Timothy Ferris – The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

Timothy Ferris – The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

Ferris has an easy-reading prose style, a refreshing optimism, and an emphasis on reason and science as important ingredients in modern freedom and prosperity. At the same time, he oversells his case. This book is more for a general audience, and doesn’t need to delve as deeply as roughly similar-minded academics such as Joel Mokyr or Deirdre McCloskey. But there are points where Ferris is either painting with too broad a brush, or seems to not know his source material very well.

For example, possibly in his eagerness to link science and liberalism, Ferris claims Isaac Newton as a classical liberal. True, many of Newton’s achievements indeed furthered causes such as reason and empiricism. And Newton did much to raise scientists’ social status. His funeral stunned a young Voltaire, who “marveled at a society where a scientist was buried with the honors of a king.” But Newton was also something of a mystic who dabbled not just in alchemy, but maintained an active interest in millenarianism and the occult, which Ferris does not mention. Newton also had no known liberal political or economic philosophy.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ferris is a little too eager to draw a straight line from Rousseau to Napoleon to Hitler. Again, right impulse, but far too much of an oversimplification.

While I favor a big tent, Ferris’ definition of “liberal” seems to know few bounds, to the point of drawing more than one chuckle as I read. Despite this and other reservations, Ferris has the right spirit, and this book would be good for an interested undergrad or general reader, with the proviso that Mokyr or especially Deirdre are deeper, and more accurate thinkers.

Another quibble—he identifies F.A. Hayek as a Chicago school economist. Hayek did teach at the University of Chicago for several years, but not in the economics department. By that stage of his career, he had mostly moved on from technical economics and was exploring other disciplines such as political philosophy and law. Hayek is more a product of the Austrian liberal tradition of Menger, Mises, and Bohm-Bawerk, and a reaction against the German Historical School. Hayek was also influenced by earlier figures in the study of spontaneous orders such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Bernard Mandeville, and Adam Ferguson. This was a very different set of thinkers than the more concrete and empirical Chicago school, exemplified by thinkers such as Stigler, Peltzman, Gary Becker, Posner, Friedman, etc. If one were to draw a Venn diagram of the two schools’ intellectual roots, there would be some overlap. They still have distinct philosophical and methodological approaches.

Ferris also argues on page 169 that Thomas Carlyle coined the term “dismal science” in response to Thomas Malthus’ pessimism. This is inaccurate. Economic historian David Levy tells the full story in his book How the Dismal Science Got its Name (free PDF courtesy of the University of Michigan Press). Carlyle, a hardcore racist even by the standards of Victorian England, was frustrated with economists’ consistent abolitionism and defense of racial equality. He coined “dismal science” as an angry ad hominem. Malthus had nothing to do with it.

Ferris’ distinction between Bacon and Descartes is similarly broad-brush, but also a useful shorthand he returns to throughout the book. Bacon preferred hands-on experiments, just as liberal democracy is a constant process of trial and, often, error. Contrast this with Descartes, who preferred abstract deductive reasoning. Descartes’ approach to science that has parallels with top-down political orders based on intelligent design rather than messy emergent orders.

Ferris takes this framework through the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and up to today. While he oversells his case and needs to be a little more rigorous in his factual research, this is a good introduction to a powerful thesis: positive cultural attitudes towards science, reason, and progress are important ingredients in making possible the mass modern prosperity we enjoy today.

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