A few days ago I was inspired by Tom Palmer’s incisive review of Cass Sunstein’s latest book to point out that many “blue-staters” – Americans who think of themselves as “progressive,” rational, and “reality-based” – are also creationists. Not biological creationists, but creationists nevertheless – “social constructivists,” as Hayek called them.
At the blog The Panda’s Thumb several commenters misunderstand my point. Whenever an author is misunderstood, it’s the author’s fault. I try below to clarify.
One view of the origin of order is the design view – the creationist view. For example, fundamentalist Christians believe that all life on Earth is the result of conscious creation by a deity. Human beings’ opposing thumbs resulted from a (higher) mind’s plan and action, and the absence of hen’s teeth and horse’s toes likewise is the result of conscious design. Without such design, chaos and disorder would reign.
The non-creationist view – represented most compellingly by the theory of natural selection – explains how wonderfully intricate, useful, and orderly biological structures can and do emerge unplanned.
Creationist views (there are several variations) differ from non-creationist views by insisting that all order ultimately is the result of some design acting upon the whole.
Just as there is a compelling non-creationist view of biological beings, there is a compelling non-creationist view of social order. And while obviously different in detail, at a general level these two non-creationist theories share much with each other, not least of which is the scientific insistence that order is best explained, not by positing a creator, but by understanding the logic of an order’s emergence from small, individual acts, no one of which is “intended to” (or “intends” itself) to become part of a larger order. (And remember, Adam Smith offered his “invisible hand” theory a century before Darwin offered his.)
The “social” creationists are well and ably represented by Cass Sunstein who argues that peace and security and (hence) property rights and market exchange are impossible without an effective system of law. Because, in Sunstein’s view, the state is the producer of law, the state is ultimately responsible for our property and prosperity.
I’m prepared to argue that law can, and has been, ably produced and enforced without the state. (See, for example, Bruce Benson’s superb book The Enterprise of Law.) But let’s put that issue aside and grant Sunstein his claim that only the state can produce and enforce law. Because no reasonable person doubts that law is indeed necessary for a prosperous society, Sunstein concludes that each of us owes our prosperity to the state. It’s a fair interpretation of Sunstein’s argument that the state creates society.
People such as Sunstein who believe that sovereign power is responsible for everything remind me of other people who thank God for their good fortune – for the roofs over their heads, for the food on their tables, for the good grades they got on the exam…. as if the roof over someone’s head had everything to do with the good graces of a deity and nothing whatsoever to do with the actions of the owner of the house or with the actions of thousands of other people, each of whom contributed in some little way to making that roof a reality.
So the state protects me from thieves and built the highway that I use to transport my goods to market. I’m grateful. But what about the farmer who grew the food to feed the trucker who drives the truck carrying my goods to market – and grew the food to feed the politicians who keep the state going? What about the oil-rig worker who helped to extract oil from the ground to be turned into gasoline to power the truck – and to power the limos in DC and the police cars in Denver? What about the engineer who helped design the engine that powers the truck and the limos and the police cars? What about the clerk at the convenience store who sells the trucker the coffee that helps to keep him awake on his drive?
In a market economy, even the most mundane good or service requires for its production and distribution the efforts of millions of people. Many of these individual tasks are utterly necessary for that good’s existence, but none of these individual tasks – including that of the state – is sufficient. There’s nothing special about the state.
Civility, high wages, economic growth, ingenious engineers, clean neighborhoods, excellent education, health care, baseball stadiums – you name it, it probably can be (and probably has been) produced by private efforts. Government can certainly affect the production and distribution of things – and reasonable people can argue about whether that effect is likely to be beneficial or not. But even if government’s services are necessary for our prosperity, it does not follow that government creates that prosperity.
Stated baldly, this proposition will attract few detractors – except the likes of Sunstein. But “blue-state creationism” is nevertheless rampant. Consider this letter to the editor in today’s NY Times:
Like Thomas L. Friedman, I was shocked to read that Congress cut financing for the National Science Foundation.
The United States is at a crucial turning point now in regard to scientific leadership in the world. We can either invest as much money as possible in supporting groundbreaking research benefiting nearly every aspect of our lives – training new scientists and engineers, improving science education and ensuring that the United States remains the best place in the world to pursue a career in science – or we can dedicate that money to frivolous pork, losing our place as the world leader in science and engineering.
As a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, I was instilled with the belief that science is vitally important to our society.
It’s unfortunate that Congress hasn’t learned the same lesson; the security of our nation, as well as our economic health, depends on it.
In other words, without taxpayer-financed scientific research, we’ll enjoy neither national security nor economic well-being.
NSF funding might or might not be justified. (I personally don’t think it’s justified, but that’s not my point.) The claim that this reader (and columnist Thomas Friedman) make is that genuine scientific advance can be created only by government. It’s a creationist myth.