“Demographics is destiny” is a phrase uttered in some rightwing circles and quietly believed in some leftwing ones. In political terms, the phrase suggests either cultural or genetic determinism, or both—namely, that people of a particular culture, ethnicity, or race will (statistically) vote in a particular way. Although the highly politically incorrect words won’t leave Leftist lips, some of their common narratives can only be true if they also believe that that three-worded devil is, too. For example, in 2019, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times wrote that “Once the heart of the confederacy, Virginia is now the land of Indian grocery stores, Korean churches and Diwali festivals…It is also significantly less white.” Beyond Virginia, Tavernise goes on to credit this browning of America for other Democrat victories when she writes, “Democrats took control of the House and elevated Nancy Pelosi to speaker in 2018 because of victories in these fast-changing parts of of America, and both parties are preparing for battle over these voters in 2020.”
Meanwhile, there was recently a civil war in American conservatism, largely surrounding the intersection between demographics, culture, immigration, and voting patterns. Mainstream conservative voices argued that race is irrelevant, illegal immigration should be curbed, and that culture transcends race. The more dissident wing questioned whether or not a freedom-minded American Republic could survive mass legal immigration from third-world countries, since their cultures and genetics lend themselves to voting for larger and larger government.
I sometimes roll my eyes at “both sides are wrong” assertions, especially when their champions are driven by a desire to appear fair-minded and above the fray, rather than by a desire to pursue the truth. Alas, feel free to accuse me of the same, but in this case, it’s true: both the Left and the Right are wrong that demographics is fundamental to the political future of America (or of any other society). Demographics is not destiny.
As I’d said, demographic determinism comes in two forms: biological and cultural. Although the latter is more important, the former is in some ways a more egregious error. Biological determinism—the notion that people’s behavior, actions, or physical characteristics, is determined by their genes—is false. This can seem counterintuitive, since genetic determinism is true for other living creatures. But the defining characteristic of people is that they are capable of creating explanations of the world around them, of creating knowledge that hitherto had not existed. In the words of physicist David Deutsch, who expounded on this concept in his 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity, people are “universal explainers”. This capacity to explain and understand the world is intimately connected with our corresponding ability to control it.
And that power is why people are not genetically determined: given adequate wealth and technology, any genetic condition may be compensated for by technological innovation. For example, a child born with no limbs may be equipped with prosthetic ones so indistinguishable that the mutation which caused the condition in the first place is moot. Poor vision is already compensated for by glasses, contacts, and surgery. Even something as seemingly determined as height may in principle be modified, and some individuals have undergone so-called leg-lengthening surgery in recent years. The same logic applies to inborn diseases, susceptibilities, disabilities, and any other problem that Nature may not have solved for us.
One really has an obligation to let the imagination fly here—in general, if a solution to a problem of the human condition is possible in principle, then people can procure it, given only that we create the knowledge of how to do so.
So physiology poses no fundamental limitations on what people are capable of achieving in the long run. This is a blow against some strands of genetic arguments surrounding immigration, especially with respect to the supposed importance of race. To emphasize: any perceived shortcoming owing to genetics can be compensated by the requisite technology. Even if such an innovation has not yet occurred, it is always discoverable by knowledge-creating people.
“Fair enough,” the determinist says, “but culture still matters, and immigrants who come to America still vote Left.” But culture is merely a set of ideas put into practice, and those are also not set in stone. History alone makes this clear, as the practices of your own ancestors from merely a few generations ago, with whom you share most of your genes, would likely horrify you today. The fact that cultures can improve at all proves that they are not some unstoppable, unchanging force. And, perhaps ironically, while genes propagate in only one direction—from parent to offspring—culture travels every which way imaginable, thus allowing for a plasticity and adaptability of which genes are utterly incapable.
The fact that people are universal explainers rules out cultural determinism as it did biological determinism—because people are capable of creating ever-more accurate explanations of reality, of resolving errors in their worldview, no culture is ever deterministically linked to any group of people. Just as the unbounded creativity of people renders our own genetics merely a background canvas on which we may paint whatever manmade environment we desire, so too does our creativity lend itself to modifying and, hopefully, improving any cultural milieu in which we find ourselves.
A salient example of deterministic thinking on questions of immigration is that of Muslim migration into Western nation-states. As Adrian Michaels of The Telegraph wrote in 2009, “Europe’s low white birth rate, coupled with faster multiplying migrants, will change fundamentally what we take to mean by European culture and society…Muslims represent a particular set of issues.” More recently, in 2017, the Pew Research Center published projections of Muslim percentages of European populations over time, under various possible scenarios. The scenarios differ by birthrate and migration levels, implicitly assuming that the number of Muslims in Europe is determined by these variables.
But ideas don’t travel through the birth canal, nor are they shielded from their environment—Muslims who migrate to Europe are exposed to new ideas, new cultures, new criticisms of their most cherished beliefs, and their European-born children even more so. Muslim immigrants and their children may adopt the new culture in which they find themselves, or they may radicalize, or they may do anything in between—the future patterns of people and their ideas cannot be prophesied.
Having said that, we should not idly sit by and merely hope for cultures to improve themselves from the inside, as it were. Some ideas are better than others, and some cultures lend themselves to progress and error-correction more so than others. Since the memes occupying one’s wetware are not immovably fixed by either gene nor by the culture into which one was born, we have a moral obligation to try to improve them—both our own and others’. And we do so by criticizing them, by explaining their deficiencies, by offering modifications.
So no, demographics is not destiny. Neither immigrants not those of particular genetics are predetermined to vote in some predictable manner. All people are universal explainers, and as such, are capable of unbounded improvement in thought and action. While it might be comforting to learn that race and other background are not determinative, the other side of the ledger is that since people can improve by acquiring new knowledge, we should not treat anyone with kid gloves. If demographics is not destiny, then the bigotry of low expectations is similarly unacceptable. This is exhilarating, for it means that people are not fundamentally divided by genetics, nor must our cultures be permanently incompatible. Civilizational progress of all kinds will always be, to quote David Deutsch, at the “beginning of infinity”.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Prussia was soundly defeated in multiple territorial battles with Napoleon’s French Empire. Under Napoleon, France’s revolutionary army had integrated new logistical methods into their military strategies. In particular, the French had employed Levée en masse, which was a policy of mass conscription that bolstered national unity. Prussia’s army under the reckless Frederick William II, meanwhile, had lost their once-renowned militaristic discipline. Nothing speaks like results, and in 1806, in three battles over what is now German land, the disorganized Prussian soldiers surrendered to the well-oiled and unified machinery that was the Napoleonic army. Napoleon seized more territory, and Prussia was left with an army of merely 42,000 men.
Prussia’s political class lost the confidence it had earned in previous decades, and the stark contrast between the quality of the French and Prussian armies was not lost on them. Seeking a method by which to both infuse their forces with discipline and instill unquestioning nationalism in its citizenry, Prussian statesmen turned to philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, whom they appointed as Minister of Education in 1809.
Humboldt’s intentions were noble. He advocated a public system of education in which all citizens, irrespective of class or social status, were taught precisely what would be required to live a productive life. As he wrote to the Prussian king, “There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature, and…a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without.”
But intentions do not equal results. Humboldt’s ideal of spreading the right knowledge to the right people translated, in practice, to the standardization of every aspect of public education. Instruction, examination, curricula, and textbooks were all treated as machinery to be employed in the “education” of the masses. Furthermore, the fact that the Prussian government was sponsoring Humboldt’s passion project ensured that the philosopher’s dreams were channeled in ways that served said government’s interests, which, as noted above, were to create an obedient and loyal citizenry.
As educator John Taylor Gatto notes in his book, The Underground History of American Education, the Prussian educational system took children away from their families and local communities and aimed to convert the youth into:
“1. Obedient workers for the mines.
2. Obedient soldiers for the army.
3. Well-subordinated civil servants to government.
4. Well-subordinated clerks to industry.
5. Citizens who thought alike about major issues.”
They called it schule.
By the 1840s, Prussia’s school system was operating as smoothly as the factories it so creepily mirrored. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Horace Mann, sought a method by which to impose order onto “unruly” children. Naturally, he was impressed by the Prussian model’s ability to collectivize, mollify, and subordinate the minds of its citizens. Mann succeeded in implementing it in Massachusetts and, like so many government programs, it proceeded to spread so far beyond its original scope until no one could imagine what life had been like without it.
In America, our youngest minds, the most malleable amongst us, are sent daily to undecorated buildings against their will. Once there, they will literallypledge allegiance to the flag of the most powerful government that the world has ever seen. History is taught as a history of governments, of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Even science and mathematics classes emphasize the facts of each domain, rather than their beautiful underlying explanations, and the problems that such explanatory theories have solved in our worldview. For example, students will be forced to memorize the names and spatial order of the planets, but not the explanation as to why our naming scheme is arbitrary in the first place.
The mind-molding continues. Students will be trained, doglike, that “good boys and girls” sit in their chairs when told to do so. Creative, individualistic behavior will be judged to be “disruptive,” and drugs are often encouraged onto those wildlings in order to subdue them. High grades are rewarded to those who follow instructions most accurately, who regurgitate facts and figures. That a student is bored is regarded as a problem originating with the child, rather than with the product being presented to him. To question a teacher’s authority, or the relevance of the course material, is considered rude.
The list goes on. But perhaps the most insidious effect of mandatory schooling is that it deludes people into thinking that they are cognitively impotent. That is, people are subtly trained into thinking that school is the only way to learn something. Consider the common refrain, “I’d love to learn physics, but I was never very good at it in school,” or, “I want to learn how to code, but my school didn’t offer any classes on it.”
Another manifestation of this learned impotence is the disproportionate reverence we hold for those with degrees in higher learning. This is a magic trick that has elevated the professorial class to the status of priests of previous ages. No matter how many authoritative certificates one earns in the academy, truth is obtained the same way as always—by conjecturing ideas, criticizing them, and retaining those that survive. Nowhere in this scheme is a degree to be found.
As David Deutsch explains in his 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity, all people are “universal explainers.” That is, a person who is capable of understanding some arbitraryconcept is necessarily capable of understanding any idea that can possibly be understood. Acquiring knowledge can come from sitting in a classroom, or from a lecture by a professor, but this is far from a law of nature—quite the opposite. One may learn an idea in a literal infinite number of ways. That a person lacks a degree is no impediment to learning any subject at all.
In short, we do not need them.
Just as the printing press allowed the masses to circumvent religious leaders and read the sacred texts on their own, the Internet is performing a similar function before our very eyes. To whatever extent the academic class had been the gatekeepers of knowledge, digital decentralization has rendered them superfluous as teachers. No one needs a high school degree to begin learning cellular biology. Whereas in yesteryear, one may have genuinely needed to take a college course to learn the material, now such knowledge is available across an almost literally uncountable number of platforms. The curious person may watch a YouTube series, read articles on Wikipedia, Tweet at a famous biologist, etc. The notion that one must learn inside of the dry walls of an academic setting is like demanding landline technology in an age of iPhones.
This article is not intended to denigrate any particular teacher or PhD program. On the contrary, these arguments should engender excitement and optimism. The idea that nothing stands in the way between you and anything you wish to understand is an extremely liberating message. The Internet has allowed for a myriad of educational flowers to bloom, many of them free for the picking. There is no perceived authority in the path to whatever knowledge piques your interest. With the press of a few buttons, you can stand on the shoulders of giants and “see” any knowledge that civilization has yet forged. We’re all intelligentsia now.
These economists argued that under centralized control of the means of production and provision of consumer goods to each person “according to his needs,” workers would have no incentive to be productive. Absent the dangling carrot that is the profit motive, no one would put effort into his duties. John Stuart Mill wrote: “Competition may not be the best conceivable stimulus, but it is at present a necessary one, and no one can foresee the time when it will not be indispensable to progress.” The socialists responded that there would be a “New Socialist Man” who would work to the benefit of the community and hence would not require monetary profit in the first place.
These classical economists implicitly conceded that if the so-called incentive problem could be solved, then a socialist economy could be as productive and allow as much wealth creation as could a capitalist one. There was no principled argument against coercive government takeover of vast swathes of the economy. The best that the intellectual descendants of Adam Smith could do was argue that such a society would be ‘unrealistic’. But unrealistic is a far stretch from impossible, especially to the socialist, we’ll-mold-man-according-to-our-vision, thinker.
Exactly one-hundred years ago, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises went beyond those classical rebuttals to socialism and shattered the very foundations on which socialism rested (that an Austrian economist took the baton from his classical forebears and peered deeper into the nature of economics is rather common in the history of ideas). In a 1920 article, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, Mises explained the so-called economic calculation problem, one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the twentieth century.
In a monetary economy, consumers bid for various goods, the prices of which are determined by the consumers’ demand for and the producers’ (entrepreneurs or their associates) supply of them. These producers don’t necessarily transform raw materials into their final consumer products: a restaurant owner might purchase utensils from a firm that specializes in the production of forks and knives. This firm, in turn, might buy the raw materials that are required in order to create utensils in the first place. For example, maybe they buy stainless steel from an owner of land who mines minerals solely in order to sell them. Physically, the production process of this example runs according to the following recipe: minerals are extracted from the earth by the landowner, then the fork-and-knife firm transforms the minerals into utensils, then the restaurant owner ‘transforms’ them into a presentable meal, and finally the patron of the restaurant ‘consumes’ the presentable meal (part of which is the utensils). Economically, however, this entire production process flows backwards from the consumers’ demand for consumer goods: the more patrons the restaurant owner serves, the more he, in turn, demands utensils from the fork-and-knife firm, which then demands more minerals from the landowner. This is what is meant when economists say that ‘consumer is king’.
But the restaurant owner is not the only entrepreneur bidding for utensils—he is competing with homeowners, collectors, other restaurant owners, and speculators. Just as prices emerge on the consumer goods market between consumers and the entrepreneurs selling such goods, so too does a producer goods market between entrepreneurs and sellers of producer goods generate prices of producer goods. This is true for all stages of production, and again, this entire network of prices is ultimately driven by the consumers’ demand for consumer goods.
When the entrepreneur sells a good to a consumer, the price of that consumer good is his revenue. In our example, this would be the restaurant owner selling a steak dinner to a patron for twenty dollars. But entrepreneurs do not pursue revenue, but rather profit. In order to calculate whether or not he’s earned a profit, the restaurant owner must subtract the cost of producing the meal from the price at which he sold the meal. But what is that cost? It is the priceof the producer goods that he purchased in order to create the meal in the first place—in our example, this includes not only the abovementioned utensils, but also whatever other producer goods went into the production of the meal. So, if the price of the sum of the producer goods exceeds the price of the final consumer good, the entrepreneur has incurred a loss. If the reverse is true, he’s earned a profit.
Under voluntary conditions (a free market), profits and losses are signals—a profit indicates that the entrepreneur is satisfying consumers in transforming producer goods into consumer good that they demand. A loss indicates consumer dissatisfaction with that particular line of production*. In either case, the entrepreneur may adjust his activities. In the first, he might demand more producer goods in order to try to earn even greater profits, while in the second, he might abandon his project in order to cut his losses. No matter what the entrepreneur does next, his decision will take in knowledge about what consumers want, and then transmit this knowledge ‘backwards’ to owners of producer goods. Without the ability to calculate his profit/loss, the entrepreneur cannot know what to do next in order to better satisfy consumers.
Prices emerge on the producer goods market precisely because 1) these producer goods are privately owned, 2) entrepreneurs bid for them according to what they think consumers demand of their (the entrepreneurs’)final consumer products, and 3) money is sound**. Under centralized control of the means of production, there is no producer goods market. So the socialist institution has no idea what the prices of these producer goods are, and therefore has no profit/loss mechanism. Economic waste, such as shortages, surpluses, inefficient choices of which particular producer goods to employ in the creation of consumer goods, and reduction in total wealth (called economic regression) are all inevitable under a socialist order.
No matter how superhuman the “New Socialist Man” might be, no matter how selfless and communitarian, he will never overcome this calculation problem. The knowledge encoded in the profit/loss system that emerges in a free market cannot be recovered by a socialist Leviathan. Counterintuitively, it is centralized, coercive planning that causes destructive economic chaos, rather than an unplanned, voluntary system.
But is that really true? Had Mises shown that, following deductively from first principles, collective ownership of producer goods forces the socialist institution to provide consumer goods in wildly erroneous proportions relative to its decentralized, free market counterpart? The socialistic institution could always get lucky, and provide exactly what would’ve been provided in a free market. But then, a cow could similarly ‘get lucky’ and appear spontaneously in deep space. In neither case would we have a good explanation for why these seem to be regularities of nature.
A physical transformation is impossible if, no matter how much knowledge is brought to bear, it cannot be achieved. For example, building a generic spaceship out of raw materials is evidently possible, given that it has happened. However, building a particular spaceship that can travel faster than the speed of light is impossible in principle, since the laws of Einstein’s special relativity forbid any massive object from traveling at such a speed. No matter how much more knowledge civilization acquires, we will never be able to violate the laws of nature.
The converse is also true—if no law of nature explicitly forbids a particular transformation from being achievable, then people are capable of causing said transformation, given the requisite knowledge. This implies that what we intuitively think of as wealth is more fundamentally about knowledge than about the particular resources a person owns. For example, a farmer who owns the raw materials of land and seeds is capable of transforming them into edible crops, while a professor of history may not know what to do with those same resources. Furthermore, a person can grow wealthier without acquiring any new resources by instead acquiring more knowledge. The value of land with oil reserves only shot up in value after people learned how they could employ oil to their advantage, and not a moment before that. So the set of all possible transformations that the same scarce resources may undergo depends on what their owner knows what to do with them.
An economy is a particular way that knowledge is arranged in the universe, distributed across the minds of creative people. As we’ve seen, this knowledge can grow (or shrink, as when civilization regresses), causing a concomitant increase in economic wealth. Can we express this more exactly? Are there laws of nature that govern, constrain, and explain changes in the growth of knowledge and wealth?
A new fundamental theory in physics, constructor theory, seems to be able to express all other laws of physics in terms of possible and impossible transformations. This is a deeper mode of explanation than the so-called prevailing conception of physics, which had held that theories are to be expressed in terms of ‘initial conditions plus laws of motion’. That mode of explanation worked in explaining domains of reality in which exact predictions of what will happen is possible, such as when Newton accurately predicted the future speed and position of moving objects with his theory of classical mechanics.
But there are aspects of reality that are unpredictable, even in principle. One of those is the growth of knowledge, and therefore all economic phenomena. Despite the mockery they’ve received, Austrian economists have long understood that predictions cannot help in understanding, or criticizing, the principles of economics. The theorems and explanations of Austrian economics are not expressed in terms of predicting exactly what will happen, as would be required by the prevailing conception, but what can possibly happen, and what cannot happen in principle***. At long last, physics has caught up to them.
If socialism is truly impossible in principle, then it must be forbidden by some law of nature. Specifically, the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism should be manifest in (or be deducible from) physical laws that govern the possible ways knowledge can be arranged and its relationship to the growth of wealth. Constructor theory provides the mathematical formalism necessary for precisely these kinds of laws—principles of nature that don’t predict what will happen, but that express what can be caused to happen, and what cannot be caused to happen.
Here, we reach the boundary of present scientific understanding, and so I have reached the limits of my precision. I don’t know what transformations, exactly, will be shown to be impossible, nor do I know how the arguments will even be stated in their constructor theoretic form. While constructor theory has solved some problems in physics and elsewhere already, a constructor theory of knowledge has not yet been created, and hence a constructor theory of economics is even further from our present vantage point. But I am optimistic. If laws of nature come to show, via the formalism of constructor theory, that economic calculation is physically impossible in principle under socialism, then denial of what Mises had shown one-hundred years ago will carry the same logic as denial of the existence of dinosaurs, or of the roundness of the earth.
*More technically, a profit signals that the entrepreneur is engaged in a line of production of which consumers approve, and a loss signals a corresponding disapproval.
**I won’t expound on sound money in this essay.
***Many of these theorems are counterfactual in nature (so-called ceteris paribus arguments), and constructor theory has already demonstrated an ability to handle other regularities that require reference to counterfactuals, such as those of information.
So many ideas that we take for granted had once been considered revolutionary. Historically, common responses to founders of such ideas have been charges of heresy, ostracism, or death. Famously, Socrates was sentenced to die for “corrupting the youth”, which is a euphemism for his genius Socratic method. Effectively, Socrates was killed for popularizing the very idea of discourse—a concept now so deeply ingrained in Western Civilization that it hums unexamined in the background, silently serving as the primordial soup from which all other new ideas emerge. And its earliest champion was killed over it.
There is no dearth of these tales. But if history is riddled with awesome ideas that are not appreciated until long after their origins, could there be such ideas floating about right now, under our noses?
There are. In fact, I can think of three ideas that are so deep, so potentially useful, and so paradigm-shifting that widespread acceptance of even one of them would transform civilization for the better. I musingly call these ‘The Big Three’: critical rationalism, praxeology, and constructor theory.
Critical rationalism is our best theory of knowledge and how it can grow. The twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper spent his career developing and advocating for it across books, essays, and lectures. The theory is concisely summarized in the title a compendium of his essays: All Life is Problem Solving. As people, we face problems—conflicts between ideas, to quote the physicist David Deutsch. This is true not only in science, but in our personal lives, in economics, and it’s even true for both genes and creatures of the biosphere. The theory is as deep as it is wide—critical rationalism applies anywhere in nature where knowledge can be found.
How do people solve problems? They conjecture solutions. For the scientist, this takes the form of creating explanations, or hypotheses, of some physical phenomenon. For the entrepreneur, this could be offering an original product to the market. For the gene, this could be a mutation that allows it to spread at the expense of its rivals (to be sure, this process is not conscious). Notice what these cases have in common—something genuinely novel has entered Reality. Before Einstein’s theory of general relativity, no one ever held the thought that “space-time tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to curve”, to quote the physicist John Wheeler. Before the invention of the wheel, there were no such objects in the entire Universe. And biology is well-known to create chemicals that do not exist anywhere else—proteins, for example, can’t be found in the dark oceans of the cosmos, and yet they abound on Earth, in the presence of life.
But if we are only ever guessing solutions to problems, how can we be sure of ourselves? We can’t. Here was another stroke of genius by Popper. The quest for foundations, for certainty, was itself a mistake. In science, for example, even our most basic presumptions are forever tentative, forever liable to revision and improvement. We can never know how a new theory will change our worldview, and so no assumption is perfectly secure.
Typically, more than one solution is conjectured to solve a given problem. By the 1600s, for example, there were two rival explanations for the motion of falling objects: that of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and that of the contemporary thinker, Galileo Galilei. Aristotle held that objects fell at a speed proportional to their weight, while Galileo conjectured that all objects fall at a uniform rate, independent of their weight. What to do in such a problem-situation in which more than one solution is offered? Popper explained that we criticize all candidate solutions. This step is itself a creative process, as our methods of criticism and criteria for what constitutes a good explanation are themselves ever-evolving and improving.
In science, the most salient form of criticism is the so-called crucial experiment. When two or more theories attempt to explain the same phenomenon, we conduct an experiment whose outcome contradicts the predictions made by all but one of the rival theories. In the case of Aristotle’s and Galileo’s explanations of falling objects, the test was straightforward—drop objects of different weights from some height and record their time to impact. Famously, if only apocryphally, Galileo did just that by dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Veracity of this tale aside, only Galileo’s theory was in fact shown to be consistent with experimental outcomes. Aristotle’s explanation of motion was banished from the scientific community and relegated to the history books.
And so critical rationalism holds that we conjecture as many solutions as we want, criticize all of them, and retain those that survive. Even after some scientific explanation survives scrutiny, its shortcomings are eventually exposed, and we must conjecture new solutions yet again. Galileo’s theory was soon improved and brought into a much deeper explanatory framework by the seventeenth century physicist, Isaac Newton. And Newton’s theory was further superseded in the early twentieth century by both quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. The scientific process is open-ended, as problems are latent in all of our theories, and we are forever trying to solve problems in our worldview, to resolve errors in our theories.
In general, the scientific method proceeds as follows: whatever our current understanding of the world is, it invariably contains gaps and misconceptions, and there are phenomena for which it cannot account. We then conjecture a new theory that resolves at least one such flaw in our worldview. We criticize that theory with all of the tools at our disposal, only one of which is experimentation. For example, we demand that the new theory is internally consistent, not arbitrary, and so on. A theory that fails those criticisms doesn’t need to be corroborated by experimental evidence. Only when we have multiple candidate theories to explain the same phenomenon do we conduct the crucial experiment. Once we have criticized all available theories, we retain whichever have survived. But we then find ourselves in a new, deeper problem-situation, for even with our updated worldview, there remain gaps in our understanding of reality—some that would never have even been previously conceivable. The entire scientific scheme in the critical rationalist framework is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Diagrammatic representation of Popper’s critical rationalism. Discover a problem/unexplained phenomena, propose several potential theories/solutions (TS1, TS2, etc.), criticize all potential theories/solutions until one remains, eliminate errors/explain phenomena by applying the surviving theory/solution, discover new problems (P21, P22, etc.), repeat.
Many of the so-called crises in science today are a result of bad philosophy—that is, of ignoring critical rationalism. In contrast to much of what is done in research, we cannot simply gather more data and hope to better understand Reality. Rather, we must first conjecture an explanation—or several rival explanations—and then criticize all such candidate theories. Data serves as a mode of criticism—theories make different predictions about how the world ought to behave, and those theories whose predictions are inconsistent with data are said to be falsified, while those theories whose predictions are consistent with data are said to be corroborated.Moreover, it is logically impossible to go from data to theories’, since interpreting a set of data is itself a theoretical act. So, no amount of data-gathering can help us to solve problems absent some good explanation of what we expect to observe. Rival philosophies, such as empiricism–which emphasizes only what we can observe—and inductivism—which claims that we proceed from observations to theories—are false. So much effort is wasted by researchers and thinkers who are stuck in these mistaken frameworks.
So, acceptance of critical rationalism would save many scientific fields that have stagnated in the last few decades, because researchers would reorient away from the overemphasized activity of gathering data towards the overlooked but fundamental activity of explaining reality.
Because critical rationalism shifts the emphasis from data to problems and conjecturedsolutions, the philosophy reaches far beyond science and into other important areas, such as how to live. A state of unhappiness is a problem-situation, and conjecturing explanations of why one is in such a state can inform a person as to what action to take. If the action still fails to resolve the problem, the person can conjecture yet another solution, and so on, in a trial-and-error fashion. A person continuously takes action in striving to go from problem-situation to better problem-situation. In fact, all of life takes this form, even if only implicitly.
Economics was always destined to be treated differently than the hard sciences. Unlike physics and chemistry, in which the objects of study are predicable systems like stars, planets, and metals, economics is a science of people—and people are themselves creative, and hence unpredictable even in principle. This is cause for concern only for those who think that the goal of science is prediction. But as we’ve seen, critical rationalism implies that the goal of science is rather to solve problems in our worldview, to explain Reality. Prediction, then, is merely a way of testing, of criticizing theories. So, the fact that people are inherently unpredictable is no problem for the critical rationalist.
Nevertheless, the astonishing effectiveness with which physicists had been able to predict the motion of objects ranging in size and speed from bullets to planets made an impression on thinkers in other fields. And critical rationalism was only discovered in the last century, so scientists and philosophers alike were vulnerable to all sorts of misconceptions that Popper’s ideas would eventually resolve. In the meantime, predictions, mathematics, and sensory experience were thought to be fundamental to all sciences.
But, following Popper, our goal is to explain Reality with whatever tools we have at our disposal. The methods used by so-called Austrian economists are a priori and deductive—they begin with an axiom so self-evidently true that to deny it would entail a self-contradiction. They then proceed to deduce logical implications of that axiom. In this way, no experiment could contradict their conclusions, because they were founded and deduced by logic alone. *
The Austrian school of economics was founded by the Viennese Carl Menger with the publication of his 1871 book, Principles of Economics. Menger and a few others ushered in the ‘marginal revolution’ in economic thought, so-called because they recognized that goods are consumed ‘at the margins’, an idea that solved the diamond-water paradox. Why is water typically cheaper than diamonds, if the former is more fundamental to human survival? The first generation of Austrian economists realized that ‘water as such’ and ‘diamonds as such’ are never consumed by the economic actor. Rather, a person consumes either a unit of water or a unit of diamonds at the margins—he purchases whatever he values the most at a particular moment in time, after all of his lower values have already been satisfied. So, even though water is more biologically necessary than are diamonds, if John has already satisfied his desire to hydrate, then the next purchase he may prefer is a unit of diamond, rather than another unit of water. People make choices at the margins of their present scale of values. Value, then, is not intrinsic in any scarce resource, but rather is in the eye of the economic beholder. This subjectivist approach to economics contradicted both Adam Smith’s classical school and the nascent Marxist view.
But how we could anyone be sure that Austrian economics is correct, and those rival theories false? In physics, we could conduct a crucial experiment, as had been done successfully many times by that point in history. Enter Ludwig von Mises, arguably the greatest economist of all-time. In his 1949 magnum opus, Human Action, Mises elegantly derived—and explained—the entire edifice of Austrian economics via praxeology, the science of human action.
Mises’ praxeology begins with the irrefutable axiom that man acts purposefully (I welcome the reader to reject the axiom and notice what happens). It is astounding how many conclusions follow. For example, in acting purposefully, it is immediately implied that John has chosen to pursue end A rather than end B. Had end A been unavailable, John would have indeed pursued end B. In this way, the action axiom implies the scale of values mentioned above. Furthermore, pursuing end A requires the use of some means, which, because they are being directed towards end A, they cannot be directed towards other ends. In other words, man acts in a world of scarce means.
Because time is a scarce resource, then, all else being equal, man prefers to satisfy his ends sooner rather than later. In this way, the concept of time preference is derived.
Mises goes on to apply this way of thinking to ever more complex scenarios, starting with one man alone on an island to a society with diverse individuals desiring a multitude of ends. Through this deductive approach, he shows how prices emerge, the role of profits and losses in an economy, and, crucially, the damaging effects of coercive intervention into an economy of free actors.
I am only scratching the surface of what Mises accomplished. From first principles, he not only built an entire edifice of economic thought, but he also provided the explanation for why this school, the Austrian school, is the only correct one. After Mises, the Austrian school and its praxeological methods were here to stay, even though they remain the object of dismissal or mockery by economists from other schools of thought who demand that economics be empirical.
Murray Rothbard took the baton from Mises and continued developing Austrian economics. He also applied it forcefully to politics, creating the legal philosophy of anarcho-capitalism. Libertarianism had been defended in various forms in the past, but no one had unified praxeology, morality, and the concept of private property so thoroughly. In doing so, Rothbard spawned his greatest brainchild—a consistent and elegant defense of a society without government and any other violations of the so-called nonaggression principle.
What Mises and Rothbard have demonstrated is that understanding is not limited to experimentally testable explanations. The dogma that scientific theories must be mathematical, and must make predictions about how objects will behave, is false. And with respect to politics, Austrian economics suggests that no government intervention may possibly improve the overall standard of living of mankind, to put it mildly. The ideas of these great men have radical implications that can be summarized in nine words:
You cannot coerce your way to a better world.
The last of the Big Three is the youngest but perhaps the most fundamental. Constructor theory is officially less than a decade old, if the clock starts with the publication of its foundational paper in 2013 by physicist David Deutsch.
As with most of our deepest theories in physics and elsewhere, constructor theory’s beauty is in its simplicity. That’s not to say that the details wouldn’t take effort to understand, but it’s not some impenetrable labyrinth of mathematics and jargon. You don’t have to be an expert in physics or epistemology or anything else to understand the ideas behind and within constructor theory.
In what Deutsch calls the prevailing conception of physics, theories take the form of ‘initial conditions plus laws of motion’. For example, Newton’s physics, called classical mechanics, allows you to predict an object’s future position and momentum (mass times velocity) as long as you know all of the forces acting on it, as well as its current position and momentum. As we’ve seen, the success of Newtonian physics and other physical theories to predict a system’s behavior over time was so impressive that predictive ability became a standard by which future theories would be judged.
In the 1800s, the theory of electromagnetism, while explaining a different class of phenomena than did Newton’s theory, also took the form of ‘initial conditions plus laws of motion’. In this case, the motion of charged particles, such as electrons, could be predicted if one knew the forces acting on them, and again, their initial state.
Even with the advent of general relativity and quantum mechanics in the 20th century, this paradigm reigned supreme. Although the state of a system was no longer necessarily expressed in terms of its position and momentum, the theories were still cast in terms of trajectories over time. Even in the notoriously weird quantum mechanics, something called a wavefunction evolved predictably over time, given particular laws of motion for that wavefunction.
So, theories were thought to be all about what actually happens in the world. To reiterate, given some state of the world at any point in time, a successful theory, it was thought, should predict (or retrodict) the state of the world at some other time. In this prevailing conception, a theory provides equations of motion that predict what will happen to some system, given some current state, or initial conditions, of this system. Whether this system is a ball rolling down a hill, or the entire universe itself, or a quantum wave function, the prevailing conception is all about predicting what will happen to the system in question.
But some of our deepest explanations simply don’t conform to this prevailing conception. Consider the other two of The Big Three—critical rationalism and praxeology. In neither case do we predict the future according to some equation coupled with data of initial conditions. And, funnily enough, as I’d mentioned, one of the criticisms of praxeology is that it does not employ such equations! But the point is that some of our deepest theories of Reality simply cannot be expressed in terms of the prevailing conception. If Reality is as unified and comprehensible as most scientists fully expect it to be, then there has to be a way of formally unifying those theories that do conform to the prevailing conception, such as the ones I’d mentioned earlier, with these other theories that cannot be put in terms that the prevailing conception can handle. Other examples of the latter, by the way, include evolution by natural selection and computation.
So if our worldview is ever going to encompass both the wildly successful theories that do conform to the prevailing conception, as well as all of our theories that explain higher level phenomena — such as praxeology and critical rationalism — then we need some new theory, one that provides a language in which we can express all of the theories in the prevailing conception, as well as our other theories. This theory, it turns out, is constructor theory.
A final preliminary note—there is a host of principles that most working scientists accept, but that are only implicit and cannot be expressed in any of the prevailing conception’s theories. The principle of testability, that a theory must be falsifiable, is one such example. Until constructor theory, people just took that as a methodological rule, a rule of how science ought to be done. But constructor theory naturally and elegantly makes this principle explicit. Another example that seems to hold true but that the prevailing conception has no room for is the so-called Turing Principle, which essentially states that it is possible to build a computer that can simulate any physical process.
These two principles, along with others, have no place in the prevailing conception, because they’re not about initial conditions and predicting the future state of a system. In fact, they’re about what’s physically possible and what’s impossible.
This leads us to the governing idea of constructor theory — that is, all of the laws of physics can be expressed in terms of which transformations are possible and which transformations are impossible, and why.
So while theories that conform to the prevailing conception will tell you the trajectory of the state of a system according to some laws of motion and given some initial state of a system, constructor theory tells you which trajectories are possible according to that theory, which are impossible, and why. While in the prevailing conception, what matters is what will happen, constructor theory is all about what can be caused to happen in principle. What actually happens is only an emergent consequence of what can possibly happen.
As a brief example, in Einstein’s famous theory of special relativity, no object with mass can travel faster than the speed of light. And so, in the prevailing conception, you have some object and its initial velocity, and the equations of special relativity can tell us the object’s velocity at any future point in time. In those equations, it turns out to be impossible for the object’s velocity to ever exceed the speed of light in a vacuum.
In constructor theoretic terms, we can say that the object’s velocity cannot be transformed into a velocity that’s greater than the speed of light, or, equivalently, that transforming an object’s speed into a speed that’s greater than the speed of light in a vacuum is an impossible task.
In that example, we don’t get much purchase by switching to constructor theoretic terms, because the prevailing conception already has a handle on the phenomenon at hand. But what about questions that we can ask about other aspects of Reality? For example, under what conditions is life possible, in principle? That certainly can’t be answered by the prevailing conception. How about: what resources are required to build a universal computer—a computer that can simulate any other computer? There’s no way we can answer these questions in terms of initial conditions plus laws of motion, but we might be able to answer them in terms of possible and impossible transformations. For example, maybe it’s impossible for life to emerge in the absence of a genetic code, or any other sort of code. Maybe that can be shown under constructor theory. Maybe constructor theory can also show exactly under what conditions a universal computer can be built.
There are all sorts of questions that one can ask once one understands the power of constructor theory. And notice that the theory brings in counterfactuals into fundamental physics. In other words, what’s fundamental is not what actually happens, but rather what could’ve been caused to happen. So, what’s interesting about, say, a computer, is not that it runs a particular program, but that it could be caused to run other programs.
And since constructor theory can just as well account for theories in the prevailing conception, as I had briefly shown with my special relativity example, we see that the prevailing conception is really just a limiting case that allows for classes of phenomena that do conform to an ‘initial condition plus laws of motion’ kind of theory. Constructor theory allows for a much wider class of phenomena, including those that are unpredictable in principle, those that require counterfactuals to explain, and those that can’t be explained by resorting to a reductionist framework, in which we explain greater, bigger, or more complex phenomena in terms of their constituent parts. All of this is possible because of the single genius idea that all of the laws of physics can be expressed in terms of transformations that are possible and transformations that are impossible, and why.
Constructor theory is several decades younger than the other two of the Big Three, and so many of its accomplishments remain to be discovered (but read here, here, and here for scientific problems it has already solved). Still, constructor theory has many philosophical implications for our worldview, and even for our understanding of the role of people in the cosmos. Consider all of the transformations that are capable of being caused. Of those, only an extremely tiny minority occur “naturally”—there are few unique objects there are across the universe. Stars, planets, black holes, asteroids, and a whole lot of cold, dark, and empty.
Now consider what people have created in just the last few thousands of years. People have converted rocks into cathedrals. They’ve mixed the fiery energy of the sun with the guts of Earth itself to produce the orderly, purposeful devices that prevail in our digital age. They’ve turned wolves into dogs, trees into books, and metal into vehicles that fly through space. And the set of transformations that people are capable of causing is limited by what they know how to do. It follows, then, that both people and knowledge are fundamental in a constructor theoretic understanding of Reality—only people are capable of causing any transformation capable of being caused, and their repertoire at any moment is limited by their knowledge.
Constructor theory also demands that we be philosophical optimists. Any problem that we face requires some transformation of our environment from the problematic state to an unproblematic state. But, as we’ve seen, people can render any transformation permitted by the Laws of Nature, so long as they acquire the requisite knowledge. It follows that any problem we face is necessarily solvable (see Deutsch’s 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity, for a longer discussion), it is just a matter of creatively discovering the solution.
The Big Three are available for anyone to study. I have only introduced them in this essay. ** Each contains so much more than I’ve offered in these brief pages.
Widespread understanding of any of The Big Three would would resolve so many errors in our collective consciousness. Taken together, The Big Three constitute a revolution in the making on par with any of those that came before. There are numerous connections between them, but that’s for another essay. The curious reader might already be putting the pieces together.
Socrates himself could never have imagined that our understanding of Reality might deepen and unify to such an astonishing degree. Although we remain infinite in our ignorance, our knowledge is deeper than in any age past. And yet, here we are, sitting atop a goldmine of mind-bending explanations. Best get digging.
*An open problem is how praxeology can be said to be empirical, if it is deducible from logic alone. This is one of the ways in which The Big Three come together, but that is a story for another essay.
**I hardly even mentioned knowledge, and the fundamental role it plays in each of the Big Three.
Creationism has lost the argument in the public square. Any biologist working to understand life-related phenomena has no choice but to take seriously Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. That is, all of the apparent design and purposefulness that we observe in the biosphere, from a bird’s wings to a shark’s fins to a human brain, came about by a long but steady series of gradual changes in unbroken genetic lineages. Amazingly, Charles Darwin (as well as Alfred Russell Wallace) discovered his elegant explanation of the biosphere’s apparent design without knowledge of the underlying code of life, DNA, nor about genes, the fundamental unit of evolution by natural selection (for a detailed overview, see Richard Dawkins’ seminal book, The Selfish Gene).
To be sure, there is a host of unsolved problems in biology, but that is always the case in science, and is no blemish against Darwin. A theory must always be judged against its rivals, not against some utopian theory that explains everything once and for all.
Biological Creationism is the theory that the wondrous designs we see in the biosphere cannot have arisen due to ‘mere’ mutation and selection, and that a divine source must instead have caused them. Some Creationists insist that all creatures have had the forms that they currently hold, while others accept Darwin’s theory but posit that God nudged evolution along according to His own plan. In either case, the Creationist rejects that complex adaptations could possibly emerge without a top-down Designer intervening. And when such a Creationist hypothesis is coupled with the assertion that the world has not yet had its 10,000th birthday, mockery understandably comes its way. Millions of laypeople can now articulate and defend the idea that the design and complexity of living things have come about by a process that involved no Designer whatsoever. The Creationist often rejects this design-without-a-Designer idea merely on the grounds that it’s utterly counterintuitive.
But Reality does not care what we intuit to be true.
So while Biological Creationism is rightfully rejected in many quarters, there is another strand of Creationism that is both widespread and far more dangerous than its biological counterpart. I speak of what I call Economic Creationism. There are many variants, but in general, Economic Creationism is the theory that the complexity and order in society cannot emerge spontaneously and, therefore, requires a top-down Planner. All theories worth their salt have logical consequences, and Economic Creationism, while false, is no different. For example, if only the Planners passed the right laws, then the evils of the day would vanish. Surely the answer to racist discrimination, to gun violence, to terrorism, is more legislation and top-down control. Poverty, too, can be resolved if only we rejigger society in just the right way, like rearranging pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until they fit together. If only the taxation scheme was just right, then we’d have the outcome that we want, whether that’s an acceptable level of either inequality or absolute poverty. And so adherents to Economic Creationism think that politics is the mechanism by which we work our way towards a better world.
But politics is, almost by definition, a game that requires the initiation of violence to play. If you, Citizen, refuse to give politicians the resources they require for their schemes, people with guns will knock on your door, kidnap you at the threat of violence, and throw you in a cage. My point is not to conclude that such a game is therefore immoral (alas, my thoughts on the matter may be ill-concealed), but rather to expose the economics of the matter. In order for a political apparatus to do anything, they first have to confiscate wealth that was created by private citizens. That is, at best political schemes can at best merely shift wealth around, rather than create it. And make no bones about it, we’re all interested in creating wealth—as we should be, as it’s the thing that allows us to solve ever more problems. Even the Economic Creationist thinks that some class of people will be made ‘better off’ through political schemes—in other words, wealthier.
Okay, politics can’t generate wealth. So what? Maybe we can sacrifice a little total wealth in order to make gains in economic equality, or in governmental rule-of-law. But it turns out that there is no such tradeoff—a society is only rendered poorer than it would have been absent such coercive measures. This can be shown in a number of ways. There’s the famous ‘seen vs. the unseen’ principle, as expressed by economist Frederic Bastiat—while you see the products and services provided for you by the government, you are forever blind to the benefits that would have been provided by those same resources that the government confiscated in the first place. Resources are always scarce, and at any given level of wealth, more of one application is less of another. If a government takes a farmer’s profits in order to further its schemes, so be it. But regardless of what the government does with those resources, we will never know what the farmer would’ve done with them—he could’ve hired another employee, lowered prices of his crops, etc.
Then there’s the economic calculation problem, first explained by Ludwig von Mises—in short, prices are what they are for reasons, something Economic Creationists fail to appreciate. Prices reflect a host of underlying factors that are beyond any one individual’s control—people’s subjective preferences, the cost of production, the number of competitors in the industry, etc. The amount of information embedded in a price is as impressive as the amount of information encoded in a strand of DNA. Because governments operate outside of market competition, they lack the information that their free market counterparts enjoy via prices. Hence, not only do they tend to produce services at comparatively low quality, but they also tend to produce them at quantities either above or below what citizens demand.
And finally, we have Friedrich Hayek’s knowledge problem—that the data required for economic planning is so vast, complex, and distributed amongst free individuals that no top-down planner can possibly possess it all at once. Consider all of the decisions you make on a daily basis. Now imagine that someone will confiscate some of your resources and make those decisions for you. Do you think they’ll do a better job solving your problems than you would? Or, to take a less personal example, consider the production of a single pencil (here I borrow unapologetically from Leonard Read’s brilliant essay, I, Pencil). The writing instrument first requires the transformation of trees into logs, which in turn requires mining ore and converting that into sawing tools. The logs are then shipped to another location, where they are shaped further into pencil-shapes before being merged with the rest of the numerous components of a pencil. The entire pencil-creation process is spread across time, space and production lines, and requires an uncountable number of individuals to be accomplished. And not a single person involved could recreate the process by himself—not in his own mind, and certainly not physically.
So wealth is created by free individuals, each responding locally to problems in her own life. Prices emerge by the interaction of uncountable numbers of people. The creation of technology requires more knowledge than a single person is capable of possessing, and instead requires the spontaneous order of the economy. But the Economic Creationist denies these rules. He dismisses the value of prices, of the impossibility of centralizing the knowledge that is distributed across millions (or billions) of individuals’ minds, of the freedom and creativity that is required to create wealth in the first place. He is a proponent of forcibly extracting created wealth from free, disparate individuals and putting it into the hands of a single organization. We may summarize the rules denied by the Creationist as follows:
You cannot coerce your way to a better world.
So yes, Biological Creationism is false. But the consequences of Economic Creationism are far more damaging to humanity. Their rejection of freedom as a prerequisite for wealth creation leads to advocacy of proposals that vitiate the wealth that our ancestors and contemporaries have worked hard to build. Next time you roll your eyes at a religious fundamentalist’s denial of Darwinism, remember that there is another Creationism pervading our culture, one that is far more destructive. Economic Creationism is the great Enemy of Civilization. Let’s take it seriously.
The science of human action, better known as praxeology, is of a different character than the physical sciences¹. It is our best explanation of how creative objects such as people act in the world, and of what we can logically deduce from a few simple axioms. While physical theories, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, can in principle be shown to be false by an appropriate experiment, the same cannot be said of praxeology. To be sure, praxeology can be made problematic by particular observations, but not of the kind that are typically presented by studies of either a left- or right-wing bent. In particular, no data can ever come to bear on answering the question of whether some particular public policy has this effect, or that effect, or no effect at all. Indeed, even those who reject this seemingly unempirical nature of the science of human action would admit that, in the social sciences, data can be massaged to conform to any hypothesis that one wishes to be true. Fortunately, we can be as confident in the principles of praxeology as we can be in those of the physical sciences.
From the axioms that humans act towards particular ends, and that resources are scarce, many consequences follow. For example, to the extent that money is scarce and aids humans in satisfying their ends, then if the money price of some good increases, people will consume less of it. This is true because both money and the good in question are scarce, and so each potential buyer of the good is willing to trade some maximal amount of money for each additional unit of the good. Should the price of the good exceed the maximum amount that a consumer is willing to pay, then he/she will cease to engage in trade, preferring to retain his/her money rather than acquire an additional unit of the good in question. No empirical data may refute this logical deduction. Even if someone shows that, with rising prices of a good, consumption of it increased, this is correlation and not causation. Furthermore, such evidence misses the point of the above analysis. Raising the price of a scarce good, all else being equal, causes people to buy less of it. Misunderstanding this is one reason why empirical evidence can be used to corroborate all sorts of mutually contradictory hypotheses.
For example, both proponents and opponents of a minimum wage law can readily present evidence in support of their assertions. The leftwing advocate might show a time series of data indicating that low-skilled workers experienced an increase in wages that directly resulted from such a law. A rightwing challenger might show, with some other set of data, that employment was reduced where a minimum wage law was passed. And then, when each person is faced with the opposing data, he or she will look for other factors to explain the data such that the position for which he or she is advocating remains the correct one. This argumentation pattern holds true not just for the minimum wage debate, but also that of gun restrictions, regulations, and so on.
One error that is typically made in such arguments is that differences in ideas (or theory, or explanation) are not made explicit. One must ask why, say, an increase in the minimum wage would improve the lot of low-wage workers and, on the other side, why it would hurt this group. The answer to either question depends on the underlying theory of economics that one accepts. So the argument must necessarily be made more principled and broader than any given policy disagreement, since economic theories typically touch on many policy areas. Moreover, the uncomfortable truth is that a controlled experiment, in which two societies are allowed to run in parallel, one with the minimum wage law, and one without such a law, is impossible to create. People are inherently unpredictable, and so ‘all-else-being-equal’ conditions can never be met.
According to the laws of praxeology, the effect of a minimum wage law is the same as the effect of any other forced price floor. Since labor is a scarce good that employers consume, if the price of labor is forbidden from fluctuating below some floor, then employers will hire fewer laborers. The overall effect on the economy, then, is that there will be greater unemployment relative to the case in which the price of labor (also called the wage rate) is free to be negotiated between employee and employer. In particular, those individuals who would work at wages below the mandated minimum wage law and whom an employer would not hire at the minimum wage are involuntarily removed from the labor market. Effectively, a minimum wage law forbids certain voluntary employment contracts from being established. In addition to a lower level of employment, the production of consumer goods is diminished, since there are fewer workers engaged in the productive activity that causes such goods to be created in the first place. This reduction in the supply of consumer goods causes a rise in their prices, which most negatively impacts those consumers with the least amount of money in a given economy.
All of this is not to say that praxeology is irrefutable in principle, only that data or studies typically touted in order to promote some public policy cannot bear on whether the theory is right or wrong. Theories, as always, must be judged in light of the alternatives available, and how well each explains the world around us.
¹ Mises, Ludwig Von, and Bettina B. Greaves. Human Action: a Treatise on Economics. Liberty Fund, Incorporated, 2014.
If one takes the anarcho-libertarian concept of private property seriously, then there is no ‘freedom of speech’ in any fundamental sense. Rather, the only genuine rights are private property rights.1 Owners of private property may allow or forbid whatever speech they so choose on their property. On the other hand, the degree to which free expression of ideas is valued by individuals is a matter of culture. Failure to distinguish between property rights and the value of free expression of ideas results in nationwide confusion on the issue of free speech. This is manifest in the examples of universities and online platforms. To the degree that these institutions are private—here I must exclude public schools—they may allow or forbid any ideas to be discussed that they so choose. The market demand determines which speech policy will outcompete its competitive variants. This market demand is the contemporary cultural value of free speech.
Because I will take private property rights as given (an argument for another essay), I hereby focus on the cultural value of free speech, and why it is a moral good for college campuses to uphold.
The most fundamental reason for valuing a free exchange of ideas is that one cannot know a priori which ideas are correct. The only path by which we discover Truth is by rational criticism. I shall call this assertion ‘Truth-by-argument.’ In fact, rational criticism is comprised of numerous methods, which are themselves cognitive tools that Civilization has continued to create and refine over centuries. For example, science was once considered to be inductive (and is still, by many).2 However, better arguments have since been presented, and many now rightly regard science as a series of conjectures and refutations.3 So, even the methods by which we debate and judge claims about Reality are ever-evolving. Scientists Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei were pressured by the Catholic Church to renounce their then-heretical ideas. One of the first proponents of Truth-by-argument, Socrates, was sentenced to death for, among other things, impiety and corrupting the minds of Athens’ youth. Whether any of these three precursors were correct is besides the point. In all cases, Truth-by-argument was resisted with its only alternative—violence.
To forbid some particular ideas from being heard is subtly contradictory. Whether such a stricture on ideas is by fiat or cultural norms, Truth-by-argument is supplanted by authority. In the case of a fiat—say, a rule determined by a university bureaucracy—the implication is that he who erects the law knows better than the subjects of the law. But how is such an assertion justified? As soon as the lawmaker begins to defend his fiat, he is necessarily engaging in Truth-by-argument, and so the fiat refutes itself! The cultural norm equivalent implies that only bad, unintelligent, or ignorant people would dare think such things. Again, how do we know this to be the case? The same paradox emerges. In either case, colleges would do well to cut out the middle man of authority and allow the free exchange of ideas.
An (often unconsidered) consequence of the prohibition of ideas is that it weakens, rather than strengthens, students. Proponents of the restriction of platforms from holding ‘toxic’ ideas (an impressive semantic trick, to confuse verbal expression with physical harm) claim that to give air to such ideas is to validate them. But they rarely consider the costs of forcing these ideas into the shadows, which are twofold. Firstly, the would-be audience of the ‘toxic’ ideas miss an opportunity to hear their strongest defense. This is partly why many college students regard expositors of ideas that have been deemed ‘toxic’ as either ignorant or evil people. Not only have said ideas have been robbed of a fair hearing, but the students have lost an opportunity to understand the arguments behind such ideas. Every such missed opportunity incrementally infantilizes students, atrophying their Minds like unused muscle. The other cost of banning ‘toxic ideas’ is that they do not disappear upon banishment. Rather, absent the harsh light of criticism to which those ideas may have been exposed if they were not forbidden, they fester underground. They will inevitably return to the surface with more adherents than there would have been had the ideas been publicly exposed to criticism.
We have seen the paradoxes and unforeseen costs of banning particular ideas from receiving an audience. But what are the benefits of receiving them earnestly, facing their arguments square in the face? J.S. Mill expressed such benefits over 150 years ago in his brilliant book, On Liberty.4 If a person is correct in his argument, then engaging with someone of another opinion still exposes him to a “livelier impression of the truth”. The truth remains vivified by “collision with error”. Our most cherished opinions, and our most confident theories, ossify into dogma absent exposure to criticism, be it mockery, scrutiny, or testing. If an opinion is incorrect, of course, the benefit of rational discourse is to not only reveal the belief for its falsity, but, just as importantly, to reveal why it is wrong. Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, describes a crisis in science as a period during which enough paradoxes in the accepted paradigm have been found such that new ideas must be discovered in order to resolve them.5 The successful and innovative theories are those that make sense of the previous paradigm’s contradictions. But this cycle applies to all domains in which rational criticism applies; through criticism we discover paradoxes and anomalies, and only then do we know in which directions to search for deeper Truths. To assume one’s opinion—or idea, or theory—is correct beyond further debate is to close the Truth off from further improvement.
Absent authoritative rules against offensive speech or ideas, college students must learn how to refute arguments, rather than to merely moralize their opponents away. Given that only the former leads to Truth, students will come to recognize that absolute Truth is a chimera—all assertions about Reality require argument. Humbled by the impossibility of absolute certainty, one may ask how to deal with arguments in practice. One common mistake is to impugn the interlocutor’s motive. It is the mark of the immature to assume the best in oneself but the worst in everyone else. For example, atheism does not imply nihilism, libertarianism does not imply callousness, nor does a pro-life stance imply misogyny. Sanctimony may satisfy the heart, but the Mind is done a disservice. A helpful technique is to ‘steelman’—to express the opposing position in such a way that the holder of said position would strongly approve. It is a stunningly revealing exercise into one’s misunderstandings of other positions, and college students will grow stronger by doing so.
To be sure, there is a difference between debating in real time and exploring the Truth on one’s own. Given that time is a scarce resource, one can only spend so much of it arguing with someone else. Thus, one must have a criterion for deciding when discourse ought to end. This will vary from person to person, but broadly speaking, one will cease to engage when the time spent outweighs the benefits gained from the discussion. Such a cost-benefit analysis in turn depends on an array of factors, such as whether the dialogue is public or private, etc. But this subjective criterion is besides the point. What matters is that even after discussion has ended, one must remain vigilant in one’s own Mind. Absolute certainty is a chimera, as we have seen. Understanding why one holds a particular view is—or should be—an active process that requires constant criticism and revision, even if no one is privy to the process. More so than any particular position, this commitment to the process of Truth-by-argument is what college students should value.
If we exclude violence as legitimate means to bring forth change, then conversation is all we have. Personal attacks, moralizing, and violence simply will not do. We are better than that, and our society deserves as much. Young people are our future. Only by valuing the process of Truth-by-argument may they distinguish Truth from falsehoods both pernicious and naïve. May we bless them with the opportunity to think for themselves.
Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. Economics and Ethics of Private Property: Studies in Political Economy and Philosophy. 1993.
Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum Scientiarum. 1620.
Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. 1934.
Mill, J.S. On Liberty. 1859.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1962.
While political correctness is typically associated with the American Left, modern conservatism has its own sacred totems that dare not be criticized. Like its progressive counterparts, the Right’s choices of sanctification fit together like an elegant jigsaw puzzle to form an internally consistent worldview. Police, Military, Bible, and Flag are all symbols of the Right—each embodying order, tradition, and Americanism to varying degrees.
In response to our president’s provocative tweets, many NFL players are now kneeling during the national anthem. While many conservatives are criticizing their tactic and position, neither concerns me here. Those who have watched NFL games are familiar with jets flying overhead, soldiers touting the American flag, and other such theatrics. Like any other advertisement, this is intended to sell to the American people the most benign view of the product at hand. But in contrast to sellers in the free market, the State takes a brilliant additional step. It has drilled into the American collective consciousness that to reject its product, the military, is ‘un-American’ and therefore immoral.
American children are told to put their hand over their heart and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. I had thought that the United States respected a tradition of separation of Church and State, but those in power had discovered a loophole—infuse religiosity into itself until the State becomes a Church in its own right. A common rebuttal to such (perceived) cynicism is that the Pledge is ‘merely’ a way to instill patriotism into society’s youth. But again, patriotism is assumed, a priori, to be a moral good. Acceptance of moral dictums from authority is a sign of religion at play. Just as with an Abrahamic religion, the religion of the State has inculcated the masses into dichotomizing people into moral categories. Those who revere the flag, the military, and the president are good (obedient), while those who reject such positions are bad (heretical).
Moreover, as with any policy imposed on the masses, there have been unintended consequences to the State indoctrination of Americans. The factory of American schools and the rest of the State apparatus churn out not just patriots, but nationalists, a phenomenon that now has many concerned. While nationalism is, in itself, an innocuous, albeit irrational form of tribalism, it does lend itself to damaging economic policies, such as protectionism and closed borders. Trade tariffs, a protectionist policy, are a form of rightwing socialism—effectively, the wealth of American consumers is redistributed to those American companies who benefit, in the short-term, from the tariff.
At least with traditional religions, one may decide to not participate. I never chose to support the War on Drugs, nor any military adventures overseas. Yet support them I do, through the coercive measure modestly known as ‘taxation’. Never has ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ been more fitting.
On September 25th, President Trump tweet, “The issue of kneeling…is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem.” But ideas and objects are not deserving of respect. People are to be respected, not symbols or the ideals they embody. To be sure, I am not advocating gratuitous acts of disrespect towards the State’s totems, any more than I would advocate burning Bibles or stomping on Qurans. Courtesy should not be thrown by the wayside. Nonetheless, it is not immoral to burn a book, and it is not immoral to reject patriotism.
Those who live in the United States have much to be grateful for. Our society is one of the most prosperous and freest that has ever existed. But society and government are not the same, and we would do well to remember that. So no, those who refuse to yield before State symbols are not immoral in their actions. While many view the NFL-Trump drama as an impetus to discuss race relations and police brutality, another opportunity has been unleashed, there for the taking. Why should the State be revered at all? Let the conversation begin.
Around 3000 BCE, written language emerged for the first time in human history. The rise of city-states engendered an ever-growing economy, and people could no longer maintain transactional records solely in their minds. Economic progress would halt unless someone found a way to solve the problem of our limited memory. Such is the genesis of writing–birthed as a solution to a problem, a pathway to progress.
There is much anxiety around automation, understandably so. In the modern economy, humans are employed to the extent that the job at hand requires physical labor, cognitive ability, or both. Since human labor comes at the cost of wages, demand for automating said labor is inevitable. ‘Computers’ used to be people who ran calculations with pen and paper. Then–inevitably–a device was invented that could perform the same tasks with productivity that far outstripped that of its human counterparts. Those individuals who were previously valuable found themselves unemployed. From their perspective, the invention of the modern computer was a negative. If they could have mandated their continual employment, they would have. The same goes for for the farmer, the milkman, and the elevator operator. Every employee has an incentive to maintain her job, whatever the cost to society. Imagine if the computers had gotten their way – a victory for a minority, and a devastating stagnation for the rest of society.
One issue of the anti-automation movement is the arbitrary decision regarding which technologies should be forbidden from invention. To satisfy every worker is to freeze the economy, preventing standard of living from rising, preventing problems from being solved. Few white collar workers would ever switch to physical labor. Their positions are a result of technological progress that automated more and more manual labor, until people were free and wealthy enough to satisfy cognitive demands, such as marketing, banking, and teaching, to name a few.
People often emphasize the cost of automation, namely, potential mass unemployment. But rarely do they weigh this against the benefits. Reduction in production costs translates to reduction in prices, and so everyone becomes wealthier. In imagining a world without employment, one sometimes projects the current economic paradigm onto the would-be jobless. This is a parochial error. Those disparaging technological progress must, if they are to give a fair assessment of the problem, take into account the vast increase in purchasing power that will benefit the poorest member of society. Taken to the limit, products will eventually cost no more than the raw materials needed to make them.
As seen with the computer, technologies are almost always exapted beyond their original purpose. Many anti-automation advocates claim that they care about the trashman, the IT assistant, the truck driver. They must concede that by protecting their jobs, they are not only preventing livings standards from rising, but they are also preventing paths to solutions heretofore unconsidered.
There is, admittedly, one serious point of concern regarding economic growth. In a 2007 study, Bettencourt and others studied the growth of cities as a function of innovation and economies of scale. Modeling cities as combinations of social and infrastructural adaptive networks, the researchers predicted how certain quantities should scale with size of the city, as measured in terms of number of people. For example, their theory predicts that the number of gasoline stations should scale sublinearly, while the number of new patents should scale superlinearly, each with city size. Sublinear scaling implies an economy of scale—bigger cities earn a “bigger bang for their buck” in that doubling a city’s size less than doubles the number of gas stations required. On the other hand, superlinear scaling suggests increasing returns such that doubling a city’s size more than doubles the number of new patents developed in the city. Because these predictions are backed by empirical data to a remarkable degree, we must take the theory seriously in all of its predictions. Unfortunately, one of said predictions is that when growth is driven by innovation, population size will approach infinity in a finite amount of time. Because resources are limited, this inevitably results in economic collapse unless further innovations are made to “reset” the timer to yet another potential collapse, which is predicted to come at ever-shorter timescales. Automation alone cannot save us from this accelerating treadmill. Creativity will always be required in the form of new innovations.
It may be that the life of a middle-class American today is the life of the most impoverished tomorrow. This is not controversial; in fact, this is already the trend, and has been since humanity’s first innovation. The fastest route to the End of Poverty is innovation. To sacrifice potential prosperity for the sake of short-term concerns of a minority is to relinquish the only tool that has ever succeeded in solving problems.
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