Tag Archives: ronald bailey

The Believing Brain

Reason‘s Ronald Bailey reviewed Michael Shermer’s excellent The Believing Brain for The Wall Street Journal. If you don’t feel like reading all 340 pages, Bailey summarizes them well:

Superstitions arise as the result of the spurious identification of patterns. Even pigeons are superstitious. In an experiment where food is delivered randomly, pigeons will note what they were doing when the pellet arrived, such as twirling to the left and then pecking a button, and perform the maneuver over and over until the next pellet arrives. A pigeon rain dance. The behavior is not much different than in the case of a baseball player who forgets to shave one morning, hits a home run a few hours later and then makes it a policy never to shave on game days.

It’s surprising how much of human behavior can be explained by what Shermer calls patternicity and agenticity. Like pigeons, we seek patterns and therefore find them. But we also have the ingrained instinct to believe that some kind of agent has to be behind those patterns: god, a politician, somebody, anybody. Every design must have a designer.

No wonder Hayekian spontaneous order polls so poorly, despite having the benefit of being true. Lessons abound.

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Political Pessimism, Human Optimism

Despite my pessimism (realism?) about politics, ever since reading Julian Simon, I have been an optimist when it comes to progress and the human condition. Since the industrial revolution, each generation has lived longer and better than the last. By that measure, the last decade was the best in human history.

This despite the last decade being an unmitigated political disaster, at least in America. President Bush grew government faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Between new health care entitlements, massive energy and farm bills, two wars, and more than 30,000 new regulations, the Bush administration was no friend of limited government.

President Obama has so far been no better. If anything, his policies are George W. Bush’s on steroids.

Fortunately, the institutional foundations of the market economy are stronger than any bumbling politician. Wherever there is peace, stability, tolerably low corruption, and secure property rights, people will make their lives better over time, despite meddlesome regulators getting in the way. The pattern is global.

Via Ronald Bailey, a brilliant article in Foreign Policy reinforces that point. Things really are getting better. The last decade was the best in human history. Read the whole thing. If you’re despairing over the state of the world, the data are a wonderful cure for pessimism. Here’s a taste:

Consider that in 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than $1 a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 percent — and it will be lower still by the close of 2010. That’s because, though the financial crisis briefly stalled progress on income growth, it was just a hiccup in the decade’s relentless GDP climb.