Sunday, February 05, 2006

Dangerous Ideas

I've talked about before. They had another good end-of-year question to a large group of intelligent folk. I'm only a quarter of the way through reading them, but I have some reactions worth blogging already. I have two to recommendation and one to argue with. If I find more worth remarkign on as I read more, I'll continue with them later.

  • Richard E. Nisbett: Our reports on why we like particular things, why we make particular choices, and what makes us happy are remarkably unreliable. We are not good sources of information on our own behavior and taste. I think this underscores Tyler Cowen's recommendation that we try a variety of experiences.
  • Steven Pinker has said this before: there are genetic differences in average talent and temperament between the races and the sexes. We should stop pretending this isn't so, since it makes it impossible to make immportant distinctions or investigate some (e.g. health-related) differences that should affect our behavior.
  • Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi proposes that the idea that the free market is (I think he means "ought to be") the ultimate arbiter of political decisions is a dangerous idea. He argues that the problem is that some believe that the free market is a "silver bullet that must take precedence over any other value", but that "it is an intellectual and political scam that might benefit some, but ultimately requires the majority to pay for the destruction it causes." His criticism is amorphous; his most specific claim is that
    it does not exist in the first place, and what passes for it is dangerous to the future well being of our species. Scientist need to turn their attention to what the complex system that is human life, will require in the future.
    Beginnings like the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, which focus on such central requirements as health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety, need to become part of our social and political agenda. And when their findings come into conflict with the agenda of the prophets of the free market, the conflict should be examined — who is it that benefits from the erosion of the quality of life?

    I'm as strong a proponent of the free market as I know, and I can't think of anyone who argues that it is a solution to all problems, or that it "takes precedence over all other values". It's a tool that we use to solve appropriate problems. The reason it may sound like I favor it in all cases is that I think it would produce better solutions in many cases where people are unused to applying it.

    I agree that it would be valuable for scientists to investigate and provide us a better idea of how to address our desire for improved "health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety", but having come to some conclusion, we are going to pursue those goals using political and market processes; scientists aren't going to be able to tell us how to reach those goals, or how to trade them off against one another. And if we leave the solutions purely to political approaches, we will be choosing a single common outcome. The contribution of markets is to allow us each to choose a different mix of solutions as far as that is possible. We will have to turn to politics and the courts when separate choices in a market context turn out to be incompatible.

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