Saturday, January 31, 2009

Michael Shermer on Anarchism

Mind of the MarketIn his otherwise brilliant book, The Mind of the Market, Shermer made a couple of jabs at anarchism, which I would like to respond to. Also realize that I'm not deriding his critiques of anarchism simply because I disagree with them - if he had made an in-depth & well thought out (i.e. rational) critique of it, I'd applaud him for doing so - I'm deriding them because he totally glossed over the subject.

This is a bad thing for two reasons. For one, from a strictly intellectual perspective, it's a lost opportunity to explore an interesting topic. Secondly though, it makes for bad argumentation.

That being said, I will now quote the parts of the book addressing anarchism.

"Kropotkin may have been an anarchist, but he was no crackpot when it came to human nature."

~The Mind of the Market, Page 22

The problem with the above statement is that it makes a gross conflation. He uses the word "Crackpot" in reference to anarchism. That word is generally used to reference ideas that have been scientifically discredited. Anarchism has not been scientifically discredited, however. One might argue that unfalsifiable claims like creationism haven't been scientifically discredited, but anarchism is falsifiable (on a pragmatic level, that is), & creationism stands in opposition to a scientific fact (thus implying by necessity the falsifiable claim that evolution didn't happen), whereas anarchism does not, being that statism is not a scientific fact.

Now, one may point out that most economists aren't anarchists, & indeed, communism (both centralized & anarcho-communism) has been scientifically discredited (unless you don't consider an economic consensus to be equivalent to a consensus in the natural sciences) by economists. But that's considering the fact that economists have studied communism thoroughly. The topic of whether or not the private sector can handle the tasks of security & arbitration however has received very little attention, so it can't really be said that there's a true scientific consensus regarding market anarchism since a scientific consensus regards things that have been studied.

That's not to say that there haven't been debates amongst economists regarding this topic, but as of now, they're just that - debates.

So my point stands that market anarchism has not in any way been scientifically discredited. In fact, Bruce L. Benson, who's considered an academic authority in the new field known as Law and Economics has dedicated An Entire Book to making the case for a private legal system.

To summarize, Shermer grossly misused the word "Crackpot," & while I suspect no deliberate dishonesty on his part, the effect of this message is very disingenuous.

"If economies are best driven from the bottom up and not the top down, and if consumer-driven free markets are more fair and efficient than producer-driven mercantilist markets, how far can we take this generalization? There are extremists who embrace the ideology of anarcho-capitalism, which holds that political systems will eventually fall into disuse (in the same manner but for different reasons and with different results than Karl Marx predicted). Public social services will be privatized gradually so that eventually the entire planet will be one global free market with no economic or political borders, with no hostile states, with minimum crime and criminals, and in which disputes will be settled through private arbitration. Transhumanists -- those who believe that one day we will evolve into genetically engineered biorobots capable of significantly greater strength, intelligence, and lifespan -- even envision the day when this free market society will not only span the globe, but extend into space as we colonize a terraformed Mars. Eventually transhumans will establish societies on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and in other solar systems, and ultimately, over the course of millions of years, the galaxy itself will become an integrated market of explorer-colonizer-traders. Who knows, some futurists imagine -- perhaps a billion years from now we will be colonizing other galaxies, and in a few tens of billions of years the entire cosmos.
          Such utopian visions sound so Lennonesque! Imagine no borders, no countries. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man. But as the sage pop philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

~The Mind of the Market, Page 43

First of all, the whole thing is an Argument from Incredulity. & When he quoted Yogi Berra, he managed to fit in a Thought-Terminating Cliché. Regarding that statement, if he had argued that there's no empirical data to back up anarcho-capitalist theory, that would've been fine, but instead he just hashed out the tired old complaint about X being too theoretical.

Now, the first thing he said was very intriguing. The question of just 'how far we can take this generalization' is both a very important question & a very fascinating one as well. This is why I was so disappointed when he glossed over it.

He then proceeded to define anarcho-capitalism, but he didn't do a very good job at it. Anarcho-Capitalism as an ethical doctrine is of adherence to the Non-Aggression Principle; in economic terms, it's the theory that all the functions of government can be provided by the private sector. That's it. It also helps to know that anarchy simply means "an" = without "archy" rulers. Lawlessness is anomie, not anarchy. Indeed, anarchy would not be a coherent concept without laws since it prohibits the existence of rulers & the act of ruling. Also, in case any of you go running to the dictionary, remember that the dictionary only lists how words are used, not their historical meaning, & dictionaries don't discuss semantics in-depth.

Before I make my point though, I want you to consider the question, what's the best source to consult regarding, say, the definition of a communist society? None other than the Communist Manifesto of course! When it comes to definitions, practical considerations are set aside. Anyways, anybody who argues with the CM on the definition of a communist society would surely be thought a fool, & rightly so. That being said, anarchism has historically been about respect for the NAP (Though it hasn't always been labeled as the NAP), with a split between the anarcho-socialists & the anarcho-capitalists on the interpretation of it. It has never been about the advocacy of chaos, lawlessness, or an opposition to social organization, so to conflate anarchism with any of those things would be to deny history. & What better definition of anarchy can there be than the one espoused by anarchism?

So anarcho-capitalists don't necessarily think that anarchy is inevitable. But even if they did, you'd still need to explain why this belief is wrong. & Comparing it to Marxism doesn't count as a legitimate argument; for one, it's a non-sequitur, but also, Marx wasn't wrong about everything.

He also labels ancaps as extremists, as if that's relevant to truth. But the truth is, whether something is moderate or extreme is totally irrelevant to its validity. Indeed, atheism is 'extreme,' as is the idea that evolution happened unassisted, but that doesn't make either of these ideas any less true. As well, extreme is a relative term; after all, the people who wanted equality under the law regardless of race back in the 19th Century were extremists - now, to deviate from that extremism is extreme; the same thing goes for the founding fathers.

He simply lists the belief that disputes can be settled through private arbitration, but doesn't dispute it. & He also harps on the idea of a world without borders. Ironically, Shermer himself had attested to the the growing level of global interdependence that's making war less & less profitable. So, if he's skeptical of the idea that eventually borders & nations will slowly disintegrate, that's fine, but he should also have an answer to the question of why.

He also discusses transhumanism, which was not at all necessary since it's not an important aspect of anarcho-capitalist theory. The bigger problem with this however was that he didn't mention that not all ancaps believe this, thus giving the false impression that we're all fantasy-prone futurists.

& Then there's this line, "No need for greed or hunger." The problem is that it's simply not true. Neither is the claim that we believe that there will be "A brotherhood of man." & Finally, he called us utopian, when that is also blatantly false.

To summarize, while Michael Shermer is a brilliant writer who generally does his homework, he really screwed up this time around. It's forgivable, we all say something stupid somewhere along the line. The point is though that he obviously knows next to nothing about anarcho-capitalism, he committed many logical fallacies, & he was unjustifiably close-minded towards the idea as he failed to give it a fair hearing & instead dismissed it for no good reason, showing once again that even the most brilliant, & most skeptical, people can fall prey to dogmatic cultural norms.