Free Market Fundamentalism & The War on Drugs

What is free market fundamentalism? Free market fundamentalism is a term I encountered in the book Merchants of Doubt, and it refers to people that think that free markets can solve all our societal problems. 

Whenever there are societal problems that can be solved using legislation, you can count on these people to come out of the woodwork and decry the "nanny state", moan about slippery slopes and claim the moral high ground because to them liberty means that one dollar equals one vote. This world view is very favourable to the rich, who repackage it and sell it to ordinary people under the guise of ending government corruption and coercion.

It's been suggested that there are some points of agreement, like the agreement on the war on drugs for example.

For example, according to free market fundamentalists the war on drugs is immoral and should be ended. This is an example of agreement, but only very partially, and to a degree that is almost trivial. Even though progressives such as myself think we agree with them, we don't really in any meaningful sense. We agree the drug war should end. But we disagree on why. We don't disagree because we think that the state using force is always unjustified, as they do. We think the state using force in this instance is not justified. State force must be the last, and not the first way to deal with problems in society. 

We also disagree on the desired outcome. Progressives want legalized drugs, state issued to addicts to ensure quality and purity for health reasons, complimented by government funded treatment programs and informational campaigns to prevent people from trying drugs.

Free market fundamentalists want a free open market for drugs. That means  the possibility of animated billboards with stylish photos of models shooting up heroin, drug dealers hanging around schools and selling to children, and brands competing to make the purest, most potent, most addictive drugs as available to the public as possible. Would you like a few grams of cocaine with your happy meal?

These free market fundamentalists want whatever a free market has to give, no matter how bad it is, because the free market itself is more important than what its outcomes could be. The war on drugs is bad policy to us, but to free market fundamentalists it is evidence that governments are inherently bad. It doesn't even matter if governments reform, because the way these fundamentalists gather evidence is very flexible. It needn't be existing laws, leaders or politics. Any evidence can be cherry picked from anywhere or any time such that brutal Asian dictators from the former part of the twentieth century are proof that government is bad, but good leadership and governments are not counter evidence. The war on drugs is just another chapter in their book of apologetics, and there isn't much agreement there anyway, so I think it's probably best not to focus on the minor point of agreement that the war on drugs should be ended. 

Why Send People to Mars?

I had a conversation with someone the other day, where he shared with me that his nephew had just completed his studies in physics. He asked his nephew what the practical use was of "all this stuff". To him, being a business man, this made perfect sense. Two days later his nephew came back with an answer. "We can use this to find mineral deposits!". This was a satisfying answer to him. 

But why could it be useful to know the habits of a naked mole rat, or to send people to Mars? I could give a facetious answer like "because we can" or I could give an apologetic answer, pointing out how finding out how the atom worked helped us to develop things like atomic power and computers. Although, we could very well say that someone who wanted to invent better power generation or do massive calculations could discover all those things in service of those purposes. Why can't all scientists be Hank Rearden[1] like figures who invent near magical things that elevate them to capitalist hero status? Why is it that we send people and robots to other planets when people on earth are starving and dying of disease? Isn't there at least a moral case for making science serve humanitarian needs only, or a capitalistic case for science to serve business interests only?

I think that curiosity is the ultimate driver for science, and that we explore the universe because we don't know what we might find. When I move into a new area, I like to drive around and literally get lost there. It might sound strange and silly, but there is a lame sense of adventure I get from that, and I also learn things about the area I would have never known had I only stuck to the roads I knew. After getting lost somewhere and finding your way, you know a place better than you did before, even better than people that live there in some cases. A seemingly pointless exercise at the outset can become a journey of discovery, and when you return home, you return enriched.

The problem of pointing science at any particular problem is that we don't know what we don't know. We didn't know that we needed to understand the nature of light in order to see broken bones in living people. Many obscure discoveries might end up meeting with problems they never sought out to solve, and then, seemingly like magic, they step in and save the day. We don't know if naked mole rats can teach us something about our circadian rhythms, and then out of left field we can find a way to treat insomnia. I would hazard a guess that a lot of good science that has changed lives came from curious people looking in unlikely or even seemingly uninteresting places. 

Robert Sapolsky spent a considerable amount of time in the savannas of Africa taking blood samples from baboons[2] to measure their glucocorticoid levels, and what we ended up learning is that stress had physiological, and not just psychological symptoms. If we had to ask how we intend to help humanity or make money with each scientific endeavour, we would still end up going down some blind alleys, but we would never find the good things we weren't looking for in the first place. 

Perhaps there is another case to be made as well. Maybe curiosity is part of the human experience, and to rob ourselves of it will be a disservice to our own experience of the world. Maybe curiosity for its own sake is justified, and the profits or humanitarian advantages are just the additional unexpected reward for a process that is itself rewarding to engage in. Carl Sagan speaks quite poetically about this in the original Cosmos series, which I think is a good quote to end this post with too.
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” - Carl Sagan, Cosmos

1. For those who haven't had the displeasure of reading Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden is one of the protagonists in that novel that invents Rearden metal, an amazing metal that is basically perfect. Think adamantium, but better.
2. I highly recommend Sapolsky's book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers , which details his findings in a very accessible and often humorous way.

Nothing of the Gaps?

This post is a direct response to the post The Nothing of the Gaps at the Two Catholic Men and a Blog blog.

Sometimes I like to have a peek over the picket fence to see what is going on in the apologetics corner. I'm never disappointed by the results, and by never I mean always.

The post in question states the following:
“Any thinking Christian will, of course, acknowledge the many secondary causes that exist in all of reality, but God as the first cause of all things material and immaterial is a non-negotiable dogma. Likewise, a strict materialist or strong atheist will recognize secondary causes, but do they not essentially defer to “nothing” as the ultimate answer to certain gaps? So we end up with "the nothing of the gaps".”

Luckily, I have an answer handy about essentially deferring to the nothing of the gaps. Do atheists do it? No. What is the nothing of the gaps anyway? It seems to me that Ben thinks that not having an answer is an invalid position, that saying we don't know means we are wrong and someone who claims an answer is more right, whatever that may mean.

Ben goes on to give examples. Which I will address in turn:

The Gap from Meaning:

Since you've read the post, I won't quote the whole thing, but his essential objection to atheists being able to create their own meaning is that "meaning is received, not made. ". His argument for meaning being received, not made is unknown. There is no argument for that. We are forced to conclude that Ben just sees meaning this way based on his own subjective interpretation of meaning, or maybe based on what Ratzinger has said. Unfortunately, Ratzinger holds no authority on this blog. 

If you want to read more about atheism and meaning, I've written quite a bit about that

The Gap from Goodness:

Ben asks the imaginary atheist:
“Q: What is the ultimate source for the good, the beautiful and the true?”

He imagines atheists saying “nothing”, but I object to the question itself. Why are we to believe that there is an ultimate source for anything in the first place? If we had found that beauty is biological would that count as an ultimate source? I’m not sure what the requirements would be for an ultimate source, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben was setting up a question that could really only have one answer based on his understanding of the question, and that is “god”.

The Gap from Intelligence:

Ben asks where the intelligibility of the universe comes from, and answers on behalf of his imaginary atheist that the answer should be nothing. Once again I need to emphasize that each of these questions can be answered simply if we say that we don’t know. Is the universe truly intelligible, or do we see from our simple ape existence a mirage of intelligibility? What is apparent is intelligible, but underlying that things might become “queerer than we can suppose”. As far as real intelligibility is concerned, there are serious challenges to human reason in the form of philosophical problems and problems of perception that make the universe kind of weird. We still see the sun as “rising” even though we know it doesn’t. We still develop small superstitions even though we know they are rationally unfounded. Maybe there is a limit to intelligibility, and maybe when people like Ben approach that limit, they inject a 50cc dose of theology to obscure the reality that we are in a strange place we barely understand for reasons unknown based on things we may never be able to comprehend. 

Finally, Ben says “Today’s “progressive” thinking is that a highly ordered and intelligible universe must clearly come from mindlessness…clearly. One might call this having an irrational "faith" in chance.”

I don’t know where he has been looking, but the argument has never been that the universe clearly comes from mindlessness. The argument is that we don’t possess adequate information to draw the conclusion that it is a mind. In the absence of such information, saying it is a mind is not responsible. I just wonder what is so great about a mind, and I wonder if elephants believe the universe was made with a trunk? We just cannot draw these far reaching conclusions about the nature of literally everything without having a lot more information, and blaming people for finding such overreached conclusions unconvincing isn’t going to help either.

Hillary Clinton Doesn't Understand Corruption

Hillary Clinton shaking hands with George Soros, a wealthy donor to her campaign
I have been following the US presidential election with keen interest. Usually I don't, and I didn't really care about the Obama elections. The difference this time around is that Bernie Sanders is making things interesting, and raising issues that I believe affect not only the US, but all of us.

The article "Clinton blasts Wall Street, but still draws millions in contributions" on The Washington Post, details Clinton's relationship with the financial industry, and quotes some of her responses to the accusation that she is being influenced by her financiers. First, it is a fact that she is receiving a lot of money from the financial industry, and that her increased criticism of them did not stem the tide of dollars flowing toward her campaign. Her response to the accusation?

“Anybody who knows me, who thinks they can influence me, name anything they’ve influenced me on. Just name one thing,”

I don't write about U.S. politics, but this quote, to me, reflects a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of corrupt politics. An excellent book that illuminated the topic to me was Bad Pharma, by Ben Goldacre. Goldacre writes about the pharmaceutical industry, and how they get their way around regulation. Far from surreptitious suitcases of money passing under tables, corruption is much more insidious. What campaign contributors are paying for is not to let a list of policies they wrote to be put into effect, or having veto on bills that could be negative to them, it's about friendship.

These donors are friends of Clinton, and friends do what friends do. They move in the same social circles. They go to the same dinner parties. They have the opportunity to sell their point of view to a political candidate in their circles. This very same audience is not afforded to those with other points of view, who aren't allowed a seat at the dinner table. Clinton may not realise this, but the friends she keeps shapes the way she looks at the world, and it is no surprise that what they want to shape in her worldview agrees with theirs. To their eyes, they are not corrupt either. They are merely supporting someone with whom they agree. Influence needn't be direct and conspicuous to work. 

These friendships usually have invisible strings attached. There is an unspoken agreement of what is acceptable and what is not. Without even seeing these strings, it is likely that Clinton will move according to where they tug. Sanders on the other hand, receives donations from common people, so by the same logic, the public is tugging at his strings. This is exactly what voters want in a candidate. Clinton may represent voters to a good degree, but will she have dinner with you, an ordinary voter? Will she have dinner with the CFO of the bank that is exploiting you? Are you comfortable with the answers to those questions?

You may believe you are not influenced by someone else, but if they shower you with compliments and boat loads of cash, it isn't hard to form a favourable opinion about them, and by extension to give more weight to what they have to say as opposed to those who disagree with them. If you have to be tough on them, won't you try to reason with them to find compromise? I can't say that I wouldn't. I don't have enough faith in the objectivity of the human animal to think that getting millions in contributions, or hundreds of thousands of dollars just for speaking, will not skew the opinion of any human being. So unless Clinton is a Vulcan, resigned completely to logical thought, I wouldn't bet money, and even less so a vote that she will not be influenced by her wealthy donors. I'll end this post with a quote from Bal Das, one of her wealthy donors, which I think speaks for itself:

She is not saying anything that someone deeply involved in the financial services sector would disagree with.

False Equivalence & Religion

It's very much in fashion, especially for newly minted atheists, to call everything they don't like a religion. Until you learn that dogma, orthodoxy, authoritarianism, schisms, cults of personality and all the other negative things we see in religion are not unique to supernatural beliefs.
I've even seen some religious believers engage atheists in this way. Apparently if they can convince an atheist that some belief they hold is a religion, the atheist must reject it out of hand simply because they don't believe in religion. The trouble is that this relies on a very skewed, vague and infinitely malleable definition of what religion is. To use words meaningfully we need to restrict them to be specific enough to make sense, and religion defined as a bad and wrong belief is not tenable because it isn't useful, and this is exactly the kind of thing that is happening here. 

The argument to me looks like this:

1. Dogs have ears, a tongue, two eyes and a nose
2. Humans have ears, a tongue, two eyes and a nose
3. By comparing things and finding similarities between them, we can declare them to be equivalent
4. Humans and dogs have similarities
5. Therefore humans and dogs are equivalent

That nasty little premise 3 is what drives the argument, and I see it in many atheist circles. 

The final blow is when you start to look for dissimilarities instead of similarities and they pile up to the point where you forgot why you thought the two things were similar in the first place. It takes only a tiny scratch beneath the surface of this type of argument to see how fallacious it is.  

In my opinion it's a lazy way to try and win an argument with an atheist, because all atheists accept that religion is false, so merely equating something to religion automatically wins the argument, because the atheist must reject all religion out of hand. It really is painful to read these types of arguments. I would call for an end to this argument, but it will probably fall on deaf ears. Gotcha arguments with little substance are too easy and too tempting. It has another rather nasty side effect. Some atheists place religious people in a category of unreasonable and dogmatic, and it can be dangerous to place people in that category regardless of whether they are actual believers or not, but spraying every belief you disagree with the colour of religion you can come to believe that the people that hold to that belief are also unreasonable and dogmatic.

Each idea deserves its own day in the court of reason, without desperate false equivalence coming into play. If we don't take the bait, and accept that there is a possibility that people hold different beliefs to us for what they perceive to be completely valid reasoning, maybe we can come to a better understanding of that belief system. By merely equating another person's belief with something you know to be false, you are just excusing yourself from the hard task of really thinking about it. 

A (no doubt incomplete) list of false claims to being "religions":
  • feminism
  • libertarianism 
  • statism 
  • capitalism 
  • patriotism
  • scientism
  • democracy
  • evolution
  • environmentalism
  • climate change
So either we are all irrational raging zealots, or perhaps the extension of religion to anything we disagree with is not a very good argument.

Does Ridicule Play a Role in Discourse?

This is a tough question that has been bothering me for quite some time. Is ridicule a valid way to disagree, or does it simply push others away from your positions?

I think that ridicule makes sense when we ridicule something and not someone. I don't think the difference is all that subtle. The image above was lifted from a religious blog, and it depicts something that seems instinctively wrong. Pointing and laughing at a person is something we perceive as being wrong, because we don't want people to do that to us. But it's perfectly reasonable to attack an idea or a thing.

That brings us to satire. Satire has a long relationship with humanity. It is meant to show something absurd about something we do or believe. It can be very effective when the thing it is making fun of is true. Satire takes that which is taboo or holy and slaughters it on the altar of reason. What we do when we ridicule ideas and institutions is that we remove their holiness. Their unassailable characteristics are the target of fun. Satire wears down outrage like the ocean wears down the pebbles into sand.

If everyone had drawn silly pictures of Muhammed every day, then there wouldn't be enough extremists to violently attack everyone. Christianity is so beaten down by jokesters and blasphemers that some christians have come to believe that god "surely has a sense of humour". Their predecessors however would have wanted to see heads roll if their god's name was taken in vain. This causes a shock arms race, with each new generation of funny person needing to push the envelope of insult. On a deeper level, we learn to detach ideas from our identities, because satire attacks ideas viciously, and in order to avoid the constant hurt and emotional upheavel from being offended, we emotionally distance ourselves from our ideas. From there we can take an outsider's perspective that we wouldn't have been able to take before.

But what about respect? I often talk about respect and how important it is, because it lays the foundation of a productive discussion on any topic. Ridicule can be respectful, given that it follows a few basic guidelines. Good ridicule is based on something that is factual. Even if it is exaggerated, the point bringing brought across needs to have its basis in fact. Making fun of someone or a group for what they are not is disrespectful, and therefore it breeds tension and mistrust instead of an environment that is healthy for disagreement. Good ridicule avoids low blows. Focussing solely on the superficial characteristics of those you disagree with is not only disrespectful, but the precursor to dehumanisation. Good ridicule needs to be defensible as an argument, when al l the exaggeration is stripped away. A thoughtful person who sees something they believe in being ridiculed should be able to think carefully and find some underlying argument thy can think about. Ridicule just for the sake of convincing ourselves that we are superior to others who are on our side is counter-productive. Finally, ridicule should not be the only way we communicate. If we ridicule a belief we should also be ready to refute it in an intellectual space.  Ridicule can be an easy route for people to feel that they are taking part in a debate, when in actual fact they are not.

In essence, ridicule is a tool like any other tool of discussion. It can be used for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. I think a sincere approach to ridicule is warranted. We should think of it as a way to get peoples' attention, to get them thinking about our arguments, and to wear down their knee-jerk reactions to the criticism of ideas that are considered holy. Singling people out to harm them with ridicule is usually a bad idea, but ridiculing ideas in general is good when used correctly. What you will learn if you try to avoid ridicule is that nobody listens to you. Sometimes you need a megaphone to be heard, and emotionally speaking ridicule is just that.  

Techno Utopianism

Techno Utopia. It is the place where technology has progressed so far that it has solved all our problems. There is no more hunger, thirst, cancer or want. Our lives are vastly better, stress free, marked by copious amounts of leisure. We've overcome the the daily grind. Isn't it great? Ahhhh sit back. Relax. 

It's a lovely vision, and every generation has that vision for the next. If machines do the work man won't have to, and we can have more leisure time. Every generation machines do more of the work, yet here we are still working a little less than before, but not a lot. So there is an obvious mismatch. It seems obvious to the current generation that if we make more efficient technology we will need to work less to produce the same amount of goods, but with each generation the drive to produce more is stronger than the drive to have more leisure time. Clearly technology doesn't track leisure. If you want to tell me it does because I get to watch DVDs on my home entertainment system, well my grandparents used their leisure time to go for walks under a starlit night sky. Are we really better off?

Techno Utopianism seems to be premised on the idea that technology will be used for good. Uber is the disruptive technology that will save us from the nasty taxi operators, or even render personal car ownership obsolete? But does it benefit the drivers? How does it vet drivers to ensure they are qualified to safely transport passengers? Is Uber the benevolent dictator of transport we need? Bitcoin, a deflationary currency that is uncontrolled, and biases early adopters to become wealthy. Really that good? Anonymous online currency? Good for drug and weapon traffickers, but optimists who promote the technology only see positive things coming out of it. People have a wealth of information at their fingertips, but search engines mercilessly deliver them to places that coddle their own beliefs and ideology. It's as if we revolutionized everything except ourselves.

Enough with the examples already! Are we doomed to invent new ways to make ourselves miserable? How do we measure the outcome of a new technology. It seems to me that many new technologies have a golden window. That is the time in which the new technology is praised and acts in a positive way. It is the time before someone finds a way to exploit it. It's like software. Each new release works securely until someone finds a way to exploit its flaws. The mistake that we shouldn't make is to look at this initial period of techno-benevolence and draw conclusions purely from that. 

But that is probably not even the most important issue, which is that beyond basic needs, technology has almost no effect. To people of the early 20th century, it gave them a better way to murder each other in masses. The techno utopia was more like a dystopian nightmare, culminating in the most vicious and unforgiving weapon ever deployed: the nuclear bomb. 

You can't blame technology however. The same people that praise technology for solving our social problems, are the kinds of people that place blame on technology for creating social problems. The truth as I see it is vastly simpler. Technology doesn't create the problem, and it won't solve it. If society was ready for more leisure time, we could have had it by now. If society was more interested in curing cancer than smart bombs we would have probably been some distance further in combating the disease.  Still, I see many people posting about technology as if it is a panacea. If only we moved a little further into the future, our social problems will be solved! Technology doesn't do that, social movement and activism does. Spanish inquisitors would have used the internet as a tool of oppression, so the vision of the internet as a great tool of social revolutions is misguided.