Category Archives: Philosophy

Retro Book Reviews: A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity by Luigi Zingales (Basic Books, 2012)

University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales’s book A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, attempts to frame free-market policies in terms that appeal to populists, who generally oppose free markets.

I first read A Capitalism for the People not long after it came out. At the time I wrote:

I am wary of populism in all its forms, from Ancient Roman populares to William Jennings Bryan, right on up through John Edwards and John McCain. But if Zingales’s approach succeeds at making thorough illiberals a little more liberal at the margin, he will have done a valuable public service.

Zingales’s timing was prescient. As the historian Stephen Davies and my colleague Iain Murray have argued, much of the world has gone through a fundamental political realignment over the past decade. Since Zingales’s book was published, a worldwide populist wave put in office politicians such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and America’s Donald Trump.

Did Zingales come up with a viable strategy for making such illiberal populists more liberal at the margin? That is a difficult question, but the answer is probably no. That isn’t Zingales’s fault—it’s because liberalism and populism are fundamentally incompatible. Populism is about conflict, while market liberalism is about cooperation. It is impossible to meaningfully combine them.

Populism is tricky to define because it lacks a common set of policies or principles, the way conservatives, progressives, and liberals do. Conservatives will reliably support policies that increase social order, such as law enforcement, national defense, and faith-based initiatives. Progressives will reliably support policies intended to reduce inequality, such as social spending programs, minimum wages, and progressive taxation. Liberals will reliably support policies that increase openness, tolerance, and dynamism, such as free markets, free trade, and deregulation.

Populists have been known to support almost any combination of any of these issues, even when they contradict one another. Populists can come from the right, the left, or nearly any combination of the two.

So what do populists rally around, if they lack defining principles or policies? Populism is about the conflict between us and them. It pits regular people against elites, whether in media, academia, or business. It pits one’s fellow countrymen against foreigners, or one’s coreligionists against outside faiths, or one race against another. It pits Republicans against Democrats.

Populism is more of a mindset, or more accurately, an emotionset. Populism comes more from the amygdala rather than the cerebral cortex, which is why it will always be with us to some degree.

A strong sense of in-groups and out-groups gave a survival advantage in hunter-gatherer times, as members of small nomadic bands helped each other out. Their hostility to outsiders improved their defenses. Thinking of people as “Other” also reduced moral qualms about taking food and mates from outsiders, giving another survival advantage in harsh conditions.

We moderns live in different circumstances, but genetically we are still the same people. Populism—and its cousins such as nationalism, socialism, racism, and identity politics—are all different applications of our hunter-gatherer instincts to modern conditions.

Who the outsiders are differs by circumstance; that there are outsiders is the common populist theme. That is why populists can have no coherent policies or philosophies, yet still have something important in common—us against them. The liberal project of preventing the Hobbesian war of each against all is about keeping that universal tendency in check.

So that is what liberals are up against—roughly 95 percent of human history, and millions of years of evolution before that.

Zingales’s contribution is a bit of judo—using the populists’ own tactics against them. If you can frame a policy in an us-against-them way, some populists might warm up to it.

Many populists favor trade protectionism as a way to shelter domestic industries from what they perceive as “unfair” foreign competition. But there are other ways to frame the same issue. If the “them,” rather than foreigners, turns out to be politically connected industries that profit by hurting “us,” the consumers, by lobbying for price-raising tariffs, then some populists could be convinced to oppose trade protectionism and other forms of cronyism. The political strategy is neutral on the policy; it’s about the framing.

But this lack of philosophical mooring leaves Zingales’s argument vulnerable. For example, he argues that globalization increases inequality, which is a classic populist grievance—thinking in terms of ratios, rather than how people are actually doing. As to that more important question, people around the world are doing better than in any other era of history—poverty rates, life expectancy, disease, violence, air and water pollution, and other measures of well-being are nearly all getting better, in both rich and poor countries. Zingales seems to think in terms of conflict, as a populist would, instead of in terms of cooperation. Yet, the beneficial results of the latter are what show up in the data.

Zingales argues on page 38 that “the most powerful argument in favor of antitrust law is one that is rarely made: antitrust law reduces the political power of firms.” That is not the case; regulatory capture is rampant in antitrust. Large companies often welcome antitrust enforcement and other regulation if it puts up barriers to entry against smaller competitors. For instance, Facebook can afford to spend millions of dollars complying with new content moderation regulations as part of an antitrust settlement; the small startup that could someday overtake Facebook cannot. Antitrust doesn’t fight cronyism, it provides more opportunities for it.

For Zingales, the problem is that while his populist framing of antitrust law is spot-on, it is just as easy to give identical framing to the opposite side of the issue. How do you decide which side is better on the merits?

Zingales makes a similar slip on page 51 when he argues that “One beneficial side effect of the Glass-Steagall Act, as with most of the other banking regulations, was to fragment the banking sector and reduce the financial industry’s political power.” In reality, Glass-Steagall made the banking sector more vulnerable by forcing banks to put their eggs in fewer baskets. It also reduced competition among banks, which could compete in either commercial banking or investment banking, but not both.

When various companies in an industry create non-compete agreements like Glass-Steagall did, it often results in an antitrust case. Yet in the case of Glass-Steagall, Congress passed a law forbidding competition.

While that ban went away in 1999, benefiting consumers, banking regulations as a whole have continued to grow. Rules aimed at boosting home ownership for political reasons required banks to take on more risks. When the resulting bubble blew up, unleashing the 2008 financial crisis, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank financial law in response, which exacerbated the “too big to fail” problem it was intended to solve. Yet, it was the repeal of Glass-Steagall that got much of the blame, including from Zingales.

Again, it is easy to make populist arguments both for and against bank bailouts. Bailout supporters can say that bailouts are necessary to protect households’ savings against big banks’ irresponsible behavior. Bailout opponents can argue that bailouts are another example of cronyism. They create moral hazard and make banks even more dependent on their political connections.

In the end, it still comes down to merits and principles. With a little creativity, almost any issue can be framed in populist terms. That means liberals still need to be careful about choosing which issues to frame in an us-vs.-them way for populist audiences.

Zingales is more careful about this in his concluding chapter, which draws out the distinction between being pro-business and pro-market, and comes out strong against cronyism. He writes on page 255:

What would also help minimize cronyism is not a plethora of new government regulations (they are the first to be captured) but a village of potential whistleblowers.

His book would have been better had he applied his advice consistently.

In the decade since A Capitalism for the People was published, Zingales has drawn some company in framing market-liberal policies in populist terms. Last month, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, who is openly pro-liberal and anti-populist, compiled two lists of populist deregulation proposals, ranging from ending airport security theater to deregulating shower heads. Arnold Kling, another market-liberal economist, writes regularly about populism and its framing in his Substack blog. CEI founder Fred Smith has a longstanding interest in what he calls value-based communication, of which appealing to populists is a part.

Will Zingales’s framing strategy help to improve policy in the current populist moment? Maybe a little bit at the margin, but it won’t help with substantive change, because the root problem is populism itself. It is at the cultural level, and can’t be fixed by liberalizing a regulation here and there. It takes active engagement, using insights from Zingales, and from Fred Smith, Caplan, Kling, Aaraon Wildavsky, and other thinkers. It takes civility and listening.

Fittingly, it takes cooperation, rather than conflict, to convince people that cooperation is better than conflict for achieving prosperity and security. It is possible to somewhat defuse today’s polarized politics, but it is a long-run process that takes ongoing effort and keeping calm.

By listening, engaging, and appealing to populists on their own terms, liberals can help convince people that an open society is a better place to live than a closed one, that principles are more important than parties or political personalities, and that long-term governing institutions are more important than winning this year’s election. The values of July 4 must prevail over those of January 6.

Best Books of 2021: Keith E. Stanovich, The Bias that Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking (MIT Press, 2021)

Today’s political polarization isn’t just annoying, it’s damaging important cultural and family institutions. And tensions won’t de-escalate until people figure out the root of the problem. University of Toronto psychologist Keith Stanovich has a compelling theory about those roots in his book The Bias that Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking. Surprisingly, it is only partially related to the myside thinking in his subtitle. 

First, a bit of advice for readers: skip the first three chapters and go right to chapter four, which begins on page 75. The first three chapters are dense mash of definitions of terms and hair-splitting distinctions that are unimportant to Stanovich’s main argument. They also contain something of a literature review on biases, to which Stanovich and his colleagues are important and prolific contributors. This is useful to undergraduate and graduate students, but mostly useless to the lay reader. In these early chapters, Stanovich also spends more time explaining what myside bias isn’t than what it is. It would have been better to organize it the other way around.

So Stanovich is no prose stylist, and his book is poorly organized. Yet it is on my best books of the year list. Why? Because chapter four gave me the type of eureka moment I have experienced only a handful of times in my career. Stanovich’s thesis is essential for understanding the current political moment, and will also likely help shed light on future political changes. This is a book that should have a long shelf life.

Instead of asking why people hold certain beliefs, Stanovich flips the question around. What if people don’t acquire beliefs, but beliefs acquire people? Stanovich argues that beliefs are subject to the same evolutionary forces as living organisms. The idea is similar to Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene hypothesis. 

Genes are what get replicated, not individuals. So genes care more about traits that help them replicate more than about traits that benefit individual gene carriers. This is one reason why parents will sacrifice themselves to save their children, and why people care more about close relatives than strangers. Protecting the people close to you protects your genes.

As with genes, so with beliefs. Beliefs that stick around and become popular get that way because they tend to be very good at replicating themselves—whether or not the beliefs have any basis in reality, or are useful to the people that adopt them. Beliefs that exploit human psychological quirks, such as myside bias, are more likely to “succeed” in this sense, even if they are false or harmful. Those with less meme-like qualities die out or remain rare. 

Myside bias is just such a replicating tool that successful beliefs use. It is both an attack and a defense. It is form of motivated reasoning related to confirmation bias, though not quite the same thing. Where confirmation bias is just a neutral tendency that humans evolved to save cognitive effort, myside bias is purpose-driven. It is rooted in defending one set of beliefs, and attacking competing beliefs. In a way, political partisans are unknowing participants in the natural selection of ideas, and not in a good way.

Republicans and Democrats both tend to highlight evidence supporting their position on an issue, and downplay or ignore contrary evidence—and both parties do this to the same degree. One is not better than the other. Much of the literature Stanovich reviews shows little to no difference between progressives and conservatives in their susceptibility to myside bias, and little difference in other personality traits like openness, agreeableness, and so on. Classical liberals show some psychological distinctiveness from conservatives and progressives, but not very much, and consistent liberals are also relatively rare.

Stanovich mostly sticks to how his “selfish beliefs” thesis affects politics. But it has wider applications. For example, it can help explain why some religions spread, why others endure despite having few adherents, and why others never get off the ground. Religions that have an ethos of proselytizing tend to spread more widely than those that don’t—which is an obvious point, if one thinks about it. But there is a reason why most people belong in the first place to religions interested in converting people. It’s a belief-replicating strategy that works.

Other religions are less interested in spreading, yet they can still endure for millennia. This is because they have strategies of their own. One of them is to have a high cost of joining—people who work hard to gain entry tend to prize it highly, and are unlikely to give up membership (this is also why college fraternities have hazing rituals). Though this doesn’t gain many new convert, it is a potent defense for existing members against competing religions. This is also why proselytizing religions typically have low barriers to entry, and non-proselytizing religions have higher barriers.

Another strategy is to set the group apart from the rest of society through distinctive dietary requirements, appearances, language, and other cultural markers. Life in such an out-group can be tough for individuals. But leaving is also extremely costly, because society at large will likely never fully accept the defector, so relatively few people do. Bad for the person, but good for the belief.

The selfish belief thesis, and its expression through myside bias, has lots of fertile ground for researchers to explore, both in and out of politics.

Stanovich’s concluding chapter, which is also his longest, focuses on what to do about myside bias. The obvious solution to today’s political polarization is to not have a rooting interest. Praise where due, criticism where due. Do support principles; don’t support parties or politicians. The problem is that the this won’t work. Most people’s brains don’t work that way, thanks to our hunter-gatherer legacy of instinctive ingroup-outgroup thinking. Partisanship, and partisan media, are here to stay. Reformers have to fight their battle in the real world if they want to make any improvements.

One such defense mechanism Stanovich suggests is simple awareness. Just being aware that you, as a human being, suffer from myside bias, can help you look for it and do a little something to fight against it. It isn’t a perfect solution—and, spoiler alert, there isn’t one—but it’s a start.

Another defense comes from Stanovich’s insight on page 85 that “There is no general tendency for a person to have high or low myside bias.” It instead comes with certain ideas, because myside bias allows those ideas to successfully persist and spread. This is why seemingly unrelated political stances tend to cluster together. 

For example, to take two hot-button issues on which CEI takes no position, odds are that if you know a person’s position on abortion, you probably also know their position on the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. Those issues have nothing to do with each other, yet people’s stances on them cluster far more tightly than chance would predict. When you see unrelated issue stances cluster together like that, those issues are likely prone to strong myside-style thinking. Treat those issues with caution. 

It also helps to realize that merits often do not matter to people when they take sides on an issue. This is a difficult lesson for think tankers like myself to learn, since we make our living arguing on the merits. But as Stanovich writes on page 142, “Based on the findings of a wide range of studies, most American voters can’t articulate a principle behind their stance on a particular issue and often don’t know their stance on many issues until they hear the stance supported by their own partisan group.” Regarding a study on attitudes toward welfare policy, “It was as if the subjects did not know their position on the issue until they were told which party was supporting it.”

Another rule of thumb is that the most myside-prone issues tend to be lack a clear right or wrong. People tend not to argue about the law of gravity; they do tend to argue about outrage-of-the-moment culture war news stories, where both sides usually have something resembling a good point. The outrage comes not from the merits of the issue, which are often ambiguous, but from people using them (or are being used by their beliefs) to express their identity. Defend the in-group, attack the out-group. Again, bad for the person, but good for the belief’s replicability.

Which leads to Stanovich’s most heartfelt recommendation: the need to reject identity politics. Here he argues with a passion not seen in the earlier chapters. Most of his focus is on the insular academic world he inhabits. But it is no secret that myside beliefs have harmed the quality of research in psychology, Stanovich’s field. Various grievance studies departments survive not on the quality of their research, which tends to be poor, but by preying on peoples’ ingroup-outgroup thinking, where myside bias thrives. Rather than foster cooperation, they try to get people to compete in a zero-sum game of social status by dividing people in groups and encouraging them them to duke it out based on those group identities. This strategy does little to fight racism or pursue other worthy social goals. But as a replication strategy for myside-prone beliefs, it is brilliant. 

I’ve long thought, based on personal experience, that most people are twits when they are college age and then slowly grow out of it as they get older. So I tend to roll my eyes, rather than get outraged, when campus political correctness veers into cartoon territory. It’s mostly social signaling, not serious policy proposals. I also believe that well-intentioned efforts to be inclusive should be applauded, even if they are sometimes clumsy. They are a conscious effort to broaden people’s circle of concern beyond their in-groups, which is something everyone from Adam Smith to Stanovich himself favors.

But Stanovich has a point when he argues that campuses saturated with myside thinking can have a long-run effect on students as they move into the real world. This may be one reason why politics has become so polarized in the last decade or so—the first generation of students who grew up in stifling myside-biased campus environments is now old enough to play leading roles in business, politics, and media. 

The best solution is also long-run—reshape universities to reject identity politics and to instead encourage open, civil discussion of ideas. Discovery and growth are rarely comfortable, but they’re worth it. Getting there will be difficult and will require structural changes. These include requiring grievance studies departments to meet the same academic standards as real departments in the humanities and social sciences; depoliticizing mission statements and administrative jobs; changes to funding, hiring, and admissions practices; and, most importantly, shifting social norms in favor of civil engagement, rather than righteous shouting down. These are unlikely to come to pass anytime soon. But even small changes at the margin can have significant long-term effects. 

Readers interested in further exploring similar themes would also like two other books also published in 2021. Julia Galef’s highly readable The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t draws a contrast between the scout mindset and the soldier mindset. Scouts search for correct information, as though they are trying to draw an accurate map. A soldier’s job is to defend something, right or wrong. Everyone is part soldier in this sense. And strong partisans are mostly soldier. Galef offers advice on how to keep the soldier mindset in its place and embrace our inner scout. 

Galef’s best recommendation is regular practice. Take the time to engage opposing ideas without anger or passion. You can dance with an idea without marrying it. Try asking tough questions about your own beliefs. If a news story plays into your ideological priors, assume it’s too good to be true unless you investigate more closely. These are learned skills that take effort, which is why most people won’t bother. But they pay off.

University College London professor Brian Klaas’ similarly readable Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us is also a good complement to Stanovich. Where Stanovich uses an evolutionary approach to understand ordinary people, Klaas uses an evolutionary approach to understand the powerful. He is interested in the types of people who seek power, and are successful in obtaining it. As it turns out, there is a natural selection process that favors people with undesirable personality traits in the pursuit of power. Hayek was right; the worst really do get on top

Klaas also offers suggestions for how to contain ambition. He correctly focuses mostly on the institutional level; for different results, we need different rules. The rules of the political game need to weed out people right at the start who want power for the wrong reasons. They need to keep a close eye on even good people in power, because power tends to corrupt. And they need to limit the damage that any one individual can do.

If time and space allow, I’ll give those books their due. They certainly belong with Stanovich’s The Bias that Divides Us on the list of best books of the year.

I, Pencil Meets Today’s Political Realignment

Conservatives are different than they were just a few years ago, and it isn’t just because of Trump, who is more a symptom than a root cause. There is a larger political realignment underway, as happens every couple of generations. Previously, conservatives saw communism as the enemy, and favored free markets as a bulwark against it. But the Cold War ended a generation ago. Today, the debate isn’t over communism vs. capitalism, it’s over open vs. closed.

The latest data point in the current political realignment comes from The American Conservative’s Declan Leary, in a piece taking on Leonard Read’s classic free-market pamphlet I, Pencil (see also CEI’s video adaptation). Leary’s article is titled “We Are Not Pencils,” though the article’s URL contains the phrase “pencils are from the devil.”

This is quite a change from the days when President Ronald Reagan was photographed reading The Freeman, the magazine published by I, Pencil author Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education.

At the same time, the old and new conservatives aren’t as different as they seem, despite their differences on trade, free markets, antitrust, industrial policy, and Eastern European dictators. Their different views come from the same inborn human tendency to see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups.

Those groups can be defined by almost anything, whether serious or silly—language, race, religion, nationality, political party, sports fandom, views on whether pineapple belongs on pizza, and more. People can simultaneously belong to several of these groups, and flit between them seamlessly as social situations dictate. A Democrat and a Republican can be friends at a baseball game where they cheer for the same team, for example, then go back to bickering after the game.

I, Pencil celebrates openness, giving that 1958 pamphlet a clear position in today’s realignment. Read’s point is that cooperation is so fundamental to the human condition that no one, by themselves, can make something as simple as an ordinary pencil. Interconnectedness makes modernity possible.

Making a pencil requires millions of people working in concert. These include loggers, miners, tool makers, paint producers, truck drivers, box makers, machinery designers, farmers and restaurant workers to feed them all, retail clerks, and more. Not only that, but nobody is in charge. Nobody is following any plan. This complicated order emerges spontaneously, guided by little more than the price system and social norms.

But where Read sees a source of wonder, Leary sees a source of fragility. “The Invisible Hand wrenched away not just American jobs but America’s very capacity to produce things,” he writes. What if a link in the supply chain breaks? What if China decides to cut off America’s supply of rare earth elements? What if some politically woke truck drivers go on strike?

It would be better, Leary argues, to turn inwards a little bit. Going full Juche, as North Korea calls its philosophy of self-reliance, is obviously harmful. But on the spectrum from open to closed, Leary argues that we have gone a bit too far toward the open side, and become too vulnerable because of that. Out-groups aren’t as trustworthy as the in-group, in that view.

But has the invisible hand really “wrenched away American jobs?” Look at the data for the size of the U.S. labor force, going back to 1948:

Labor force size is tied most closely to population size, not how open the American economy is to foreign trade. In 2000, the labor force was 143 million people. As of September 2021, it was 161 million. That’s a net gain of 18 million jobs, even accounting for the 3 million jobs lost during the pandemic that have not yet come back.

Leary is asking the wrong question. What is important is not how many jobs, but what types of jobs there are, and how much value those workers create. A subsistence farming economy has full employment, but low living standards. A globalized, high-tech economy also often has full employment, but its similarly sized labor force has much higher living standards and longer life expectancies.

So Leary’s argument about jobs doesn’t hold. What about “America’s very capacity to produce things?” Let’s look at the St. Louis Fed’s total index for industrial production from 1920 to the present. Notice that it is near an all-time record high right now, despite a COVID-related dip:

So Leary’s argument doesn’t hold there, either. To be fair, this record was set by fewer manufacturing workers. There were 12.8 million manufacturing workers when COVID hit, compared to a peak of 19.5 million workers in May 1979. That is concerning. But why is manufacturing output still higher? Because today’s workers are more productive than they were a generation ago.

This productivity surge—driven by technology, openness, and specialization—has freed up millions of people’s time and talent for other pursuits. Not only do Americans manufacture more stuff than ever before, we are also creating more service-related value, with less effort. It’s not manufacturing or services when productivity increases; it’s manufacturing and services. The pie gets bigger.

The key to mass prosperity is doing more with less. Politically directed industrial policy attempts to treat a healthy patient, while harming the rest of the economy by taking away its resources.

Moreover, the service jobs to which workers are migrating tend to pay better and have better working conditions. There is something to be said about working in an air-conditioned office or from home, rather than a noisy factory floor with potentially dangerous machinery.

Average hourly pay, as of September 2021, is $24.18 in manufacturing, versus $30.85 for the economy at large. Since wages are tied to productivity in the long run, a major reason for workers’ migration away from manufacturing is that the new types of jobs tend to create more value than the old ones.

Using government policy to migrate workers back to manufacturing jobs would mean paying many of them less. It would also mean that their hard work would create less value for people. That would be a double blow to worker’s egos, which is almost certainly not Leary’s intention. But as the economist Thomas Sowell likes to say, intentions are not results.

What about the theoretical case for more economic self-sufficiency? The first response is a simple one: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Leary argues that elaborate supply chains are vulnerable. If one link breaks, the whole chain becomes useless. Fortunately, supply chains are nothing like chains. A link in a chain is connected only to the link directly ahead of it, and the one directly behind it. Real-world supply chains are more like webs or networks, where each piece is connected to nearly every other piece. That is a source of strength.

Breakages happen all the time in the real world. It’s important to have as many ways as possible to adapt and reroute. As the economist Israel Kirzner pointed out, entrepreneurship is all about alertness. Markets and supply networks are never perfect, and are always changing. Every flaw, and every vulnerability, is an opportunity for improvement. The economy is an ongoing process of experiment, trial, error, and adaptation.

But people will have fewer ways to make improvements and shore up against vulnerabilities if policies limit who they can cooperate with or confine their talents to certain industries. Industrial policy and self-sufficiency make people more vulnerable against threats because they lock people into old patterns, distort prices that convey important information, and make it more difficult to adapt. This is true whether the threat is a global pandemic, a foreign adversary, or a local labor dispute.

The economic case for why openness is more resilient than self-reliance is not new. It is not even controversial, at least among economists. But in politics, issues are often not about the merits. If Leary really is arguing against the economics, he has not succeeded. But if he’s staking out a cultural or political identity and attacking out-groups, then mission accomplished.

Leary also deserves credit for using the word “liberal” closer to its original and correct meaning—valuing freedom and openness—than do most commentators.

The insight that national conservatives and populists often care more about cultural identity than policy is key to understanding today’s political realignment. That is not to pick on conservatives; many progressives are no different. For them, too, signaling is often more important than real-world policy effects.

Affirming the in-group and vilifying the out-group is harmless at a ballgame, or in an argument about whether Star Wars or Star Trek is better. But in public policy, the stakes are higher. An old impulse that had survival benefits in hunter-gatherer times can have the opposite effect in the modern world—especially when COVID-19 is still a going concern.

It isn’t often that a pamphlet about basic economics offers insights about a political realignment that happens 60 years after its publication. But that is the case with I, Pencil. Leary would not have bothered writing about Leonard Read’s defense of openness if it didn’t strike a nerve. Fortunately for the economy and for our ability to respond to the COVID crisis, Leary’s criticisms do not hold up against real-world data or economic theory. If he instead wants to engage in culture war identity signaling, perhaps he should find ways to channel that impulse in ways that would not make America more vulnerable to threats both domestic and foreign.

For more on “I, Pencil,” see CEI’s video adaptation. See also my review of CEI Julian Simon Award winner Johan Norberg’s book Open.

John Stuart Mill on the Limits of Economics

We must never forget that the truths of political economy are truths only in the rough: they have the certainty, but not the precision, of exact science.

-John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book 2, chapter XVI.4, p. 422.

Fighting Bias and Misinformation, from Pierre Bayle’s 17th Century to the Social Media Age

Many people insist that media bias and misinformation are getting worse in the social media age, and we need to do something about it. Depending on whether one leans Democratic or Republican, tech companies are either not doing enough to stop right-wing misinformation from spreading, or are censoring legitimate conservative content. Some conservatives feel so aggrieved they are even pushing to revive the fairness doctrine, which they used to oppose.

Bias and misinformation are impossible to measure, which puts a rather obvious damper on peoples’ certainty about them. Ironically, this is at least partially because of the human brain’s built-in biases, such as recency bias, availability bias, and pessimistic bias. In fact, media bias and misinformation are nothing new, and have likely gotten neither better nor worse over time.

These problems have been around so long that the 17th century philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote in an issue of his 1680s periodical Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters):

“History is dished up very much like meat. Each nation and religion takes the same raw facts and dresses them in a sauce of its own taste, and each reader finds them true or false according to whether they agree or disagree with his prejudices.”

More than 300 years later, this holds up well. And it’s not just with history. People also put their own tastes on current events. Different people take identical facts and prepare them differently, usually in line with whatever their ideological priors are.

Just being aware that everyone does this can go a long way toward minimizing the harmful effects of bias and misinformation. Beyond awareness, there are also many simple, low-effort actions one can take, some of which Bayle might endorse if he were alive today:

  • Avoid cable news channels. They do not inform people, so much as get them riled up. People who feel outraged click on more articles, keep the TV on, and generate more ad revenue. Outlets encourage this by framing news stories as us-vs.-them struggles first, and only secondarily by presenting information. These are two very different things! Learn to tell them apart. If you find yourself getting outraged over something a personality figure from the other political party said, or about the culture war story of the day, that’s usually a good sign that you’re getting riled up rather than informed. There are better uses for your time, and for your blood pressure.
  • Purge low-quality sources from your social media feeds (or abstain entirely). Use those mute and block buttons on people who post low-quality content that does not add value to your feed. That’s your space, and you can curate it however you want. If someone’s posts are mostly outrage stories, your social media feed will likely be both more enjoyable and more informative if they are not part of it. Spend some real-life time with that person instead, which will likely elicit better social etiquette. People are more considerate of others when they are face to face rather than venting their spleen, alone, into a keyboard.
  • Put a little effort into statistical literacy, and be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true stories that appeal to your ideological priors. Arming yourself with the right tools is as easy as picking up a layman-friendly book or two. Financial Times columnist and BBC presenter (and friend of CEI) Tim Harford’s latest book, The Data Detective, is an excellent guide that is also a delight to read. I also recommend Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I reviewed earlier on this blog. Jonathan Rauch’s new book The Constitution of Knowledge has a lot wisdom, which he also shared earlier this year at a CEI online event. My colleague Iain Murray strongly recommends his old boss’ book, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter’s It Ain’t Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality. Reading a chapter a day from any of these books is a far better use of 30 minutes than getting outraged over Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow’s latest rant.
  • Keep an eye on the longer arcs of history, not just today’s ephemeraElizabeth Nolan Brown’s recent Reason article “40 Ways Things Are Getting Better” is one example of journalism that gets this. There are plenty of reasons for short-term pessimism; that keep groups like CEI busy. But there is also a strong case for long-run optimism. Both can simultaneously be true, as CEI founder Fred Smith captured in his “Despairing Optimist” letters. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and his new book How Innovation Works, for which he also did a CEI event, are immensely helpful for seeing the big picture.

Notice that none of these strategies involve government regulating political speech. They are all ideas that you and I can implement right now; change begins at home. Ultimately, individuals hold power over bias and misinformation, not the other way around. We should learn to use that power wisely, and not delegate it away to Washington, where it will get politicized and misused. It takes some effort, which is why many people don’t bother. But the payoff is worth it.

Pierre Bayle had a good sense of this dynamic. He was an important bridge figure between the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment—which means he helped to inspire modernity as we know it. He emphasized the virtues of tolerance and skepticism by individuals, in part because he was forced into exile from his native France over his religious beliefs. He settled in the more tolerant Netherlands, where he produced works in astronomy, philosophy, religion, literature, and even produced the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), an early encyclopedia that predated Denis Diderot’s more famous 1751 Encyclopédie by 60 years. France’s outrage-induced loss was the Netherlands’ gain, and ours.

We live in better times. But the lessons Bayle took from his day’s outrage culture are still useful in dealing with today’s excesses. Times change, but people are people, wherever you go. That is mostly to the good—though as we see in the news and on social media, not entirely. There is always reason for optimism, if we know how to look for and act on it.

The Progressive Playbook? Thoughts on a Slippery Slope

Is there a master plan behind the blunders of governments? Or are politicians just making it up as they go along? The cabal model is tempting. A lot of people tend to believe that it is not enough for their opponents to wrong; they must also have bad intentions. But usually, less sinister explanations, such as fallible politicians responding to incentives, are a better guide to fixing today’s political mess.

For example, President Biden recently announced that he is asking the Federal Trade Commission to consider using antitrust enforcement to fight rising gas prices. The economist Jeff Eisenach tweeted in response:

The Progressive Play Book: Step 1: Use regulations to restrict supply. Step 2: Blame the oil companies for rising prices. Step 3: Invoke antitrust. Step 4: See e.g., CITCO, Pemex. We are at Step 3.

One should not read too deeply into tweets. They lack enough space either to explain nuances or to define terms clearly enough to prevent misunderstandings. Sometimes, people are just making a snarky point, and they don’t have room for a disclaimer in a 280-character tweet.

Any or all of these situations could be the case here, but Eisenach’s playbook theory tweet has a clear—and common—slippery-slope logic that is worth a closer look. This is not to single out Eisenach, but to highlight a tendency among people of all political persuasions: to assume bad motives and master plans where there probably aren’t any.

Progressives often favor adding new economic regulation, and rarely favor rolling them back. So, it makes sense that progressives would respond to rising gas prices—largely caused by regulations—with more regulations. In Eisenach’s playbook model, this story presumably repeats until the energy sector is nationalized, as with Pemex, which is owned by the Mexican government, and Citgo, in which the Venezuelan government has a stake (though it cannot benefit from Citgo’s U.S. holdings because of sanctions).

This isn’t entirely drawn from thin air. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) really has proposed nationalizing the energy industry. The Green New Deal may not be a serious proposal, but it really was introduced as legislation.

But is the slippery slope really so deliberate? Just like the GOP’s own populist extremists, the Democratic party’s progressive wing has a high decibel level, but lower numbers and influence. Yes, progressivism touts lofty ideals, such as economic equality, democracy, and environmental protection, but in practice, progressive policies tend to be less lofty and more concrete.

If some people are having trouble making ends meet, pass a law raising the minimum wage. If other people have too much money, raise their taxes. If rents are too high, use price controls or impose a moratorium on evictions. President Biden’s antitrust threat against oil producers is similarly direct. Gas prices are going up, so do something about it. Such moves don’t involve much abstract thought about long-term competitive processes, tradeoffs, unintended consequences, or rent-seeking—what economist Thomas Sowell calls thinking beyond stage one.

If anything, President Biden’s proposal mixes a layman’s misunderstanding of the 1970s oil shock from early in his career with today’s hottest political trends, such as inflation and antitrust. Availability bias is a far likelier driver for his proposal than a playbook to eventually nationalize the energy industry.

Inflation and high gas prices were important issues in the 1970s. The two are linked together in a lot of peoples’ minds to this day. Today, inflation is back over 5 percent and gas prices going up again. In his speech, President Biden even singled out OPEC, which is long past its prime as a global economic villain.

Another factor that makes the current gas price increase appear even starker is that prices are rising from a low starting point. On April 23, 2020,  gas prices averaged $1.77 per gallon, the lowest since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, gas prices haves been on an upward trajectory, rising to $3.17 per gallon by August 16, 2021. While that is a sharp increase, thanks in large part to that low starting point, gas is still cheaper than it was for almost all of the period between 2011 and 2014.

Inflation is also not the main driver of rising gas prices. Inflation is what happens when the supply of money gets out of whack with the supply of goods and services. If it isn’t monetary, it isn’t inflation. Today’s inflation is likely responsible for about 10 cents per gallon of the price increase, out of roughly $1.40. Most of the rest comes from a mix of supply, demand, and bad regulations.

The Jones Act of 1920, which is essentially a Buy American bill for the maritime shipping industry, makes shipping domestic gas artificially expensive and increases reliance on imported oil. Both of these make gas prices higher and more volatile. The Biden administration’s decisions to deny drilling and pipeline permits and to raise some regulatory burdens are also raising prices and squeezing supply. These are not inflation, but they are raising prices.

Coincidentally, higher prices and restricted supply are the same indicators used in finding consumer harm in antitrust cases, adding potential confusion to any antitrust cases stemming from Biden’s proposal. His recently proposed carbon tariffs on imported oil would further worsen the problem.

Repealing existing regulations and walking back proposed burdens would do more to lower gas prices than adding new restrictions—but that would require admitting mistakes. Politicians generally prefer to shift the blame and then publicly punish some supposed bad guys. That is not a conspiracy; it is rational political behavior.

The state of politics is unhealthy. There are lot of changes needed at the cultural, institutional, and policy levels. While conspiratorial allegations of political playbooks and slippery slopes are tempting as explanations, a lot of bad policy simply involves politicians responding to the incentives they face with the limited knowledge they have—the same as everyone else does.

The economic recovery and the continuing long-run rise in living standards would be better served if reformers would focus their scarce resources on these, rather than on exposing sinister narratives that aren’t really there.

Different Attitudes Towards Life

In today’s polarized discourse, there is a stark difference between thinkers who spend most of their time being for something, and those who spend most of their time being against something. One attitude is healthier than the other, and is more likely to lead towards truth, and is likelier to succeed in persuading others and getting its policies enacted.

Think of it as the difference between between favoring liberalism, openness, and dynamism on one hand; and owning the libs or the cons, depending on one’s tribal affiliation, on the other.

Which makes this passage from near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s 1943 novel Brideshead Revisited especially poignant (p. 383 of the Back Bay Books edition):

I said to the doctor, who was with us daily: “He’s got a wonderful will to live, hasn’t he?”

“Would you put it like that? I should say a great fear of death.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Oh dear, yes. He doesn’t derive any strength from his fear, you know. It’s wearing him out.”

Who Bears the Burden of Proof in Justifying Regulations?

John Stuart Mill gave his answer on p. 938 of the Liberty Fund edition of his Principles of Political Economy, in volume 3 of his collected works:

“[T]he onus of making out a case always lies on the defenders of legal prohibitions.”

The modern legal scholar Randy Barnett calls this the presumption of liberty. People are presumed to be free to act. If a third party wants to intervene, the burden is on them to prove why they should be allowed to.

Upcoming CEI Event: Bart Wilson on The Property Species

At noon ET on Thursday, February 11, CEI is hosting an event with the experimental economist Bart Wilson, author of The Property Species: Mine, Yours, and the Human Mind. He is also a frequent collaborator with former CEI Julian Simon Award winner Vernon Smith.

Near the end of The Property Species, on p. 194, Wilson shows how the custom of property is essential for natural conservation efforts (footnotes omitted):

When some people are allowed to say, “This elephant is mine,” they defend attacks against the elephant like they defend against attacks against their own person. In contrast, when government agents are tasked with defending elephants against attacks, they are not as effective—the evidence strongly suggests—in protecting elephants about which they cannot say, “These are mine.” Think about it natural-historically: Isn’t it astonishing that people who can say, “This elephant is mine” will protect and defend the life of a distantly related fellow mammal against members of their own species who wish that distant relative harm? Isn’t it furthermore prudent for such people to do so? And isn’t it then morally incumbent upon us to consider the possibility that property can save elephants from extinction? Consider, for the moment, the beautiful and humane thoughts made possible by mine.

CEI has a long history of supporting private conservation, and here Wilson makes a powerful point in its favor.

Wilson also discusses other concepts in the book, such as his view that property is not a right; it is a custom. This view avoids some of the problems of rights theory while emphasizing property’s inherently social and cooperative nature.

Property, Wilson argues, is not just the ability to say “this is mine.” Any dog with a bone thinks that. Property is the ability to also say “that is yours.” Dogs do not have that ability. Only humans have made this cognitive leap. Property is unique to us. It is also universal among us. Every society on Earth, without exception, has social customs that involve notions of both “this is mine” and “that is yours.” This human universal is what makes non-violent trade possible. Property is what lets people act on Adam Smith’s natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.

As Wilson argues on p. 179, “we have to be open to the possibility that commerce may be an integral part of that socializing and ethicizing process.” Property is a fundamental concept in designing sound public policy, and in enabling virtuous and prosperous societies to emerge. There is much more to property than armchair philosophizing.

There is also more to property than commerce. The custom of property gives a convincing answer to the question that all social scientists seek to answer: how people find ways to get along with each other. Many people view property as an exclusionary, anti-social concept. This is a mistake. It requires multiple people for the concept of property to even exist. And those people must cooperate with each other for it to work. It does no good to say “this is mine” if other people do not agree to respect that, and expect to have their own claims respected.

Property is an ongoing dialogue between people. it requires listening, not just speaking. There is a reason why economics and related disciplines–nearly all of which Wilson draws from in the book–are called social sciences.

Wilson, of course, has much more to say on the matter. Click here to register for the February 11 event. The book is here. I highly recommend both.

Best Books of 2020: Joseph Henrich – The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020)

It’s early, but The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich will likely be one of the new decade’s most influential books. Henrich complements work by Joshua GreeneRichard WranghamJonathan HaidtSteven PinkerMichael Shermer, and others on the psychological underpinnings of modern liberalism—liberalism in the more-or-less original sense of the word.

Henrich’s book has two main arguments. One is historical: The Catholic church, completely unintentionally, set off a social chain reaction that created modernity. The second is psychological: People in modern societies are psychologically distinct than people in traditional kin-based societies.

He uses the acronym WEIRD for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, to describe the unusual people in modern market-liberal societies. If you are reading this book review, then you are probably WEIRD, and so is nearly everyone you know. But we WEIRD people are the outliers in human history. Outside of Europe, East Asia, and North America, there are very few of us.

Most human societies are built on kin-based structures. This was true during our hunter-gatherer past, which was about 190,000 years of our 200,000-year history—95 percent of our species’ time on Earth. Societies remained kin-based through the agricultural revolution, and through the birth of cities about 6,000 years ago. And it is still true today in most countries. Despite occasional flowerings, there were no enduring WEIRD societies in human history until about two centuries ago. This is maybe one tenth of one percent of human existence, and even then, most societies remain kin-based. Again, it is WEIRD people who are unusual.

What is a kin-based society? In these, business partnerships, social networks, and marriages are confined to networks that rarely stray outside the extended family or clan. People tend to be wary of non-kin, and have a strong in-group-vs.-out-group worldview. People tend to look out for their clan’s collective interest over their individual interest. In kin-based societies, nepotism isn’t frowned upon; it’s the norm. WEIRD Americans today look askance when a president appoints inexperienced family members to be senior advisers. But in most other societies, this would have been acceptable, even normal behavior.

By contrast, WEIRD people are more individualistic and more trusting of outsiders. Kin-based families often arrange marriages for their children. WEIRD people usually marry for love. Kin-based people are expected to enter the family business. This is why so many of us have occupation-based surnames, such as Smith, Baker, or Fisher. WEIRD people usually prefer to choose their own line of work, which is one reason why today’s Smiths, Bakers, and Fishers rarely practice those occupations.

Kin-based people are reluctant to do business with strangers and foreigners. WEIRD people are more open to trade and more trusting of potential business partners they have never met. Nobody is purely meritocratic, but WEIRD people are closer to that ideal than most people.

So now that we know the difference between most people and WEIRD people, what is Henrich’s historical argument about the Catholic church accidentally making today’s WEIRD-ness possible?

The Catholic church blew up traditional kin networks through what Henrich calls its unofficial “Marriage and Family Program (MFP).” In short, the Church prohibited cousin marriages. The incest taboo is a human universal. But its boundaries vary from place to place. The church decided to push them progressively further out over a period of centuries. In many places, it eventually prohibited marriages closer than second and third cousins. In a few places it briefly went as far as eighth cousins.

This was a bigger deal than it sounds. Back in, say, the 12th century, people lived isolated lives. Few people lived in cities. Many people lived their entire lives within a 30-mile radius. They met few, if any, people outside of their extended families. And the wanderers they did meet were often beggars, vagrants, or outlaws. The Church’s MFP forced these isolated people to look outside their villages and kin groups for marriage partners. This forced openness, in the long run, ended up wiring people’s brains differently.

Young people are impressionable. When they are of marriageable age and are forced to meet and interact with strangers, and travel among them, traditional closed-kin psychological barriers gradually break down. They are gradually replaced with growing degrees of WEIRDness. It is a long, gradual process with many degrees. But over centuries, the effects add up.

None of the changes Henrich describes are genetic. None of them are racial, and none of them are peculiar to Europe. The conditions that make individuals WEIRD are cultural, intellectual, and psychological.

Using cousin marriage rates as a stand-in for how strong the Church’s Marriage and Family Program operated in different regions, along with historical records, Henrich finds that the MFP was the single biggest cause of everything from per capita GDP to interest rates to murder rates. Interestingly, regional cousin marriage rates closely track religious divisions and regional church influences. Henrich himself was skeptical about the MFP’s cultural influence, so he checked his results every way he could.

So, while openness is the real engine of WEIRDness, in Europe’s case, Church doctrine was what drove the process of opening up.

The differences between kin-based and WEIRD people show up in psychological tests. The Church’s MFP turns out to have changed people’s personalities and psychological profiles. In my recent review of Virgil Storr and Ginny Choi’s excellent Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?, I noted their finding that people from market societies play decision-making games differently than do people in non-market societies. Henrich argues that this is because they are psychologically different.

From birth, WEIRD people from market societies have been more exposed to outsiders and more likely to trust them. No wonder they tend to play lab games that way. They tend to be more trusting of other players and more willing to use long-term strategies. People from kin-based societies are more likely to do the equivalent of a dine-and-dash from a restaurant. If the other player is not from their in-group, they feel fewer compunctions about cheating that other player.

Kin-based and WEIRD people even assign blame differently. Most WEIRD people see classroom teachers’ disciplinary tactic of punishing an entire class for one student’s offense to be morally wrong. Kin-based people see this as normal, and are fine with it. They think more in terms of collective responsibility than individual responsibility. In fact, criminal justice systems in many kin-based societies punish whole families for one member’s crime.

There is a reason for this. In most human societies, life was precarious. One bad harvest could mean starvation. Very strong conformity norms were a survival advantage. Collective punishment helps to reinforce conformity norms. Maybe someone does have a new idea for planting a crop differently. But if it fails, the stakes are life and death. It’s probably not worth it. Better to make sure that everyone sticks with what he or she knows works.

When most people’s only experience with foreigners is with either castoffs or invading armies, they probably aren’t going to trust them. They’d probably return the favor when possible. Unlike trade, theft and war are zero-sum interactions. When these are someone’s sole experience with out-groups, they are less likely to trade with foreigners and realize the benefits of division of labor. Safer to do it all yourself.

Henrich has written a provocative book that builds on an already robust literature. Despite its deep historical and psychological content, The WEIRDest People in the World is also highly relevant to modern public policy. The regulations and legislation that groups like CEI deal with on a daily basis do not come from a vacuum. They come from longstanding political institutions. And these system-level institutions in turn come from culture. All three of those levels matter. A reformer who works on only one of them will fail. Henrich has come up with a plausible framework to explain how they interact over the long run, and how they can shift. Where people are relatively WEIRD, people will build relatively market-oriented political institutions—and eventually, policies. Where they are kin-based, they probably won’t.

Without the Church’s unofficial Marriage and Family Plan, European culture likely would have remained insular and kin-based. That tendency still exists, and is expressing itself in the European Union’s trending towards becoming a protectionist trading bloc. Reformers need to push back and remind people that WEIRD-style openness has massive benefits, especially for the poor.

What about the rest of the world? Fortunately, the Church’s MFP is not the one and only way for people to become psychologically WEIRD. Ideas can be imported and exported, same as goods and services. America was a relatively WEIRD society from the start, as was Australia. The Asian tigers such as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, saw the economic success of WEIRD countries, and followed their example. China is at a weird midway point psychologically, and its institutions are still extractive and kin-based by WEIRD standards. This may limit China’s future growth as a global power.

The point is that setting a good example can do a lot more good than people think. This puts today’s nationalists and economic protectionists in an awkward position. They are not the future. They are throwbacks to an impoverished, unhappy past.

The post-1800 Great Enrichment that billions of people are enjoying today has deep and distant causes operating at multiple levels. Henrich’s thesis of WEIRD psychology, cultural openness, and economic prosperity will have a major impact on future work in geopolitics, economic development, political polling, immigration, and free trade for a long time to come.