Monday, December 13, 2004

Statism is not creationism

Via Crumb Trail, a critique of statism as tantamount to creationism, by Don Boudreaux, an economics professor at George Mason University, and apparently an ardent libertarian.

He writes that just as creationism insists that only an intelligent, intentional creator could create the marvelous order and complexity of living creatures, so do statists (he focuses his ire on left-liberals) insist that only an intelligent, intentional government can create order and prosperity in society. Both fundamentally fail to see that order can emerge spontaneously from chaos. Natural selection shows how mindless algorithms create design, and Hayek-ian market theory shows how social order emerges from individual self-interest.

This analogy is intended to sting people like me - committed Darwinians who despise creationism yet are left-liberals also committed to the use of state power to improve society. Fortunately for me though, the analogy is flawed, in two basic ways.

Creationism makes easily-rejected empirical claims, whereas statism makes normative claims that are harder to dismiss

Creationism and statism are different kinds of theories. Creationism is a descriptive theory, claiming to present the actual history of the origin of life, and it is false on empirical grounds. Though most of its proponents have normative motivations (i.e., hating 'godless' evolution), the theory of creationism itself makes no normative judgments and therefore stands or falls (i.e., falls) on empirical facts. In contrast, statism is both descriptive and normative: it claims that the state is the best provider of order, prosperity, etc., and bases these claims on both empirical facts (about what the state can do) and value judgments (about what things are worth doing, the relative values of liberty and equality, etc.). Thus, the debate between creationism and evolution is largely a no-brainer if you accept the facts, whereas the debate between statism and libertarianism is much harder to resolve.

To draw further on this distinction: The similarity between natural selection and free markets is that they operate by stupid, intention-less principles. Without intention, they are morality-neutral, and thus may not always produce good or desirable results. Natural selection has produced monstrosities that are "good" in the sense of reproducing well, but pretty awful in any other sense - parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in caterpillars, which the wasp larvae then devour alive once they hatch; all sorts of horrible diseases; etc. Similarly, free markets do not necessarily produce results that match human ends - e.g., depending on your moral views, the inequality produced by free markets might be a bad thing. There is no recourse when natural selection produces "bad" results, but statism posits that the state can fix the bad results of the market.

Furthermore, natural selection and free market theory rely on different logics, which their similar reliance on mindless, non-intentional algorithms obscures. The logic of natural selection guarantees that over a long time, populations change to become better at reproducing (and thus more "adapted"), because the genes of individuals that are better-reproducing tend to become more widespread in the population. In contrast, free markets have no such guarantee because they are not subject to this selective pressure. They really do arise spontaneously. It's like those disclaimers that say, "this product is provided 'as is' and we make no guarantees on its quality." Free markets do not replicate themselves with slight mutations, such that those that more efficiently distribute resources reproduce faster than those that don't. Without this pressure to increase order over time, we're stuck with whatever imperfections arise spontaneously from a certain market system.

Statism does not posit an 'uncaused Creator'

God is a skyhook; states are cranes. Cranes and skyhooks are another Dennett metaphor: both cranes and skyhooks can raise objects from the ground, but cranes are also based on the ground, while skyhooks appear out of nowhere from the sky, in contradiction of the laws of physics. Natural selection is a crane because it builds up design from undesign, whereas creationism is a skyhook because it requires a deus ex machina, a supernatural power that merely begs the question - it can't explain its own design.

In contrast, states are cranes, not skyhooks. They are institutions made up of people, organized to exercise legitimate coercion over a defined territory. These people live within society, not outside it. No statist ascribes supernatural powers to the state. So, statism is unlike creationism in that it doesn't posit skyhooks.

Moreover, as this commenter points out, in some ways libertarianism invokes an uncaused Creator much more than Sunstein-ian statism. This is because libertarians invoke "natural rights" (e.g., right to property) that can't be abridged by government (e.g., taxation). But where do these natural rights come from? The traditional American answer is obviously creationist ("they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"). But even answering "human nature" smacks of essentialism, a very creationist idea. (Darwinism recognizes, indeed requires, that species exist as variable populations without a defined essence.) In contrast, rights as social constructions (e.g., rights granted by the state, as Sunstein argues), fits much better with the idea of order arising naturally from disorder. After all, even states emerged "naturally" out of society thousands of years ago.

So take heart, liberals: you're not really creationists, after all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed that post, although I disagree. I don't think that the comparison was intended to be new theory on how the state is a sky-hook, while that hyperbole is entertaining, it doesn't do much to persuade.

The fundamental gene of the market is the price mechanism. Being able to quantify the relationship of dissimilar things in terms of one another through a commonly accepted medium of exchange is the magic of the free market. This does not need mythology, all it needs is clarity. The state by its existence limits this clarity; therefore there is a trade-off with increasing participation of the state. While some state is good, and especially a strong limited state, the trade-off for any state intervention is the failure of the price mechanism, as the state grows this failure is confounded, until such times where you have whim replace the function of a society.
This whim, I believe was the intended analogy of a godhead, because in the end a large state will be controlled by the whim of a few or one puppet-master.

12/14/2004 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Certainly, point taken that state intervention interferes with the price mechanism of a free market. But I don't think the whimsy of the state is really what Boudreaux was objecting to in his post (though I'm sure he does also object to it, like any good libertarian). He was really complaining about the idea that the state creates the free market. His post was a reaction against a book by Cass Sunstein that argues that the state is the sole source of rights and the sole source of order and prosperity. In his annoyance at that idea, he over-reached and compared the statism to creationism, which, as I said, is a false analogy because 1) statism is a normative ideology and 2) states are not skyhooks.

If he had intended to compare the state and God in terms of their arbitrary control he would have chosen different examples. For example, he might have compared the "it's all in God's plan" attitude of some religious people to the "the government must know what it's doing" attitude of some statists. Instead, he compared "we thank thee for our daily bread" to "the state is the sole source of rights, order, and prosperity."

12/14/2004 03:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This post was certainly interesting and, I think, generally on the mark. (Any blogger with the good sense to reference the terrific Daniel Dennett approvingly is worth reading in my book.)

I'll dissent on two point here, however:

(i) creationism, at least in its modern Intelligent Design guise, can't, finally, be "disproved" on empirical grounds: it's basic tenets are, per Popper, unfalsifiable. In that sense, faith-based creationism is indeed prescriptive rather than descriptive. Faced with empirical evidence of naturalistic mechanisms explaining this or that feature of reality, a persistent creationist can, and often will, simply postulate "skyhooks" farther and farther back along the chain of causality. This is why debating creationists quickly becomes so tedious: their immutable "ought" will ever remain invincible to your provisional "is."

(ii) not all libertarians posit a "natural" justification of rights, genetic or otherwise. (I think even the late and much lamented Robert Nozick gave up on that seductive idea.) There's room in libertarianism, in other words, both for a recognition of the value of the state, and skepticism about its role in, say, redistribution. "Neolibertarian" Jon Henke at Questions and Observations seems to fit into that category.


Posted by dan

1/06/2005 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


On (i), I think you're right about ID theory being unfalsifiable. I guess I was thinking more about biblical literalist creationism, which is rather more obviously false (though, I suppose, ultimately also unfalsifiable in that one could say that God left fossils for us to test our faith or whatever). In a way, Darwinism isn't entirely falsifiable either - in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett pointed out that even if we discovered evidence that aliens had created life on earth, those aliens could still have evolved by natural selection. (And, to use the terminology of ID theory, perhaps those aliens didn't exhibit irreducible complexity.) That would be postulating cranes farther and farther back along the chain of causality, so to speak. Still, I'd submit that there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether life evolved on earth by intelligent design or natural selection, and I'd submit further that ID theory has the (objectively) wrong answer.

I'm not entirely sure I understand your point about creationism being prescriptive rather than descriptive... If a persistent creationist keeps postulating skyhooks, isn't he/she making descriptive claims about the nature of the universe rather than prescriptive claims about how it should be? (Even though creationists are usually motivated by prescriptive claims...)

On (ii), I'm sure you're right - I shouldn't have implied that all libertarians believe in a nature-based justification for rights. After all, you can believe in rights without believing in essentialism. (I don't know much about Nozick, but a professor I had in college said that his classic book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, just assumes that rights exist and doesn't bother with any justification. I guess he revisited the topic of rights later?) 

Posted by Andrew

1/06/2005 05:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


On the creationist business: I suppose I'm just reluctant to include unfalsifiable statements among any set of descriptive ones--no matter how superficially "descriptive" such statements might appear. If the only evidence presented for believing x is of an aesthetic, moral, or psychological nature, I don't consider x a description of anything. (Except perhaps of the person positing it.) Creationists may certainly make verifiable statements--about the fossil record, about geology and biology, etc.--but their only original contributions to such statements, as creationists, are invariably of the "ought" variety. Proposing that a verifiable x was caused by an unfalsifiable y strikes me as adding zero to our store of descriptive knowledge.

On Nozick: I wouldn't be so dismissive as to say the man didn't "bother with any justification" of natural rights. Rather, that his justification of natural rights has been judged a bit, um, "thin." And yes, later in life--he wrote A,S,U when he was a young man--Nozick seems to have thought the same. A,S,U is still worth treasuring, however, if only for its fantastic thought experiments and engaging style. A Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia nuzzle each other on my bookshelf.



Posted by dan

1/07/2005 09:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation of Nozick - I really ought to get around to reading ASU (and ATOJ!) someday...

I guess we can agree to disagree on whether creationism is descriptive; it is after all a minor point that wasn't really central to my argument in this post anyway...more like a theme to place some points together. 

Posted by Andrew

1/07/2005 01:43:00 PM  
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