Friday, December 03, 2004

Science, Free Market and, Is Lakoff Scientific?

First, here is some science, or really problems with science policy, or better still, some top-down nonsense:

Two Must Reads

What women are supposed to want

On the other hand, for some nice science, the new Tangled Bank is now online:

(for instance, you may be interested in the way French doctors botched up Arafat's treatment, or read a speculation of what's wrong with Yushenko, or the critique of the "marathon man" hypothesis, or why you should join the Christmas bird watch, or something about invasive species, etc).

Why is there a feeling that we are in "moral decline"? Two takes:

Are We Not Homo-Sapiens?

The Party of Order, by Jonah Goldberg:

...and a great response by Publius:
GOLDBERG'S HOMERUN - The True Cause of "Moral Decline"

Well, Publius states in the beginning that he has thought this way since college. He's pretty young so this was not that long ago, but still, I grant him primacy. He's definitely written it in a much more clear way than I ever did. He's taking to task the common wisdom that "free market" is a conservative idea, while top-down governmental control is a liberal idea. His argument that the free market is antithetical to conservativism, as it is a direct cause of "moral decline" (which he also questions, quite rightly) is on the mark.

I've been saying (e.g.,,, and elsewhere - this blog is getting too big for me to remember what I said in which post!) the mirror argument to this, i.e., that a well-regulated free market is a liberal idea. Actually, the last chapter of Stuart Kauffman's "At the Edge of the Universe" applies his computer models (used to explain constrains to "what is possible" in biological evolution) to economics, with a conclusion that "order for free" arises as an emergent property of a complex system, "complex" here meaning that many players interact, without any single player having any primacy. So, Publius argues that free-market works against conservative values, while I argue that free market is a liberal value while top-down control (by an unholly alliance of Government and monopolistic Big Business) is more in tune with the conservative hierarchical view of the world (

See for instance what Lakoff and his students discussed in class last week:

Conservative frame requires that some people are wealthier
than others. Yet, rising tide argument is used on both sides. And then there's
trickle down economics. Rising standard of living. Right: if the wealthier get
wealthier, they'll give jobs to other people and make those people wealthier...
the wealthy won't sit on their money. In fact, for example, they invest in
stocks which aren't used to hire more people. Or the money that they spend is
outside of this country. KEY: The frame of trickle down economics works because
most people have a frame of getting and spending money and so they translate
that to the wealthy - what they would spend it on. Big corporations are
universally perceived as bad. They lay people off, the ship off jobs, they
control what is going on, they don't provide security. But small business is the
answer - personal liberation. They are the only way that people can have
security and certainty. And if the estate tax is coming in an destroying it,
it's destroying the american dream.

Why is free-market thought to be a conservative idea, while top-down governmental control is supposed to be a liberal idea? When, where, how and why did this switcheroo take place? First, when: 19th century anyone? Adam Smith and Karl Marx. The "invisible hand" of the market was such a perfect excuse for people of common breeding to displace the hierarchy of nobility, and to displace the aristocrats as rulers of the country. Of course, once the most unscrupulous mobsters rose to the top and became super-rich, i.e., became Robber Barons, their incentive was to keep the new hierarchy intact, but they had to stick to the story that brought them to the top in the first place. In other words, a hirarchical top-down control by the nobility and their estates was replaced by the hierarchical top-down control by the filthy rich and their factories. Only a single round of "free market" economics ever happened. No real change in worldview occured, just the players switched, and the winners found the Myth of "rags-to-riches" useful to keep the masses from lynching them on the market square.

Do you remember when the Pope came to the States and gave a speech in Central Park a couple of years ago? He lambasted the "barbaric capitalism". All the US journalists took that to mean "banana republic capitalism", but no, Pope was talking about the US-style capitalism, barbaric in the way the big fish, by the sheer virtue of their size, clog the system and prevent free market from operating. He was decrying the monopolistic type of capitalism - the type our military is busy spreading around the world, punishing every country that ever showed an inkling of success with any other economic system, either socialist or "third way". Look at the list of the countries US attacked during the 20th and 21st century, and it is pretty much the list of countries that attempted, with some success, to implement a non-monopolistic capitalism or a non-capitalistic economic system. That is a big no-no for the US government and such transgressors have to be punished as soon as possible. From all those Latin American countries, through Serbia to Iraq, those are all the examples in which alternative economic models showed some success. Do you know that the USA (and 13 other Western countries) attacked Soviet Union in 1918? I bet not - that is not taught in schools. The goal was to displace the new Bolshevick government as its ideas were threatening to the ruling classes in the capitalist world. Nobody asked the people, though - the State/Business alliances made the decision to attack and went there anyway. The attempt was, obviously, not successful.

If you don't remember the 19th century that well, you are in luck, as the same experiment was done again, in 1990s in ex-communist countries. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, all those newly-independent countries needed to fill the vacuum left by the expulsion of communism. It was natural that they would tend to try to escape one type of extreme for the opposite extreme. They got all those IMF and Rand Co. "economists" to advise them how to set up a capitalist economy. And all those advisors were salivating at the prospect of filling a tabula rasa with the tests of their own theories. Result was a disaster, as non-regulated "free-market" economies quickly moved to a huge segmentation of the population into rich and poor. Who became rich, i.e., the "capitalist elite"? Ex-mafiosi, gangsters, drug-dealers and smugglers - the unscrupulous shady characters that had no qualms about stepping over other people in order to attain their goals. Everyone with a modicum of honesty fell into poverty. The 18-19th century England, France and America repeated themselves in Estonia, Poland and Ukraine, at a much faster rate. The worst of the scum rose to the top and left the crumbs to the people with character. Is it any wonder why the renamed ex-communists won back the elections just a few years later in most of those countries? At least they promised some stability, some market regulation and some protection of people from the greedy ex-criminals.

How about the other view, that liberals like governmental top-down control? Dr.Munger, a libertarian (thus a conservative) Head of the Duke's poli-sci department (the only conservative I link to, and for some reason he also links to me - perhaps we should have coffee one day as we live so close) has an interesting post that assumes this CW:

Can government do anything to better people's lives? Should
government do anything? These questions don’t get asked very much. We all just
assume that government should do SOMETHING, and then argue about what that

On one hand, he is right. The notion of "consumers" is a big factor in decline of education, for instance - probably the direct cause of grade inflation. On the other hand, he puts up a straw man, as conservatives like to do. Modern American liberals (except some in sociology departments, perhaps - those favourite targets of conservative disdain, see, for instance:,, are NOT enamored with governmental top-down control and do not think of constituents as consumers whose wishes the government needs to attend to. All ten Democratic candidates for President this year are fully free-market believers. What happened? How did that get started?

Well, there is not much similarity between modern American liberalism and 19th century communist ideas. Marx and company, no matter how smart observers they were, lived in a pre-Darwinian world. That was a hierarchical world. The idea of order arising in complex systems in which many small elements interact was not a part of anyone's mental toolbox. Movement without a Mover, or Design without a Designer were not deemed possible yet. Darwin was still writing the "Origin" at the time. The only way they could fathom an alternative to the feudal aristocratic hierarchy or the capitalist robber-baron hierarchy was to replace it with another hierarchy - a government of the people, by the people and for the people, the elected represenatives of which, trusted by the masses, would design the economy from scratch and control it from the top. That was 150 years ago. That horse has been dead and rotten for a very long time so stop beating it, please. The real-world experiments have failed, observe the Soviet Union. However, do not think in dichotomies. Just because the Soviet system did not work and the governmental top-down control should not work in theory or practice, does not mean that the only remaining option is another top-down hierarchical control, the old unholly alliance between Big Business and Big Government, the kind of economic system that Republicans really like, yet misleadingly call it "free-market". There is nothing free-markety about it.

Perhaps this is why they don't want kids to learn about Darwin. The idea that the order of a system depends not on who is controlling it but on the rules of interactions between all the millions of players of the game comes straight out of Darwin's theory. The need for a Controller was abolished by Darwin. He eliminated a need for a hierarchy. He has shown how a system with many small players and simple (but strongly enforced) rules can evolve beautiful complexity and order out of nothing. That is why he is so dangerous. That is also why crude genocentrism undermines Darwin and aids conservative need for top-down control of people by rich bastards (

To reiterate, until early to mid-20th century, a non-hierarchical worldview was unimaginable. Thus, capitalists replaced the aristocratic hierarchy with a capitalist hierarchy. Socialists, a few decades later, replaced the capitalist hiererachy with a socialist hierarchy. Socialists did their switch by revolution. Capitalists, on the other hand, used a single round, single cycle, single iteration of the free-market model to make their switch. A hierarchical model does not work and cannot work in theory or practice, as neither feudal (Dark Ages in Europe), nor capitalist (modern West), nor socialist (Soviet Union 1917-1989) economic system provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people (not to mention the effects on the environment).

The word "free" in free market is a misnomer. Unregulated free market is anarchy. If more than one cycle of such free market relations occurs, the society gets sharply separated into very rich and very poor. Once the poor get too poor to buy products, the whole system collapses.

So, is the natural re-alignment finally happening? Liberals have long ago abandoned state-run economics as an idea and have been very open about this switch for decades. Modern liberals have adopted an interactionist complex system, a well-regulated free-market system in which many interacting parts engage in activity that provides the most good for most people. There is no need for or role for a Ruler. The idea that liberals want a Big Government and a governmental control is a strawman put up by conservatives. On the other hand, conservatives, as usual, say one thing and do another. They love to talk about the wonders of free market while simultaneously undermining it with legislation and with business practices. Are they ever going to come clean on this and admit they are really into ruling us top-down?

Now, and related to this topic, I feel I need to respond to some responses to my older posts. For instance, johnnybutter's response to Chomsky's article about the election (

My specific problem with Prof. Chomsky is that I think he
tends to overestimate the US role in every bad thing in the world. I'm not being
defensive or chauvinistic about the US; I'm saying that point of view is
simplistic, and a bit of a cold war relic (notice he can never - and doesn't,
here - resist a paragraph about Vietman. Please note I'm not quarreling with
what he SAYS about Vietnam). I don't think the US government is competent enough
to be as systematically evil as he is forever suggesting it is (emphasis on
'systematically'). And being a 'superpower' and having so-called 'hegemony' are
not the same thing as having utter impunity.

I agree 100% with that statement.

Of course he's pretty much right about the state of our
Democracy, both in his explication of its dysfunctionality, and in the hope he
sees. But, I mean, is that news? It doesn't hurt anything to essay eloquantly
about it, but don't we pretty much know that stuff already?

Apparently, many people don't - check the election results!

My overall problem with Chomsky is that he has long had a
'system' all worked out in which he deeply believes, trusts; and I think he
plugs events in the world into that system.

Sometimes it is not a bad idea to have a system.. The system allows you to make predictions, thus as events happen you can test your system by seeing how well the new developments fit into your system. Chomsky's system has stood the test of time quite well, I believe. Lakoff's system is newer, but so far seems to explain the country quite well. It will be tested over time, of course, and modified as needed. Which brings me to another loyal reader's comment...

I wrote: "Until neuroscience proves Lakoff right or wrong, I will treat his work as a useful, but intuitive way of looking at things." (

My brother, who, unlike me, actually knows what he is talking about (he should be blogging, not me, but he's too busy doing real stuff), objected that I stated that Lakoff's stuff is not science. He chastized me, correctly, for being reductionistic about it. My bad. I was really not clear when I wrote that. I was commenting on other cognitive linguists who have a beef with Lakoff. Their main target is the correspondence between what the brain is doing and Lakoff's idea of framing. Lakoff writes a little bit about it at the very beginning of "Moral Politics", as well, I guess, in some of his earlier work. I do not know who is right here - jury is still out. What I meant to say is that I do not think that Lakoff's system is absoluetly dependent on his neuroscience ideas being true. If he turns out to be right, great, he is vindicated against his competitors in the field. If he turns out to be wrong, fine, he can easily tweak that aspect of his theory, which is quite minor, while the whole system remains intact. I did not mean to say that Lakoff's system is not scientific. What I meant is that it is so new, it is still a hypothesis, completely untested, yet quite testable. I personally find it intuitively attractive, thus think it should be tested, and soon. In the meantime, even before any research is done, my intuitive feel about it coupled with emergency of doing something about this country, leads me to propose that his ideas be applied even before they are proven right or wrong. So, it is my personal intuition which makes my blog unscientific, not Lakoff's system itself.

Speaking of relationship between neuroscience and politics, some of my students did an Independent Project this semester, trying to repeat/build upon the research I described before ( Instead of MRIs they used EEG. Unfortunately, the equipment was lousy and they ended up with useful data for just 2 Republicans, 4 Democrats and 3 Undecideds. They did this, if I remember correctly on November 2nd, or just a day or two before. Unfortunately, with such a small sample size, they could not draw any conclusions. I will read their final report over the weekend and ask their permission to post some of their data on this blog if I find it worthwhile.

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