Michael Shermer – Science, Skepticism and Libertarianism

May 22, 2009

Michael Shermer is one of the most well-known skeptics in America, working for decades to advance the scientific outlook in society. He is a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American, and is the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. Since his founding of the Skeptics Society in Southern California and Skeptic magazine, he has appeared widely on TV and radio on shows such as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Oprah, Unsolved Mysteries, and many more. He is the author of many books, including Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown, and Why People Believe Weird Things. His most recent book is The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Michael Shermer discusses skepticism and its possible relationship to libertarianism. He argues that what some organizations define as “humanism” are actually positions that have nothing to do with humanism, but with Marxism and social democracy. He talks about why he has begun speaking out more about libertarianism as a leader in the skeptical movement. He admits that he may be more of a moderate libertarian than some others who defend that political and economic perspective. He talks about tensions within libertarianism as regards national defense, and what he sees as the need for national armies after 9-11. He explains which came first for him: libertarianism or skepticism, and talks about the influence of Ayn Rand on his intellectual development. He argues that Ayn Rand is still relevant even if her view of human nature (that people are basically selfish and that there is no such thing as altruism) upon which her economic theories are based is not born out by recent developments in cognitive and evolutionary psychology. He talks about Adam Smith, and how this year is the 250th anniversary of his first book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which presents his views regarding people’s natural propensity for empathy and sympathy. He defends free market capitalism despite what some consider recent wholesale failures of the market, and criticizes Alan Greenspan’s betrayal of free market ideals. He attacks the current economic system which engages in corporate welfare and “economic tribalism” for being “capitalist in profits but socialist in losses.” Other topics he touches on include the gold standard, tax revolt anarchism, income redistribution, and how he would prefer religion and the private sector to help the poor as opposed the government providing for the welfare of the economically disadvantaged. He defends the growing disparity between the super rich and the very poor, and the position that most poor people in the West deserve their lot in life due to their own bad decisions. He talks about his book The Mind of the Market and why people believe weird things about money. He explores the implications of the burgeoning fields of behavioral economics and neuroeconomics for his libertarian position. He describes the basic elements of evolutionary economics, a field he has pioneered. And he defends the position that skepticism should not remain apolitical — instead, he argues that skeptics should apply their skepticism to religion and God, pseudoscience and the paranormal, and also economics and politics.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 22nd, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. I’m happy to have Michael Shermer back on the show this week. He’s one of the most well-known and influential skeptics in America. He’s a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American and he’s host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture series at Caltech. He was also the co-host and producer of the Fox family TV show Exploring the Unknown. He’s the author of many books, including Science Fiction, Where the Known Meets the Unknown and Why People Believe Weird Things. Since founding the Skeptic Society in Southern California and Skeptic magazine, he’s appeared widely on TV and radio, advancing the secular, the scientific, the skeptical point of view on a whole host of social when intellectual issues on TV shows such as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Oprah, Unsolved Mysteries, many more than that. He joins me on point of inquiry again to get back into some of the issues he writes about in his book, The Mind of the Market. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Michael Shermer. 

Oh, thanks for having me back. 

Michael, I invited you back on the show to talk about skepticism and libertarianism. So let’s start off with you. Defining libertarianism. Is it for you basically just skepticism when you apply it to what the government trying to regulate the market or what? 

Well, that would be one hook into the skeptical line of inquiry, I guess. Generally, libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. We we believe in gay marriage and pro choice and freedom of speech and separation of church and state, all the standard stuff that liberals believe. But we also are in favor of smaller government and lower taxes and less government intervention into the marketplace. And so I guess my question is, is it a skeptical issue, the kind of issue that humanists and skeptics and atheists and whatnot should be involved with? Or is it pure politics like the standard or left wing right wing continuum that you get on the talk shows everyday and. 

Right. And those are tensions that have plagued the organized humanist and skeptic movement for decades, even before we had high profile public libertarians out there kind of promoting that point of view. 

I think so, though. As far as I can tell, it’s been largely left leaning from its original origins in the 1930s with Marxist atheist trying to find a toehold in American culture and from a place to speak. I think, you know, it’s been kind of carried through to modern times in terms of its political leanings. I mean, if you look just look at sort of the bullet points of the American Huma’s Association, you know what it means to be a humanist. You know, it’s social democracy. 

Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, I don’t like that because a lot of those points I don’t agree with those like Rody May. Not a humanist. No, I’m a humanist. So why do I have to believe, you know, those six things when I doubt. And so I think it’s often good not to get too political, although I think it’s OK to talk about it. And then it came up for me most recently, even though I’ve been a libertarian my whole adult life, because I started blogging. You know, everybody’s blogging all it’s all blog, you know, a blog about Waddi. And I’m so sick of writing about the paranormal and, you know, but is it real or, you know, p you know, do you have it? And you know, the answer is no, no, no. So. All right. Is there something else we could talk about that? You know, we haven’t talked about the depth in this in this in this little community of skeptics and the. For sure. Why not? Let’s talk about politics. 

And so is this kind of a deliberate attempt for you to apply skepticism to these new domains? Or is it just for want of more content to talk about? Like. 

I think both. I think it’s OK to to apply skepticism to mainstream sort of areas that skeptics can look into. 

Let’s just back up a bit. So you said, yeah, the way that I define libertarianism is pretty much one way of getting into a corner from the skeptical side. But when you look at the organized skeptic’s movement, there are some major skeptics who are out. Libertarians might define it a bit differently than I did something funny. You might not know this. There’s like a little movement within skepticism to push back against this overt promotion of libertarianism. I ran across this Facebook group the other day. That was kind of a celebration of skeptics who weren’t libertarian, as if to say what that that most are libertarian and here are some good ones who aren’t. 

I had no idea. I mean, I, I my sense is that libertarians are. Small fry. Even in the skeptic community. 

Why do you think that so many of our big guns, you Tom Flynn on the humanist side? He’s been kind of vocal as a libertarian, Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, the magicians and libertarian skeptics. Is there something about skepticism that leads to libertarianism or is it just kind of a kind of a happy accident for you libertarians? 

Well, other than the people who just rattle off, who else comes to mind? That’s a libertarian in the skeptic community. 

Well, I know a lot of folks at the local level like the like the worst thing you can do at a local skeptic’s meeting is begin talking free market economics. Right. Because the libertarians will stand up and, you know, it’s it’s almost as bloody as atheists fight in with conservative Christians. 

Well, maybe my sense that we’re a tiny minority, even in this skeptical community, is wrong. Maybe there’s more of it than I thought it would be. But. Well, you know, I don’t know. I guess it depends on the particular issue you want to take up. Like like legalizing drugs. I mean, there are some libertarians who are in favor of it simply because they want to smoke pot or whatever. And I’m not one of those. You know, those are the kind of libertarians that want to move to Idaho and be left alone. And, you know, OK, go ahead to do that if you want. That’s that’s not that’s not what I’m after here. I’m more of a sort of constitutional you know, the government should not be in the business of granting people things. And you can be in the business of protecting our right Jim Underdown. 

Does that make you somehow less of a libertarian than other libertarians or like are you a more of a moderate libertarian? 

I suppose I mean, like it’s like the whole atheist and agnosticism, the ISM nonbelief. Which one are you? The left. The labels are problematic and it shows that there’s so much variation not only in species but in species of ideas. And I think that kind of variation is fine. I suppose I’m kind of a middle of the road libertarian to be pretty hardcore, like anarcho indico, capitalist type libertarian. You know, do we really need government at all? Can’t we just have, you know, contracts and private dispute resolution through arbitration and things like that where private businesses own the roads that we drive? That’s right. And I actually don’t see any any problems with with private running the roads. But that’s a separate issue. I think the bigger ones that I’m less convinced of the libertarian position would be things like national defense. You know, we really have to hit. My favorite example is from a few good men, you know, were Jack Nicholson gives that speech to Tom Cruise. You know, we live in a world with walls and those walls have to be manned by men with guns. 

He knows dangerous world. And since 9/11, you know, I started to think, you know, wow, that that’s true. There are people that just want to kill us just because we believe different religion or no religion. 

Right. And do we want to leave our protection over to profiteering contractors as opposed to the state? 

Well, I’m not even. Well, yeah, maybe the world we live in is a world with walls. We are so far away from a total free market in which private security systems would work or something like that. 

I mean, you really need national armies and a fairly sizable military system. I think because of the dangers in the world and the intention, I think a lot of atheists like Dawkins tend to be liberal and so critical of religion. And since 9/11, you say yes. So aren’t you worried about, you know, the terrorists? Yeah, absolutely. I’m worried about that’s why I’m against religion. Right. And and but you think we should have a smaller government or you think like like Barack Obama? You know, we can we can talk to these people. Really? You think you can talk reason with these people? I don’t. And I don’t think you think that either. 

You could be like Hitchens or other secularists who are really militant against radical Islam and you want to go in like George Bush did and smoke em out. 

Yeah. Right. So here we have two different kinds of libertarians kind of split on that particular issue. Like the war, for example, there are the the isolationists feel we have no business, you know, being the world’s policemen and all that. 

And then other libertarians, I believe in a super strong national defense. And we need to have precautionary interventions to prevent wars, things like that, because we do live in a dangerous world. So I used to be more of the former you know, it’s none of our business stay out of foreign affairs and all that’s the Treaty of Westphalia. 

Let the nation state, you know. 

Yeah. I’m not so convinced anymore that a complete isolationism is such a good idea. 

I mean, part of the problem is we’re so far down the road of intervening into peoples other people’s business that pull out completely. It would be like pulling out the big tumor and then all the other little tumors start to creep up. You know, you kill the one big. Greater than all the other little dictators like what happened in Iraq. 

Maybe the situation is as bad as it was with Saddam Hussein. 

Maybe, you know, it it’s even worse now with all the little factions going on. And, you know, it’d be nice if it was a liberal democracy and free markets and all that, of course. But I’m no longer so sure that Muslim countries can fully embrace liberal democracy and free markets like like we do. 

Michael, leaving national defense issues aside, I just want to focus on this libertarianism and skepticism thing which came first for you. 

Did one feed the other as a libertarian in college? It’s sort of an untold story now. You know, I read Atlas Shrugged. Oh, no. 

People roll their eyes at a point kind of cliche, cliche. 

But, you know, it it’s it’s all right. 

That book actually fed my propensity toward individualism and individual responsibility and the sort of tenets of libertarianism that I kind of liked anyway in terms of temperament, the kind of person I am. So I think that that’s why the book resonated with me. It doesn’t resonate with everybody. 

So maybe you’re suggesting you’re a libertarian because like you were a libertarian before you knew you were one, as opposed to reading some propaganda and converting. 

Exactly. I think it just it’s like, yeah, this book is for me because I’m already like this. And I think there was a conversion Jim Underdown. 

So you mentioned Ayn Rand, her influence. We joked maybe a little cliche. She is not really taken seriously by economic thinkers widely. You know, there are some who will hold her up. But, you know, I speak on a lot of college campuses. You do as well. And my joke is often, well, okay, it’s developmentally appropriate for you as a college student to be born into Ayn Rand. But you know how many people take that with them their whole life. You’re saying, though, that you read her, it resonated with you and it really shaped your or or helped put flesh on the bones of your kind of position that you already had? 

I like the way you put that to your developmentally ready for Ayn Rand. You’re that sensitive stage. They need to learn to walk in then anyway. 

Well, so no, actually, that led me to reading Milton Friedman and then Milton Friedman. I got into reading Liddick, my missus and Friedrich Hayek and the other Rocky Road to Serfdom. Yeah. Austrian School of Economics and certainly the Austrian School of Economics, as it melded into the Chicago school is fairly mainstream in terms of, you know, professionally economists. Right. I mean, it’s on one end of a mainstream spectrum anyway. 

But it’s mainstream if Ayn Rand isn’t. Yeah, that’s right. Okay. Just talking about Ayn Rand, because, you know, we in the humanist movement skeptics movement, you know, every time I have Paul Kurtz on the show and we talk about altruism or something like that, what the Objectivists, the Ayn Rand followers just come out of the woodwork, an email when kind of attacking this notion of altruism and goodwill and that sort of stuff. Do you find her arguments about human nature as compelling as you’ve found her arguments about the economy? I mean, evolutionary psychology, some new research in cognitive neuroscience. It suggests that she was on the wrong side of the fence when it comes to human nature. And if she’s wrong about human nature, if her views of human nature kind of undergird her economic arguments, doesn’t that cause you to be at least a little bit skeptical of her economic positions? 

Certainly, I think she was wrong about human nature, that we’re we’re not ultimately selfish in the way she says we are. 

I mean, you could kind of spin it, I suppose, even using evolutionary psychology that, you know, when I when I buy my sweetheart flowers, I’m selfishly hoping to get my genes into the next generation, wink, wink, or I’m doing something that’s bold and brave for my my group. And I save the guys or I spend a lot of money on something where I make a huge donation. That’s a costly signaling theory. I’ve tried to signal to my group I have high status, you know, so evolutionary psychologists have explanations for these, which really could be spun that I’m really doing it for myself. It’s still kind of a selfish behavior, but still, nonetheless, I think Ram doesn’t really get it right. I think what she really objected to is government forcing us to pay our brother’s keeper. I would say that evolution gave us a propensity to desire to be our brother’s keeper or at least our two second cousins keeper, whatever it turns of. Like Ken Ken selection. And Howie, you know, we like to save and help and be prosocial and cooperative with members of our group that were related to or that we know really well. I still think that you’re just being selfish. I mean, you’re still trying to get status to make yourself feel good. You’re still trying to, you know, get lucky with the ladies. You’re still trying to curry favor with the alpha male. It’s still being selfish here. Maybe. But but what I’m arguing in my book, The Science of Good and Evil, is that at some point you actually have to believe it. You have to really live a moral life to convince yourself and others that you really are. You’re just faking. You really believe that. You really, really do want to be a good group member. And I think, therefore, we do have as Adam Smith actually said, this is however selfish we may seem. We also have this other side, apathy and empathy. So even Mr. laissez faire economics himself, Adam Smith, recognized we have this other part of our human nature that really hasn’t brutally, nastily selfish. We really do feel somebody else’s pain and we really feel better when we help them feel better. And now neuroscience is showing that, you know, there’s parts of the brain that light up the dopamine receptor that light up when we do something nice for somebody else, even if we don’t even know them and we’re not going to get an immediate payback. It’s still there in the brain. So I think I think is wrong about that. We do have that other side of us. And so the point of structuring society, government, politics, economics should be that to accentuate the positive side of our nature and attenuate the nastiness. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of The Mind of the Market Shearer’s new book about economics and and subtitled Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics through our website point of Inquiry dot org. Michael, for you. And you’ve been talking about kind of free market capitalism. The free market libertarianism is continuous with that kind of capitalism. You’re a big time free market capitalist. Is that true? Even with the recent excesses, some would say failures of capitalism. You know, this notion that people who are motivated by their own self-interest are not too regulated by the government are going to make decisions that benefit everybody. Well, it’s kind of been proven completely wrong by recent events. Even Alan Greenspan, you mentioned Ayn Rand while his study literally at her feet when he was a young man after this big Wall Street, you know, these convolutions that you know, the big implosions. Last year he had this kind of mayor caught, but he basically said, guess what, folks? I was completely wrong about this almost faith commitment of libertarians that the free market will be better for everyone than a more regulated economy. So whole point of all this. Did the recent economic meltdown, did it kind of soften your libertarianism middle class? 

Actually, I didn’t really look into it, but Greenspan and the Fed were doing was not free markets. They were intervening into the money markets, some money. It should be treated like a market as well. And that means that when banks give loans, they charge an interest rate on that interest rate is the price money. And that should reflect the amount of risk that they want to take based on the qualifications of the customer who’s applying for the loan. So we know from behavioral economics that people are very risk averse. That is where risk averse loss offers that his losses hurt twice as much as his gains feel good. In other words, in order to take a 50/50 gamble on an investment, most people most of the time need to have a payoff. That’s roughly twice what the potential loss might be, because losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good. OK. So that’s a it’s almost a law of human nature. Behavioral economists have this down. So why then are all these banks giving out these high risk loans? Because the federal government said, look, you know, we want you to do this. We’re going to encourage you to do it. We’re going to force you to do it. We’re going to back you up. If it if it fails, will bail you out. And so when Greenspan and these guys start tinkering with the interest rates, they’re not letting the market determine the interest rates. They’re doing it by fiat from the top down. So that’s that’s not free market either. And so I think that’s one of the consequences of of all that sort of false liquidity put into the marketplace. Just think of it on a real basic level. If you see lower interest rates way down. It sends a signal into the marketplace to builders, homebuilders, investors and say, hey, look, money’s cheap. Let’s get in while it’s good. Well, the money wasn’t really that cheap. It was artificially cheap. It’s like giving a builder a whole pile up bricks. And so you have this many bricks to build this home that’s twice as big as you thought you were going to build it. Well, it’s halfway through building and all of a sudden there’s no. It’s like, well, what happened? Well, there were never really that many projects where we kind of pretended. And that’s that’s what the government’s doing when they do that. 

You know, money is not backed by precious minerals anymore. You know, it’s the money is money based on the good faith of the federal government. 

Some of that sounds like you’re getting off end of a conspiracy. Theories about the gold standard and, you know, new world order staff. 

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think we can ever go back to the gold standard because then there wouldn’t. There wouldn’t be enough liquidity. I think, again, part of the problem to be a libertarian is, is this sort of fantasy world we can construct in our minds in which we tell just stories. Well. Well, if we had true free markets, this is the way the world would be. And we are so far removed from that. It’s hard to imagine. But I was I was saying that because of the current meltdown. But I am sympathetic to the criticisms of somebody like even Ralph Nader who talks about corporate welfare and corporations shouldn’t get special government privileges and they do. And I’m against that, too. It’s always out of step. Adam Smith said, you know, he has this famous passage of the Wealth of Nations where even when when when businessmen get together for merriment and drink, it is alive before they start plotting against them. But what are they plotting? They’re plotting to get special favors from the government, special monopoly favors and special trade privileges and and and taxes and imposing duties against foreign competitors. That’s not free market either. That’s just economic tribalism. And that’s in our evolutionary heritage. We’re very tribal and we’re we’re tribal economically, just as we are in all other aspects of life. 

So the free market pipedream or the free market fantasy that you would wish for, even if it’s not realistic, is that the government would be uninvolved both in corporate welfare and in kind of social welfare. 

Yeah, that’s right. So, I mean, let Jim Fry let him go out of business. I mean, it’s too bad, but it’s just the way it goes. You know, yeah. There’s thousands of jobs on the line, but, hey, you know, they make crappy cars. So why do I have to buy that? That’s just the way it goes. So basically what corporate America has become is, you know, capitalists in profits and socialists in losses. 

Well, that that’s not free market economics. Adam Smith would agree with me. Basically, by the way, at least you have Adam Smith on your side. 

That’s the point I dug about. This is the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of his first book, which is called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And the Moral Sentiments is hardly anybody even knows. 

Yeah, most people don’t think of him as a moral philosopher. 

Yeah. And that’s what he was. He wasn’t an economist. There were no economists. He was professor of moral philosophy. And his first book was and the opening sentence again from the theory Moral Sentiments is however selfish we appear to be. We have these other tendencies of what he called sympathy, what we call empathy. That is, we actually feel other people’s pain and pleasures and we put ourselves in other people’s shoes. And he was really constructing a whole world view of how to build a civil society. 

Yeah, he wanted to create a way to make it easiest for those other sympathy’s to manifest. 

So for Smith, I mean, religion played an important role. He wasn’t an atheist. And it wasn’t that we don’t need any government. No. But basically, we need to keep government out of the business of really of economic tribalism. It was called mercantilism, but it’s what I would call economic tribalism that the only way for our tribe to succeed is if some other tribe loses. And Smith would say, no, actually, we can all get wealthier if you just let the following happen. And if you don’t get in the middle of it. 

So. Well, that that faith in a free, unfettered market kind of, you know, the rising tide raises all ships notion. Are you look at India or China and you see that capitalism has even it’s it’s somewhat regulated. Capitalism has generated a lot of wealth, but there’s more disparity among the wealthy vs. the wealth, less now than there’s ever been. Is that a function of this kind of corporate welfare, this kind of the excesses that you were seeing result from the government being involved? Or is it is that just a brute fact? We have to accept about the free market. 

I think probably the latter that even as the tide is raising and all the boats are going up with it, some of the boats are getting bigger and exceedingly big. But that’s I think that’s part of our evolved natural tendency toward egalitarianism. I mean, it’s kind of a new tension. I mean, the tension that I’ve newly discovered when I wrote the main market is that if you study hunter gatherer communities, most of them are pretty. Gelateria, not not because they want to be they don’t they want to hoard stuff and all that. It’s just that there isn’t much to hoard the pretty resource poor environments, the resources guarantee kind of egalitarianism, the limited assets, and actually have a lot of the religious. If you look at the history of Animism and polytheism and those very basic Hunter-Gatherer religions are their main function is the redistribution of food and and tools and basic resources for living and to kind of ensure that nobody’s hoarding away too much and that as a group, we have to kind of stick together, you know, because there’s a lot of nasty groups out there that don’t like us and there’s predators and there’s not much food. And who knows when we’re gonna get more food. And so, I mean, this idea that we need to get rid of religion. Well, you know, it really did serve a pretty important purpose. It was so different there than it is now. You probably would even call it religion. 

And it’s probably not as useful now. So goes the thinking. 

Yeah. Well, I think so, yeah. I mean, I think it can be replaced. I mean, in a doctor’s dream of imagine no religion. No 9/11. No Seventy-Seven. Yes. On certain aspects. But who is going to go to New Orleans after Katrina type disaster? FEMA. So a lot of liberals say, oh, that’s the government’s job, not religious job. 

Or they look to northern Europe and they say that’s a secular society. You know, Europe. But there’s a strong welfare kind of social welfare system. There’s a social net that takes care of people and it’s high taxes that allow that to happen. You’re saying it would be better if we replaced religion not with the state, but what with communitarianism or kind of private enterprise or charity or whatever? 

Well, the way religion is privatized welfare, isn’t it? And I don’t see anything wrong with that. If they can deliver the help where it’s needed. And I can give my money to a group where I trust that the money is going to actually get to the people who need it and not to some, you know, third rate dictator in Africa somewhere. Then why not? 

It sounds like you would be against, though, that something like the faith based initiatives where it’s taxed. Tax dollars going to faith. 

I am against that. Yeah. Absolutely. 

Even if the faith groups are doing good work. 

That’s right. I mean, they should they should do it through private, private sources entirely. 

Michael, I, I confess I kind of have a libertarian streak in me, even though most people would probably imagine me as a progressive because, you know, I’m a big civil libertarian. You know, I work for progressive issues, environmentalism, stuff that, you know, some libertarians would question. But I also generally want the government to stay out of my business. Maybe that’s just a constitutional thing in both senses of the term. Maybe it’s just part of my personality. Right. But I don’t think I know enough about economics or politics to be able to say I am a libertarian or I’m a you know, whatever Noam Chomsky is. What is he in an and. He’s that he’s a kind of libertarian. But on the other side of the fence, the problem is the labels, isn’t it? 

I mean, I don’t like the label. This the whole easy ism thing. You know, are you an atheist or a massacre? It’s like, you know, I don’t believe in God, okay? I mean, really, do we have to put a label on it? 

Yeah, but you can’t have such an elegant solution when it comes to these political or economic issues because you have to, like, list off all the things you do and don’t believe in. It’s not as simple to say I don’t believe in God. Look, I like the notion kind of in principle of there being a social welfare net of society, taking care of its disadvantaged folks like we hear happens in Europe. There’s not a big homeless problem in Europe. And the the top paid CEO only makes a few multiples more than the factory worker as opposed to thousands times more in the United States. But on the other hand, I also really like low taxes as I’m beginning a family and all that stuff, so. 

Well, you just wait. It’s going to get worse. 

What’s that mean for me? Does it make me actually a libertarian or am I just some greedy person who ultimately doesn’t like to pay taxes? 

Well, I think you’re a libertarian in principle, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep a product of your own labor. I mean, the whole tax system in America, the progressive taxes that we have, is there isn’t some redistribution program. That’s what it is. And the more money you make, the more not only the more they’re going to take, but a greater percentage they’re going to take from you and redistributed to those who don’t make as much. 

Obama said as much. He talked about redistributing wealth. 

Yeah, well, why? Why should that be? I mean, do I have a moral obligation to help my fellow man? Sure, I do. And I and I do that. I sponsor a child in time. That’s my business. That’s none of your business. Not the government’s business. I’ll do what I want to do with it. And and so, I mean, it really comes down to we’re going to confiscate your wealth. And if you don’t give it to us, we’re going to put you in jail. Well, where’s the freedom there? I mean, that’s there’s personal liberty and freedom there. That’s that’s a police state. 

You’re sounding an awful lot like an anti-tax advocate, like, you know, some of those really fringe far right groups that say if you have this secret knowledge, you never have to pay taxes again. 

Except they all believe that at Pepperdine University. My roommate and I went to one of these tax revolt meetings and my roommate decided he was gonna go for it. And I remember intuitively thinking, you know, that can’t be right because it was too in the world a tax would be all over that. Right. So I would have paid my taxes. I always have. And my my roommate, he did. He went for like fifteen years before they found me because he didn’t make much. We don’t make much. You can go under the radar for a long time, but once you start making money, if they find you. And man, was he in big trouble. And by the way, one of our arch rivals, the most famous younger generation, is kind of in prison. 

Yeah. Tax evasion. Tax evasion. So you can be skeptical of anything you want, including evolution. But that tax is a tax revolt. 

Anarch is they pay my taxes that I pay a lot of taxes. And. 

And because, you know, I have to ask you do it because it’s the law, not because you’re persuaded that this redistribution of wealth thing makes sense. 

No, I don’t think it makes sense. I mean, just consider the amount of waste that goes into a third party having to process my money and then, you know, pay for Eliot Spitzer’s hookers and the bridge to nowhere and, you know, all the other crap that we have to put up with and just to hopefully get some of my money into somebody else’s hands. And how do I know that they can’t actually earn that money? Maybe they just don’t want to do it? They’d rather not. 

Well, you mentioned a number of things I want to touch on as I also try to finish our conversation so we don’t go super long. First, you were talking about the hope that the money would be taxed from you would get into the hands of the people who need it. Right. That’s the redistribution. Aren’t you instead arguing for an equally unrealistic hope that left to our own devices, we will all naturally be generous and take care of our fellows? My intuition is my guess is that most people, if they didn’t have to pay taxes, they would not then turn around and give that money to charity. They’d, you know, buy a bigger TV. 

In fact, the evidence shows quite the contrary, that before the New Deal that people gave more money. And in fact, today, that is a good book. Done this by David Brooks called Who Really Cares? The data is pretty convincing to me anyway, that conservatives give a significant more of their income than liberals, and that’s when adjusted for income so that, you know, people making the same amount of money. If you’re conservative, you get more money. And if you’re liberal now, it’s true. There’s also a religious. 

Yeah. Religious people give a lot more money than secular people. 

But if it wasn’t that it wasn’t poverty as a barrier to charity. It was welfare. People on welfare get far less and people making the same amount of money who are just poor. Those people gave more. So I do think Adam Smith is right. I think we do have a natural tendency to care about other people. We are giving and caring when when given the opportunity to do so. And that is one of the things that religion does, is it encourages it reminds you every week or whatever. Don’t forget to help out. You know, Bob has fallen on hard times or whatever, and it makes a difference if you know Bob. So that’s why, you know, that’s a whole small community thing. Social capital makes a big difference and social entrepreneurs are talking about this. I want to call Wolfie factor. You know, when you get free stuff away on the Internet to get more people on your side, you actually make more money by giving free stuff away. Right. Because you’re creating social capital. That’s why, you know, it’s like some of the mainstream older guys like New York Times and Newsweek are struggling to stay in business because they can’t figure out how to give free stuff away. 

Well, they were first trying subscriptions and then realized what they want is traffic and, you know, advertising revenue, those questions. But the other thing you mentioned in your previous comment that I wanted to touch on was your suspicion that some people who were getting this government help, you know, maybe they don’t deserve it. Maybe they could earn the money on their own or something like that. This is basically the argument that I hear from my friends all the time when I’m walking around the streets of St. Louis and I see a homeless person, someone says, you know, homeless people, if you have the right intersection, you make more than a doctor, you know. So it’s it seems that my point is it seems like there’s this natural Justin Gayatri scheme that we go through where we look at those in need and we somehow say they deserve it or it’s their lot in life. They’re not working as hard as I am. You know, my stuff is mine and I don’t want to share because, you know, if they worked as hard as I did, they’d be as well off as I am. 

Well, you know, the demand for free. Will always exceed the supply when you make it available. And, you know, it’s just too distressing. Personalize it. You know, I have one kid. I have a daughter who’s 17 and she goes to a private school and she’s going to go to college. And so, I mean, I think I think, OK, look, I have to pay for this. And I can’t just depend on government to do it for me. So I have to do it. So I really shouldn’t have two or three or four kids. I really shouldn’t buy that extra toy or gadget or boat or whatever, because I have a responsibility to do that. Now, why am I thinking like that? And somebody else is thinking, well, hey, you know, it’s not my job to educate my kid. I’ll let the government do it. And, you know, maybe she’s going to college. Maybe she will. Whatever. Hopefully somebody something will happen and come through and maybe somebody will give us some money at some point. I mean, unless you’re, I don’t know, mentally ill or you have a brain tumor or you’re know, so physically handicapped, you can’t do anything. But I think that’s a pretty small percentage of the population. I think for the most part, it really is choice. I mean, it’s just it make choices about what you want in life. 

And people get what they deserve. 

I think for the most part, I think that’s true. And I mean, I suppose to me to say, are you happy you’re a white male? And in America, being a white male, you get an unfair advantage. Yeah. Five. Seven. All the research shows that, you know, if you’re five, 10 or above, when you’re a man, you may, you know, like fifty thousand dollars a year more. 

I mean, a higher tax or something, you know. I mean, come on. 

Life’s not fair. You know, it’s just not equal. Although we, as we rightly we libertarians want is equal opportunity, not equal outcome. You can’t have equal. 

You can’t legislate that. But you want to put everybody on an equal footing. You look at evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, though, the central argument is that there is no equal footing because, you know, people are different. Some people are smarter, more talented. You know, this is the big debate and the bell curve and an other or older arguments. Maybe we don’t want to get off into all of that. But it seems like all of that argumentation seems like it justifies your position. 

I think so. Yeah, it does. I mean, again, it’s just government’s job is to protect our liberties and freedoms, not to give us stuff. And I think we’ve shifted from one to the other from thinking that the government basically owes us something. 

And right in the United States, people have a problem. They blame the government. In Europe, people have a problem. They look to the government for the solution. Right. And it’s that kind of mentality. You say maybe in the states we’re moving more toward that other point of view where we look to the government with our hands up. 

Yeah, I think that’s not healthy because you gain self-esteem from actually doing things, not for having things done for you. That’s why the self-esteem movement was such a flop. We have a cover story on that in Skeptic magazine. 

Yeah. How it may, in fact, be harmful. Yeah. So I want to begin finishing up. But let’s talk just briefly about your book. I’m interested in the reaction that you’ve gotten from the mind of the market. It was your attempt to put free market capitalism kind of give it of scientific foundation by drawing on what behavioral economics, neuroeconomics, evolutionary economics, you know, these kind of new disciplines. How is the science of community taken your your argument? Do scientists generally think, oh, well done. Here’s a scientist who finally made sense out of the economy with science? Or are they thinking you’re trying to make science do too much if you read Marx the early Marx? Did he actually think his views as he was developing them, that they were supported by the most rigorous science of his day? 

Yeah. Well, I think two things in mind and market one is simply an extension of everything else I’ve always done. 

Basically think of it is why people believe weird things about money. You know, we’re we’re not rational calculators maximizing our utility rate. We’re emotional animals. And, you know, we make emotional, irrational decisions and. And why would it be otherwise? You know, we skeptic’s know how irrational people are on every other aspect of life. Whiteway When they suddenly walk into Wal-Mart or Wall Street, they become rational investors. And calculator’s of course not. And so one of the things about this whole field of behavioral economics in the last 25 years is it’s taken. What’s amazing is taking economists that long to take basic psychology and apply it to people in the marketplace. And one of the reasons, I think, is because there were so balkanized in our academic departments, the economists were not even in the same building as the other social scientists. And they don’t read the same journals. They don’t read the same books. And so it was really Gursky and Kahneman who put that on the map. And, you know, in Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in university. Would have, but he died. And then they won the Nobel Prize in economics, and they weren’t even economists had even taken economics course, let alone teach them. So that shows you that there’s something new there that is really important for skeptics to catch up on. That is all that behavioral economics, neuroeconomics, you know, scanning the brain to see what people are thinking about. Not very love or anger. 

But during shopping, what parts of the brain are firing when they’re engaged in financial transactions? 

Exactly. And as I said, with the Adam Smith stuff about empathy. 

When you give subjects actual cash, these are like poor starving students. And they can they can give some of it to another student and give some of it to an actual charity. Like Oxfam is one of them. Their dopamine receptors get all excited, make they light right up when they give money away. They feel good. I mean, it’s it’s it feels good to help people. I think that is there. And you can actually see the neural networks lining up for that. And then with evolutionary economics, that that’s pretty much I’ve kind of pioneered that. That’s really kind of trying to look at humans. As you know, each of these ancient primates who have these brains evolved in Hunter-Gatherer Paleolithic environments trying to make sense of complex adaptive systems like the economy. So I think people have a hard time intuitively grasping free market economics for the same reason we have a hard time intuitively grasping evolution. It’s like you see evolution happening. I mean, where a species is becoming this species, I want to watch it for myself. You know, one of the things that Darwin did is the same thing, Adam Smith, that in our language today, they’re describing these bottom up complex adaptive systems in which complex design comes about, not from design from the top down, but just by animals running around trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation. In the case of Adam Smith, in economics, people just running around trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation. And the byproduct of that is this. These amazing complex systems that nobody designed, nobody could have designed. And yet, here it is. 

So if no one designed them, no one could have designed them. Can anyone should anyone regulate them to any extent? 

Well, my conclusion about markets is that it’s too difficult to tweak and and even even a pro free market, brilliant guy like the Maestro Greenspan, you know, he he just looked it up, stuck his finger in the pie and said, you know, I’m gonna do this. I mean areason, Milorad. I mean, you know, half a point, quarter point, two point whatever. You know, you just really can’t do that. The market is fairly self-regulating. Another way to think about it, entrepreneurial error. Entrepreneurs make errors. They make wrong investments. And so it happens all the time. But what shouldn’t happen is that all businessmen make errors in the same direction at the same time. How can that be? Only if government has jumped in there and said, OK, we’re gonna make money so cheap that you just have to invest. And then everybody feels like, oh, my God, I got to get in on this like a Bernie Madoff scheme. I’ve got to get it done. Too good to be true. And it sends all those false signals and it represses all that that loss aversion and fear of risk. And then people make errors in the same direction at the same time. That’s how you get bubbles and bursts. 

That’s a really thought provoking point. I’d like to let our listeners know again that you can get a copy of the mind of the market, compassionate apes, competitive humans and other tales from evolutionary economics through our website point of inquiry dot org. Michael, last question. How is all this playing out in the skeptical movement or how should it? Some of the biggest fights I mentioned earlier that I’ve seen at the grassroots level have been between the Social Democrats. On the one hand, the kind of the fiscal libertarians on the other hand. Do you think skepticism should be as a kind of first principle, stay a political party, or should it be kind of widely applied, even if it means going after people’s deeply held beliefs about economics, not just their beliefs about these things that go bump in the night? 

I think it’s perfectly okay for skeptics to get into it. Why not? I mean, we should talk about religion and God talk about economics and politics. It’s OK. 

Well, on that note, thank you very much for this discussion. We, in fact, did get into it as skeptics. So I appreciate being on the show. 

Well, thanks for having me. Jim Underdown. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.