets turned around when someone suggests that your hammer is the wrong tool? Who actually thinks their hammer is right tool for every task?  

Idiots. What else could they be? Granted, the complexities often fool people into thinking they should hammer in screws and screw in hammers – that goes without saying. It’s the dogmatism that’s the problem. Anyone who insists up and down that a screwdriver is the best way to hammer nails is either insane, a retard, or a screwdriver salesman.

So why is it that people who are perfectly willing to be experimental in their garage suddenly become ideologues in the voting booth? Well, because something funny happens when problems become social as opposed to individual: our brains actually switch to a completely different problem-solving mode, one that is the product of endless generations of violent social competition (and perhaps presently steering the US toward disaster). Suddenly the simple question of what tool to use (and how) becomes fraught with questions of social identity.  Saying ‘trickle-down economics’ is an ineffective tool – a claim as close to factual as you can make in the ‘dismal science’ – identifies you as a member of some competing group. It literally turns you into a kind of ‘enemy.’ Since violence and scarcity characterized so much of our evolutionary past, these identifications often tend to be ‘low-resolution,’ simplistic and facile, because the consequences of multiple false positives are generally more benign than the consequences of one false negative. It’s literally better to write off whole communities than it is to be wrong about one potential threat. Parochialism paid real dividends in our evolutionary past, and now (when it could be the end of us) we simply cannot stop acting those ancient imperatives out.

Thus the peril of authors making overt political claims.