Peter Foster: DIY Economics
Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book on the structure of scientific revolutions, points out how difficult scientific paradigms are to shift. He suggests they become even more so when there is a moral element involved.
I will suggest that projected catastrophic man-made climate change is less a scientific theory with a moral element than a moral crusade that has recruited a scientific theory.
The great global warming fandango is – at root — the latest example of politically expedient demonization of the capitalist system. First let me provide some background on how I came to this issue, and pay tribute to a very important academic advisor to the GWPF: David Henderson.
Two of David’s works — his Reith lectures, Innocence and Design, and his book, The Role of Business in the Modern World – were both inspirational for my own recent book: Why We Bite the Invisible Hand.
I became particularly fascinated by what David calls “Do It Yourself Economics.”
This consists of a set of common, but erroneous, assumptions about the way economies work.
These include “Unreflecting centralism,” the notion that things are always best planned from the top. A firm faith in local preference and national champions. And the conviction that new technology creates long-term unemployment. I was inspired to probe exactly why people should not just get economics wrong, but all tend to get it wrong in the same way.
There seems to be a structure to human economic ignorance. Where does it come from? For a long time before I read Innocence and Design, I had been puzzled by how people seemed to take for granted the stunning benefits of capitalism, benefits that seemed to me to be “right in front of their eyes”?
Eventually I realized that I was being naïve.
What is in front of our eyes is entirely a function of what is behind them: that is, our minds. I eventually became convinced that to understand our minds — and in particular their quirks and limitations — we have to understand in what circumstances those minds were formed.
I believe that the answer to the conundrum of Do It Yourself Economics lies in the controversial field of evolutionary psychology. What we see – both physically and conceptually – is determined, and constrained, not merely by biological but social evolution. Indeed, we have to talk about coevolution.
The crux of the issue is that in recent millennia, and in particular the past two or three centuries, society has been evolving at light speed relative to biology. People are inclined to believe that there is a world “out there,” but it is a world that is peculiar to us.
For example, there are no “colours” in nature. Colours are our brain’s interpretations of different wavelengths. Our perceptions of people and social relations can also be subject to quirky assumptions. I approach this issue in my book via an old joke.
A man goes to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist shows him a series of Rorschach ink blots. The man interprets each ink blot as some form of sexual perversion. At the end of the session, the psychiatrist tells the man, “You have a sex problem.” “Me?” says the man indignantly. “You’re the one who’s showing all the dirty pictures!”
The man who sees the dirty pictures would be routinely considered an example of “abnormal psychology,” but increasingly psychologists have come to realize that “normal” psychology is filled with misinterpretations of the way the world works.
One of the big problems of capitalism — as an emergent natural order that has appeared in the biological blink of an eye — is that people can have their cake and condemn it too. Or perhaps condemn their cake and eat it too.
We don’t have to understand how markets work to thrive within them any more than we need to memorize Gray’s Anatomy in order to stay alive. The question is why we might not just fail to appreciate the workings and results of capitalism, but be inclined to condemn it.
According to evolutionary psychology, our minds were mostly formed in that very very long period when we lived as hunter-gatherers, in groups of perhaps at most 150 people, when there was no extensive commerce, little division of labour, and no voluntary employment; when working for others meant literally being a slave. And when there was no technological advance, no money, and no economic growth.
I believe that we are still haunted by the assumptions of such a world, and thus easily confuse employment with exploitation, income and wealth inequality with inequity, and the command of economic resources with dangerous political power.
These aren’t so much economic perceptions as moral ones, since morality is significantly rooted in the sharing of, and struggle for, resources; in tribal solidarity, but also in predation and the demonization of outsiders.
Morality is fundamentally collectivist and groupish, and is inclined to condemn economics as being hard-hearted because it is based on personal preferences, which are easily parodied as the rule of individualistic greed.
Morality is certainly about right and wrong, good and bad, but it’s also about the irresistible urge to tell other people how to live their lives, and to condemn – even kill – outsiders. The most moral people in the world are suicide bombers.
When it comes to the assumed depredations and dangers of those who command economic resources — that is, “the rich” — it’s as if people can’t tell the difference between Bill Gates and Genghis Khan. Or between the Forbes 400 and the court of Louis XIV.
The big difference is that the Forbes 400 created their wealth, and countless millions of jobs in the process. They didn’t steal it (Unless, of course, they got rich through government favours or bail-outs, which really was the old-fashioned way). Do It Yourself economics is the economics of the small self-reliant tribe, which of course is nothing like the extended order of commerce on which modern economics is based.
I believe that the insight that we are essentially hunter-gatherer moralists with cell phones makes it easier to understand persistent convictions about corporate conspiracy. It also helps explain naïve Do It Yourself Economic beliefs in grand, centrally-planned solutions to allegedly global problems.
But there is also another critical factor in the equation: the exploitation of economic ignorance and moral misapprehension in pursuit of power.
Capitalism has been seen since before Marx as a “dirty picture.” That dirty picture has been extraordinarily useful in political terms.
I should note that when opponents of the Alberta oil sands – including President Obama — talk about “dirty oil,” they are not talking about any need for soap and water. They are using dirty in the “dirty picture” sense, as morally reprehensible.
Which brings me specifically to climate as a moral issue.
Two recent Global Warming Policy Foundation papers have touched on climate and morality, one by Peter Lee and one by Andrew Montford. Professor Lee differentiates between those who regard the environment in an Eden-like sense, as a pristine system which is corrupted by man, and those who believe that Nature is here for man’s use.
(The elevation of pristine Nature is in fact often synonymous with hatred of man, which goes with the desire to control him, and his wicked ways).
That hatred is particularly strong towards the parody of capitalist man – homo economicus – as a short-sighted, rational maximizer with no concern for his environment or other people beyond their commercial use to him).
Professor Lee acknowledges that pragmatic approaches to poverty, and adaptationists approaches to climate “will not satisfy those… who have unstated ideological ambitions such as anti-capitalism or wealth redistribution enmeshed with their ideas for the mitigation of climate change.”
I would suggest that those ideological ambitions may not just be unstated. Those in their grip may be either unaware of them, or at least reject the notion that they are in any way ideological. It is a peculiarity of the liberal left since Marx to believe that ideology is for others. They, by contrast, are motivated by nothing but “inconvenient truth.”
When Professor Lee concludes with “a plea for balance, transparency, honesty and achievability” in climate policy, I suspect that he realizes that his plea is falling on deaf ears. But then deaf ears are in fact an aspect of evolved moral psychology. I’ll get back to that shortly.
Andrew Montford’s latest paper notes how the “sanctimonious slogans” of “intergenerational justice” don’t seem to fit with the realities of inefficient, bird-mangling windmills, and biofuel policies that starve the poor.
Andrew rightly suggests that “A public debate on the damage being done by climate change policy is long overdue.”
The problem is that the Church of Climate has no interest in such a debate. Indeed, from its perspective, even to listen to opponents is to dignify wicked people. In my book I tell how, In 2009, I attended a conference in New York City organized by the Heartland Institute.
At the end of one of the sessions — on the unfolding disaster of European “green” energy policies (Benny Peiser was on he panel) — a young man spoke up from the back of the room, declaring that he had never witnessed “such hypocrisy.” How, he asked, could the panellists sleep at night?
Benny – obviously puzzled — asked the young man with which parts of their presentations he disagreed. “Oh,” said the young man. “I didn’t come here to listen to the presentations.” And that is very significant.
Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “psychology of taboo” to describe the tendency to regard some perspectives as being so morally wrong as to be both beneath contempt and beyond examination.
Tetlock asked his students their opinions on a number of contentious issues. These included trade in human organs, auctioning adoption licences and buying one’s way out of jury duty. Significantly, buying kidneys, children, or relief from jury service all involve the intrusion of commerce into traditionally “moral” arenas: those of care, family and civic duty.
There is obviously a critical difference between commercial and moral values.
Market values are subjective. Moral values tend to be seen as absolute and non-negotiable. Evolution has “designed” us to regard them that way to make them more effective as motivators. The dark side of non-negotiability is that it involves demonization of those who hold alternative views.
They are, by definition, “immoral” and likely wickedly motivated. These infidels deserve to be silenced, or even eliminated. They certainly should not be listened to.
The climate issue is blanketed with the psychology of taboo, which is what makes reasoned debate with “the faithful” impossible. There is a frightening example in the March, 2015 issue of National Geographic, which contains an article on the “War on Science.”
Climate skeptics are ritually linked with those who believe that vaccination causes autism, and fret about genetically-modified food.
According to the article “It’s very clear… that organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics.” No evidence is provided for why this assertion is so very “clear.”
But apparently, according to the article, “The news media give abundant attention to such mavericks, naysayers, professional controversialists, and table thumpers.” The clear implication is that the media shouldn’t give any attention to these people.
Thus I think that anybody who tries to make a rational moral case with regards climate policy is on a fool’s errand, at least in so far as he imagines his hard-line opponents might be listening.
An American, Alex Epstein, recently published a fine little book called The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein claims that the principal moral value should be that of human flourishing, and I entirely agree with him.
He does an excellent job of outlining the benefits that coal, oil and gas have delivered to mankind, including a cleaner environment. He explains clearly and logically why wind, solar and biofuels are technological dead ends, and why attempting to force these technologies on developing countries amounts to a death sentence.
He exposes how professional doomsters such as Al Gore, Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen and Bill McKibben have been as mendacious as they have been wrong. But surely the really fascinating issue is the moral mindset that makes thundering Jeremiahs such as Gore and co. — and their acolytes, including the President of the United States, and National Geographic magazine – seemingly impervious to rational arguments and objective evidence.
Part of the answer is that — like the young man at Heartland — they are not listening. Their moral intuition tells them that they mustn’t give air time to those “mavericks, naysayers, professional controversialists, and table thumpers.”
In a rational world, dealing with any threat from man-made global warming should be a matter of cost-benefit analysis. But we do not live in a rational world. That is why the only rational creatures in Gulliver’s Travels were horses, and why Mr. Spock, God rest his soul, came from another planet.
Even to appeal to a cool, reasoned “weighing” of costs and benefits is to invite that psychology of taboo: to be shouted down as being prepared to play “Russian roulette with the planet.” But it’s not simply the psychology of taboo.
I mentioned another element: the lust for political power.
There is an American social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt. What is intriguing about Haidt is that he is a left-liberal who perceives that left-liberals might be morally biased. Haidt caused a kerfuffle at a meeting of social psychologists when he asked how many of the thousand or so academics present considered themselves conservatives. Three hands went up.
Haidt suggested that social psychology had become what he called a “tribal moral community,” blind – and deaf — to other perspectives. Haidt’s objectivity appeared admirable, except he didn’t let those conservatives off the hook. The example he put forward of their tribal cognitive bias was … climate change denialism.
He peddled the meme that refusal to acknowledge the catastrophic externalities of climate change was based on irrational – what he called “fundamentalist” — commitment to free markets.
I would suggest that this view in fact reflects a fundamentalist opposition to free markets. Where I do agree with Haidt is that we have forgotten the wisdom of great Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, particularly when it comes to the moral sentiments, and the fact that morality is based on feelings, not reason.
Hume made a crucial point for the climate non-debate: Reason is always a slave to passion.
Smith personified conscience as an “Impartial Spectator” who we internalize to help us assess how others might judge our actions. However, he noted that when “faction and fanaticism” – that is, politics and religion – come in the door, the Impartial Spectator invariably gets shoved out of the window.
Jonathan Swift famously pointed out that: “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” And while mentioning Swift, it may be pertinent to note how, in Gulliver’s Travels, he parodied the Royal Society, portraying them as distracted boffins living on a floating island called Laputa.
Indeed, they were not just distracted, they were also impractical and tyrannical. So perhaps things perhaps haven’t changed that much. I’ll come back to scientists.
But first, another joke.
A duck walks into a bar and asks the barman. “Do you have any corn?” The barman says “No, we don’t have any corn.” So the duck goes away. The next day the duck comes back and asks the barman “Do you have any corn?’ The barman, now a little irritated, says “I told you, we don’t have any corn.”
So the duck waddles off.
The next day. Guess what. The duck walks into the bar and asks “Do you have any corn?” The barman is now angry. “Look,” he says” I’ve told you twice already that we don’t have any corn. If you come in here again and ask for corn I’m going to nail your beak to the bar.”
The duck departs.
The next day — believe it or not — the duck comes back, but this time he asks the barman: “Do you have any nails?” The barman is thunderstruck. “No,” he snaps. “We don’t have any nails.”
“In that case,” says the duck, “Do you have any corn?”
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is said to be the mark of insanity. Now we know that the duck wasn’t entirely insane because of his inquiry about the barman’s supply of nails.
But when it comes to people, I would suggest two other possible interpretations for repeatedly promoting allegedly “moral” policies that produce perverse results, a practice that is sometimes summed up in the word “socialism.”
One is that our moral programming is both automatic and out of date, thus we are impervious to objective refutation, because we simply don’t – indeed can’t – “see” it. The other – and related — explanation of morality promoting perversity is that our real motivations and objectives are not those that we profess.
(I don’t think that this applied to the duck, by the way. I think he really wanted corn). Morality is a profound political motivator, which makes it a convenient cloak for power-seekers.
Al Gore claims that the fact that climate change is a “moral issue” puts it “beyond politics.” This is a transparent attempt to close down political opposition. What makes the tendency of power lust to hide behind moralizing so intriguing is that such motives often seem to be hidden from the power seekers themselves.
I very much doubt that Al Gore sees himself as a Machiavellian fraud.
When the left says “We need power to achieve a more just distribution of wealth and income” or “We need power as a countervailing force against the threat of Big Business” or “We need power to save the world from industrial society” they could really stop at “We need power.” The rest is – to a significant degree — rationalization.
I’m not saying, of course, that we should have no welfare system, or that corporations are never politically dangerous, or that there are no environmental problems. It’s that such concerns tend to be exaggerated, or even entirely falsified, because they are so politically useful.
The fascinating chicken and egg question is: does morality dictate the search for power, or does the search for power dictate morality? In fact, the two seem to be inseparable.
My moral psychologist friend Jonathan Haidt has a wonderful metaphor for the relative size and nature of the subconscious, which I believe applies particularly to the political subconscious.
He says that we are like people riding psychic elephants, but unaware that we are riding elephants. We think that we are in charge, but it is the elephant who decides our direction. We are merely the elephant’s PR man, or lawyer, concocting plausible rationalizations for where we find ourselves going.
What is fascinating is that Haidt doesn’t seem to consider that the left-liberal view of the world that pervades climate catastrophism might be the rider’s rationalization for the elephant’s desire to control others.
I said I would come back to why scientists might be morally-charged, impractical and tyrannical. Peter Lee’s paper touches on the link between morality, science and politics in the case of the late Princeton Professor Stephen Schneider.
Schneider infamously said that scientists have to balance being truthful with being effective in promoting what he called “a better world.” As Professor Lee points out, this amounts to the subversion of science for moral/political ends.
We also need to look very closely at what this allegedly “better world” looks like. I’m sure it would be very authoritarian, but much more Fidel Castro than Lee Kwan Yew.
Meanwhile guess who the latest Synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is dedicated to? Stephen Schneider.
I mentioned Thomas Kuhn earlier, and his assertion that having a moral element makes any scientific paradigm particularly difficult to shift.
The moral element of “official” climate science is huge. It is that the alleged problem is caused by capitalism’s hogging of the atmosphere, and that the consequences will fall hardest on poor people. These assumptions are as resistant to challenge as the pre-Copernican theory of planetary motion.
The notion that the earth is the centre of the universe was inextricably mixed up with man’s assessment of his own God-given, and God-like, significance. The theory of catastrophic man-made climate change is inextricably mixed up with moral condemnation of an industrial system allegedly based on greed, exploitation and the rape of nature.
But the alleged solution presumes God-like powers of controlling the weather. As I’m sure you know – the Pope is shortly to produce an encyclical on climate, thus maintaining the Church’s perfect record, since Galileo, of backing the wrong paradigm.
The Pope’s intrusion confirms that climate is very much a moral/religious issue. I believe it has deep psychological roots in notions of divine punishment and salvation.
The Biblical story of the Flood bears remarkable similarity to current climate concerns. Bad behaviour (in the form of greed, crass materialism and attendant greenhouse gas emissions) will lead to a mighty inundation (caused by the melting of the polar ice caps). This requires a “chosen” Noah to protect biodiversity aboard a wind and solar-powered policy Ark.
Suddenly we’re back to David Henderson’s “unreflecting centralism.” Scientists are as prone to Do It Yourself economics as anyone. Indeed more so. It seems merely obvious to brilliant non-economists that the world would best be organized by grand central plans organized by bright and well-intended people…such as themselves.
As Friedrich Hayek noted, the thing that intelligent people tend most to overestimate is the power of intelligence.
Albert Einstein was one of the greatest scientists of all time, but he wrote of the “economic anarchy of capitalist society” and strongly advocated a “planned economy.”
Scientists also tend, like most people, to be zero-sum neo-Malthusians, and, as Rupert Darwal points out in his excellent book, The Age of Global Warming, they are often seem to be uninterested in the lessons of history.
They also inevitably represent a tribal moral community. As such it is extremely difficult to deviate from the conventional paradigm without being excommunicated.
The persecution of Lennart Bengtsson after he agreed to become associated with the Global Warming Policy Foundation provides one example. The recent witch hunt in the U.S. to link fossil fuel funding with eminent skeptical scientists such as Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry confirms how far left-liberal politicians will go to crush dissent.
The inhabitants of Laputa, too, have covered themselves in shame over climate. One of the many egregious examples was the Royal Society’s promotion of Australian cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky.
Lewandowsky’s contribution to science was a bogus study that linked climate skepticism to the belief that the moon landings had been faked. The most effective rebuttal of this thesis is that two prominent skeptics, Harrison Schmidt and Buzz Aldrin, have been to the moon.
Belief in extreme weather is also particularly prone to that feature of human psychology known as “confirmation bias.” There is always extreme weather happening somewhere, indeed at many places, all over the earth, so if you are worried about climate catastrophe, you will find lots of examples to feed your anxiety.
The Doobie Brothers had a hit with a profound message. They sang “What a Fool believes, he sees.” But it’s not just fools. Seeing may be believing, but far more important is that believing is seeing. Walls may have ears. but ears also have walls.
The most impermeable walls are those built of moral assumptions and blind adherence to alleged authority and group beliefs. Al Gore, as I suggested earlier, is sitting aboard a very large and devious elephant. But An Inconvenient Truth wasn’t the only factually- challenged, morally-charged, climate blockbuster of 2006. That year also saw the Stern Review.
Lord Stern is small, but his elephant boosts him very far off the ground. His review demonstrated how easy it is to corrupt cost-benefit analysis if you have a moral/political agenda.
Stern effortlessly danced around Alex Epstein’s claim that human flourishing should be the central moral value.
Stern maintained that he was indeed speaking up for human flourishing, but for the flourishing of future generations. Stern’s moral majority is unassailable because it consists of all the multitudes of the unborn, for whom he, in his ethical nobility, will speak up.
No amount of rational analysis or objective science will have the slightest influence on people such as Gore or Stern or Hansen or McKibben once you see them as morally-inflated mouthpieces for authoritarian socialist elephants, of which they are totally – indeed necessarily – unaware.
Meanwhile, their herd is eagerly followed by the group-thinking dung spreaders of the fashionable left-liberal media. Although I’m a big fan of Andrew Montford, I disagree with some of the conclusions of his two incisive studies of Climategate.
In the first he suggested that there was a conscious recognition on the part of scientists and bureaucrats that support for climatism went with enhanced career opportunities. But psychological “elephants” like to keep such thoughts to themselves. Riders tend to articulate nothing but concern for the planet and a burning desire to speak up for the vulnerable.
Andrew also suggested – in his second analysis of Climategate – that the perpetrators of climatism were self-aware liars. Again, I disagree. Like Stephen Schneider they see themselves as concerned only with higher, moral truth.
And what higher moral truth and purpose could there be than saving the world from greedy, feckless, short-sighted, earth-trampling capitalism?
The concept of Global salvationism – which was analyzed by David Henderson in his book The Role of Business in the Modern World — brings me to another man sitting atop a particularly large and Machiavellian pachyderm, my fellow Canadian Maurice Strong.
I devote a chapter of my book to Strong and suggest that he is virtually a one-man psychological compendium of the factors driving the climate agenda: professed high moral purpose, demonization of capitalism, and a desperate urge to control other peoples’ lives.
Meanwhile I don’t think it’s excessively cynical to note that those who, like Strong, suggest that we do not pay – or pay enough — for the services of the earth goddess Gaia are well aware that Gaia does not have a bank account. They, however, are more than prepared to act as her trustees.
Strong’s aspirations to global governance stand in remarkable contrast both to the constant pratfalls involved in him trying to be a kind of one-man mixed economy, and to the fact that — in his autobiography — he freely acknowledges the incompetence and corruption of the United Nations.
Strong was critical in advancing the climate and sustainability agenda until he – inadvertently — took money laundered from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
In conclusion, I believe that climate moralists are impervious to the adverse impact of their policies because their morality is closely interwoven with misunderstanding of economics, distaste for capitalism, lack of interest in history and the overwhelming desire of their psychic elephants to dictate how other people should live.
The climate issue has to be seen as the latest chapter in the two century long battle to use the alleged moral shortcomings of capitalism to justify political power.
I suspect, however, that climatism – like its authoritarian predecessors — will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions rather than from acknowledgement by its acolytes that they are – like the man who went to the psychiatrist – just seeing dirty pictures.
Peter Foster, who was born and educated in England, is an author and columnist with the Toronto-based National Post. Why We Bite the Invisible Hand is his ninth book and his first in 20 years.
This is a transcript of a talk Foster delivered in the House of Lords, Committee Room 3 – London 24 March 2015. It is republished here by kind permission of the author.