More on Why I’m not a Libertarian — Or, When Belief in “the Market” is just risible, sad, and disgusting

1. Sitting in peculiarly busy traffic in downtown Baltimore this afternoon, I read, on the news monitor wrapped around a trashily modern glass building, a headline from the Baltimore Sun that informed me that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has proposed a bill to create a new government agency “that could stop lenders from offering mortgages and other financial products deemed unsafe for consumers.”

Now, first, I’m wholly uncomfortable with adding yet another resources-sucking, power-grabbing, liberty-quashing entity to the behemoth known as the gummint. I love the ultimate sentence of the article: “Consumer protection is part of the Fed’s mandate, but Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the agency has been “asleep at the switch.”” So our answer is more gummint. Hmm, yep, I do agree with the libertarians here

However, the libertarian counter-argument, which, I confess, immediately flashed through my mind whilst I waited to move ahead in traffic, is equally absurd, to wit, that the market — properly unencumbered, of course — is the check on “mortgages and other financial products deemed unsafe for consumers” and a whole host of other yucky things. When corporations become as gargantuan as many of those at the center of our current economic perturbations are, they really exist beyond the controls of the market — sometimes because of the intervention of government, sometimes because they’re just “too good.” They’ve done so well that they outpace competitors to the point that no natural regulation hinders them. At this point, they fall asleep at the wheel, so to speak. Viva Distributism! Long live the small!

2. Though not a libertarian, I’m often sympathetic to many of their causes, I supported Dr. Paul quite passionately, I think that Young Americans for Liberty are doing some great work, and I wrote for the debut issue of Young American Revolution — as part of the conservative contingent of their Old Right coalition, of course. This post, regarding President Moloch’s desire to “shield” science from politics, on YAL’s Web-log, however, utterly terrifies me. Chet Butterworth writes,

Tabling the ethics of human embryo research for the moment, the only ethical way for any scientific decisions to be made is by the market. The market is unbiased and efficient. The market can determine the worthiness of the research and if it considers it worthy the market can produce it better. Through the market the only people who want stem cell research and do not care about any human embryo ethical questions pay. While people like myself do not.

One of the problems admitted by economic theory is the absence of perfect information. Sarah Palin rightly took flack for her brushing off of fruit fly research whilst on the campaign trail. (I’m not interested in debating the merits of such research here; rather, I seek merely to note that she obviously made her comment with no knowledge of why this research occurs.) If the lack of perfect knowledge is even remotely problematic in matters of everyday economic transactions, are we really willing to leave scientific research — the benefits of which often remain unknown until long into the processes — to the whims of people who lack any and all awareness of, let alone training and education in, particle physics, molecular biology, or gene therapy. (Yes, that’s my uncle in the Telegraph.) Maybe it hurts my “libertarian street cred,” but I’d rather have a living uncle than a realm of scientific research guided by the invisible hand.

The market is a good thing. But it’s also a tool of relativism. Matters of life and death seem, to me, to be beyond the very mere matters of supply and demand.

Elsewhere: Mark minces no words.


Some News That’s Fit to Print

*With a tip of the hat to The Western Confucian, “Results, not Bush, slowed embryonic stem cell research”:

But many private companies have been reluctant to fund embryo research because it involves morally controversial techniques and, so far, has shown few signs of success. Most preliminary research indicates that adult stem cells are the key to new cures and treatments, so they’re jumping on that bandwagon. This is the real reason government funding is so essential to ESC research– few private investors view it as a future success.

And, relatedly, in today’s Washington Post, advances in alternatives to embryonic stem cells:

In addition to the scientific implications, the work comes at a politically sensitive moment. Scientists are anxiously waiting for President Obama to follow through on his promise to lift restrictions on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. Critics of such a move immediately pointed to the work as the latest evidence that the alternative cells make such research unnecessary.

“Stem cell research that requires destroying embryos is going the way of the Model T,” Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said. “No administration that values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive approach.”

*As I noted below, Larison, Deneen, Dreher, and others have given to the world a splendid gift in the form of Front Porch Republic. A particularly interesting conversation, in which I’ve participated, can be found in the comments accompanying Mark Mitchell’s “What our Hands Have Wrought“. Community, Distributism, the politico-economic half-blindness of both parties, and the reliance upon the State of capitalism (something that I suggest here). Hot damn!

*I’m officially a “journalist”, which is to say that I have been paid to write something, specifically a review of Prof. Bacevich’s The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism one of the most important books that I have read in a long time. Find it in the inaugural issue of Young American Revolution. (Or ask nicely for an electronic version of the unedited draft, and I might oblige.)

Neil Postman, Delivering on Technology

My apologies for the absence. The last few weeks of the semester have been particularly brutal; it all ends soon, though, and within a week, I’ll be back in Indiana, for a good month!

Some time ago, the wonderful Brian Kaller suggested to me that I might enjoy the writings of Neil Postman. I’ve yet to invest in any of Postman’s works (Really, my reading list is dreadfully long already.), but I’ve read briefly about him. For whatever reason, I felt compelled, whilst e-mailing professors to request letters of recommendation (Ph.D. programs, here I come?) and watching Love Actually in the middle of the night, to look up the entry on Postman on Wikipedia and found my way to his 1990 speech, given on my parents’ tenth wedding anniversary, “Informing Ourselves to Death”. The talk includes this absolute gem:

After all, anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.

The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion. [My emphasis – NPO]

As much as I’ve complained about our collective dependence on electronic technology, whereof I’m quite guilty, and made a few efforts to write handwritten letters, rather than typed missives, to the violent upheaval that something that we take for granted as much as printing — I’ve previously lamented the risk that Kindle and similar products present to books! — I have remained woefully oblivious. Certainly, the now-simple innovation of printing has provided tremendous benefits to the world — even in exchange for the serious losses mourned by Postman —, and what we’ve lost certainly ain’t coming back if we just start writing more handwritten letters. However, this rather unexpected, but poignant, criticism ought to serve to remind us of the delicate balances we risk upsetting with the embrace of every new technology. It is, indeed, a Faustian bargain.

Induced pluripotent stem cells

Today’s Washington Post reports encouraging news from the stem cell front:

Scientists reported yesterday that they have overcome a major obstacle to using a promising alternative to embryonic stem cells, bolstering prospects for bypassing the political and ethical tempest that has embroiled hopes for a new generation of medical treatments.

The researchers said they found a safe way to coax adult cells to regress into an embryonic state, alleviating what had been the most worrisome uncertainty about developing the cells into potential cures.

“We have removed a major roadblock for translating this into a clinical setting,” said Konrad Hochedlinger, a Harvard University stem cell researcher whose research was published online yesterday by the journal Science. “I think it’s an important advance.”

They’ve yet to work through all of the obstacles, of course, but this is very heartening news. Perhaps the greatest travesty of the scientific revolutions was the complete separation of science from metaphysical grounding; it has led, doubtless, to such problems as the use of iPS seeks to address. Here’s hoping for success!

“The Icarus Syndrome”

Jim Manzi proffers provocation of thought respecting peak oil, global warming, and preparing sensibly for what may come.

On battling the errors of modernity

From Fr. John Augustine Zahm, c.s.c’s 1896 Evolution and Dogma, a passage that gave pause to me:

To attempt to cope with the modern spirit of error by means of antiquated and discarded weapons of offense and defense, were as foolish as to pit a Roman trireme or a medieval galley against a modern steel cruiser or the latest type of battleship. -page xx

Nigh two months ago, in the first week of July, Will Wilson posted a couple of wondrous comments, to which my mind drifted, upon my reading the aforementioned passage, on the Right and science:

The solution of course is that rather than attacking the data, attack the willful misuse of the myths about the data. Thus, rather than denying the realities of evolution and anthropogenic global warming, conservatives ought to refute the arguments which suggest that evolution necessarily implies atheistic materialism and that mitigation of global warming necessarily requires some form of socialist planning. Currently, we are ceding nearly all of the contested ground to the other side, and in the process living up to Mill’s description of us as “the stupid party.”

and the apologist’s battle against the modern-day atheists, who, by-and-large, in my humblest of opinions, impressively armed as they be, nonetheless, are hacks:

Modern-day apologists, if they wish to be convincing, are advised to bone up on their philosophy of mind, their quantum mechanics, and their Derrida. The rules of the game have changed.

What troubles me most about Will’s thoughts, notwithstanding my complete ignorance of the works of Derrida and my non-existent understanding of the philosophy of the mind and quantum mechanics (Seriously, if you’ve good primers to suggest, please do, and I shall add them to the reading list!), is that, more than a century ago, risking ecclesiastical trouble (Oh, he encountered it!), a Catholic scientist-priest, who served as President of what is now (and, mayhap, was, then) the foremost Catholic university in the nation, if not the world (as one Vatican official, unofficially, commented to a priest-friend of mine), offered essentially the same advice, and yet we, collectively, have not heeded. I know Catholics who fail to realize that the Church recognizes the validity of evolutionary theory (at least in some form); get me not started on young-earth creationists, please! Heaven forfend I should admit, to some, often intelligent, compeers, that I think that, just maybe, man has had some effect on climate change.

Doubtless, one, easily, can attribute this sort of ignorance primarily to “fundamentalist” Christians (“Christianists”, to quote the self-disgracing Sullivan?), for whom science, all too often, is anathema (recent progress, worthy of applause, from some evangelists vis-à-vis global warming notwithstanding). (Sad enough, some Catholics fall into this pit, too.) Ezra Klein, commenting on one of the more lamentable aspects of Sarah Palin, has something to say about this here. He’s, perhaps, a bit over the top, but some of the respondents in the comment box bring dialogue back to a more open-minded realm.

Those of us — particularly, I suppose, Catholics — who recognize the important role the Church has played in fostering scientific progress over the centuries, regardless of what those who employ the Galileo canard would have us believe, need, I believe, to take a stand. We must embrace the judicious words of Fr. Zahm; we must employ the perspicacious attitude suggested by Will. We must do this, even if it requires that we, to the greatest extent possible without rejecting the Christian charity and goodwill of ecumenical dialogue, break those alliances, specifically political, that bind us to those whose willful ignorance denigrates both science and religion. We must escape this cave if we wish to educate those from whom we unbind ourselves: We cannot, knowledgeable as we be, educate them, or even hope to, unless we draw them, too, out from the cavernous depths and into the light. Would they refuse, we should, then, let them perish, for, as Catholics — as Christians, as theists of any stripe — we owe it to ourselves, to others, and to our God not to permit His revealed Truth to be besmirched by rejection of scientific truths (No truth can not be part of Truth.) evinced through rational inquiry. We must fight the errors of (post-)modernity by employing those truths espoused by it against it; C.S. Lewis, as great as he is, only takes us so far; likewise, many early scientists, even with their flaws, serve us well, but only to a point, and not accepting what, inter alios, Darwin has to offer only hurts us and compels us to paint ourselves as fools — apes, un-evolved into men, even.

Brooks, Larison, gadget fads

Daniel Larison, spot-on, as always, commenting on David Brooks’ “Lord of the Memes”, from the 7 August edition of the New York Times

I know David Brooks can’t really be serious when he says things like this, but this is at least the second grand pronouncement this week* and it’s getting out of hand:

But on or about June 29, 2007, human character changed [bold mine-DL]. That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone.

No, human character did not change. One thing that has been consistent and recognizable throughout every stage of competing for status and gadget-collecting is the enduring human temptation to fall prey to the latest fad.

If that one line from Daniel suffices not to convince you of the sheer hyperbole of Brooks’ pronouncement, the argument he continues in the full piece should do the trick. I do, however, believe that Brooks makes a sadly accurate assessment, one revealing the tragic truth of Daniel’s remark, later in the piece:

Today, Kindle can change the world, but nobody expects much from a mere novel. The brain overshadows the mind. Design overshadows art.

I fear that, rather than suggesting, as Brooks avers, that human character has changed, this further evinces that, for too long, human character simply has glided, too comfortably, in a wretched state of intellectual and cultural degeneration; embracing the ultra-sleek medium, rather than the message, is just a recent, particularly distressing manifestation of ultra-philistinism. If luck smiles upon us, mayhap, someday, the electronic devices will even think and work for us.