Can there be a sane honest rightwinger?

A few pieces of data from the past few days:

* US Republican views on evolution have shifted significantly in the past 4 years. In 2009, 54 per cent said Yes to the question “Did humans and other animals evolve over time”, and 39 per cent said No. In 2013, those numbers have shifted to 48 per cent No, 43 per cent Yes. Other evidence shows that college-educated Repubs are more likely to have crazy views on evolution, climate science and so on than less-educated Repubs.

* Globally, November 2013 was the hottest November on record. In Australia, 2013 has been the hottest year on record.

* (Via Harry Clarke) Abbott’s senior adviser Maurice Newman has a piece in the Oz blaming the carbon tax/price for the decline of Australian manufacturing

Looking at the last point first, anyone who understands economics can see that the decline of Aust manufacturing is primarily due to the same long run trends that have reduced agriculture to a tiny proportion of economic activity, and secondarily due to the overvaluation of the $A (relative to PPP), reflecting the mining boom and other factors. If Newman doesn’t know this, he should. Newman’s nonsense on this point illustrates something more fundamental. You can’t deny climate science without screwing up your understanding of economics and politics.

This observation is strengthened by the second point. Climate “sceptics” claim to prefer data to models. But in fact they will all explain this data away. The truth is that they are all (I mean this literally, and without exceptions[1]) religiously committed to a position that no evidence will shake.

The final point illustrates the processes that are making it impossible to be a sane, honest rightwinger. The numbers reflect two processes
(i) People with sane views are ceasing to identify as Republicans, while those with insane views are shifting to become Repubs
(ii) Committed Republicans are resolving cognitive dissonance by becoming creationists

The processes are slightly different in Australia, where creationism remains a fringe position. But how can the likes of Akerman, Blair, Bolt, Devine and Stutchbury continue to parrot the arguments of American creationists without at least assuming that creationism is a defensible viewpoint?

The final step in the argument is addressed to a hypothetical sane, honest rightwinger. How can anyone take your stated views seriously when you fail to acknowledge that most people who share them are either fools or liars?

fn1. To be more precise, I don’t give up hope that some rightwingers will give up the entire package – climate denial, rightwing economics and all. But outside a conversion experience of this kind, these people are impervious to evidence.

Alanna Skelly petition

Long-term readers of the comments section will recall Alanna Skelly, who posted here as “Alanna” and “Alice”. Yesterday, I received from her the sad news that she had lost her son to an overdose of drugs, purchased online using Bitcoin. Alanna has started a petition on, asking that banks should stop facilitating such transactions by accommodating Bitcoin.

Readers will have different views on the policy issues, but this isn’t the occasion to discuss them, so there will be no comments on this post. Those who would like to support the petition can follow the link above.

Regardless of our politics, I’m sure everyone here will join me in extending to Alanna and her family our deepest sympathies.

Mixed thinking about markets

I was enjoying my Xmas break too much to deal with the silliness of the Institute of Public Affairs. But Chris Berg was hard at work, writing a piece in which he claimed all the technological progress of the past two centuries as products of the “the market economy and consumer society”, and I guess I should respond.

Berg points to a comparison between a 19th century Xmas picnic in the outskirts of Melbourne, involving arduous and expensive travel, and costly communication, and the ease with which people in wealthy countries can travel, communicate and enjoy plentiful food today.

This would be a reasonable line of argument if Berg were defending the status quo. But of course he is not. He wants to argue that all the good things that have happened in the last two centuries are the product of the “market economy”, and that we should therefore scrap our existing social arrangements in favor of radical reforms in which market forces are given free rein.

In reality, modern society is characterized by a mixed economy, in which large components of economic activity take place outside the market, within households or through publicly funded and provided services. Even within the private business sector, the majority of activity takes place within corporations whose internal operations are characterized by central planning, not markets.

All of this reflects the fact that a pure market economy doesn’t work well. Rather than list all the problems which have led modern societies to constrain the role of markets (environmental pollution, inequality and so on), I’ll focus on the one discussed by Berg, that of technological innovation. Information is what economists call a public good: making it available to one person doesn’t reduce its usefulness to others. And while it’s possible to keep useful information secret for a while, it gets harder and harder over time. So, a pure market system often doesn’t provide much of a reward to people who come up with new ideas.

All sorts of solutions to the problem have been developed. They include patents (a temporary grant of government-enforced monopoly), prizes and awards, and publicly funded research institutions such as universities. These interventions played a crucial part in most of the innovations discussed by Berg. Most notably, the university sector developed the Internet, which makes debates such as this possible.

Berg’s argument is an example of a characteristic fallacy among advocates of market liberalism. Beginning with the fact that all modern societies are, in some sense, capitalist, they point to the successes of modern society to argue in favor of a particular version of capitalism (free markets, on the US model but taken even further) and against others that have been more successful in terms of human welfare (various forms of social democracy) or that might exist in the future.

I guess it’s possible to find symmetrical kinds of fallacies on the left, but I’ll leave that to commenters.

Everyone does it and in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The general reaction to various revelations of spying by the US on its friends and allies, particularly in contexts such as trade negotiations has been “everyone does it” and “in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it”. And, as regards direct retaliation against the US, that’s pretty much right. The situation is a bit different for junior members of the Five Eyes[^1], such as Australia. A case now being heard at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague could set a precedent that will make such spying a high risk exercise.
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