Michael Shermer’s Mind of the Market

This book is the latest attempt to justify freedom and the market economy by reference to the knowledge of science and biology.  Here is my review, in Washington Post Book World.  Excerpt:

I’m sympathetic to Shermer’s conclusions, but I fear his standard of evaluation is too blunt an instrument. If the options are capitalism and the Khmer Rouge, no doubt capitalism wins hands down. But to what extent should we restrain capitalism to fund a social safety net? Should our government place heavy taxes on beer and potato chips to fund the National Science Foundation at higher levels? Most broadly, to what extent is it morally permissible to interfere with freedom, or can we even use freedom as a concept in a world where we do social science by hooking people up to brain scanners?

Shermer is famous for founding the Skeptics Society and editing the magazine Skeptic, which debunks claims of the supernatural. His monthly column for Scientific American is a regular plea that reason should govern human affairs. But his book raises very real questions about just how far skepticism should extend. Should we also be skeptical about using moral judgments of right and wrong to address the tough questions of politics? For instance, can we make normative judgments about who deserves to pay how much of the tax burden to finance the U.S. government, or as to whether somebody’s job should be protected from foreign trade?
Shermer either needs to dismiss moral philosophy as an illusion and a mere byproduct of human evolution, and thus display skepticism, or he needs to grant it credence and take his own moral stance. Descriptive science doesn’t tell us whether it is fair to allow kidneys to be bought and sold, even if it helps explain why some people find the practice repugnant. Judgments of right and wrong cannot be avoided, and thus we tread away from the realm of familiar natural science.
There are really two books within "The Mind of the Market." The science book is finished and polished, yet it does not present fundamentally new results. The book on capitalism discusses important questions, yet it is unfinished and unpolished. Shermer does promise us an entire new book to fill in the missing pieces here. He already has earned the right to our attention; the next question is whether he will give his philosophic and romantic side the greater rein that it deserves and requires. This East African plains ape is optimistic.


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