Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Faith and Reason

Michael Shermer writes the "Skeptic" colum in Scientific American, in which he debunks pseudo-science, superstition, and religious mythology and champions the cause of reason - or at least that's what he thinks he's doing. In the current edition (that's the August edition, published, in magazine reality, in July) he writes:

Folk astronomy . . . told us that the world is flat . . . . Folk biology intuited an elán vital flowing through all living things . . . . Folk psychology compelled us to search for a humonculous in the brain . . . . Folk economics caused us to disdain excessive wealth, label usury a sin, and mistrust the invisible and of the market.

Shermer needs to turn his skepticism on his own religion, the pseudo-science of economics. I mistrust the mythological "invisible hand" of the non-existent "free market" not because I am mired in folk beliefs, but because I have a doctorate in social policy and I have spent my career since I earned it studying disparities in health. The argument that the "free market" somehow achieves efficient allocation of resources is based on a number of assumptions which do not happen to correspond to reality. As I have frequently discussed, these include the myths of perfect information, zero transaction costs, perfect substitution with many buyers and many sellers, zero externalities, willing sellers and willing buyers, and so forth. Most important, the mythological Free Market depends on there being no such thing as public goods: no air, no rivers or lakes, no oceans, no natural resources of any kind; no need for shared social infrastructure such as civic order, public safety, roads and bridges, educated and healthy workers. Finally, not even the most zealous defenders of the myth have ever come up with any cogent argument that even suggests a possibility that the Free Market, could it ever exist, would produce justice.

I used to admire Michael Shermer's work. I thought he truly was a skeptic and a realist. Turns out he's just a true believer, like the people who gather on hilltops to await the coming of the UFOs, or the Christians who are today rapturous over the war in the Middle East because it means the End Times are coming. Sorry Shermer, you have lost me.

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