Bias alert! I like Michael Shermer’s books. In fact, I think I’ve read all five that he has written (including this one). So while I would be tempted to make the argument that his books are all worth reading, I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t realize the potential bias I carried with me when I started reading this book. “It’s Michael Shermer, how could it be a poorly-written book?”
Well, about a chapter into the book, I was almost ready to put it down. It seemed as though Shermer had abandoned his psychology training and leapt onto the free market bandwagon. The first chapter of his book was essentially an it-can-do-no-harm appraisal of free market economics. I mean, I agree with a lot of his points about the market, but where were the criticisms of free market logic? Frustrated at such a one-sided analysis (and complete ignorance of everything psychology and neuroscience has to offer for economics), I felt I was reading an orthodox free-market economics book.
Fortunately, I decided to read on. Apparently (although certainly not from any introduction or prologue from Shermer), the first chapter of the book was summarizing/introducing most of the major tenets of free-market economics, not taking them as necessarily true. The rest of the book returned to the regular style of Shermer’s books: fascinating, intellectually honest, and fact-filled. The kind of book that you finish reading with a sense of having spent your time wisely.
The first chapter was the setup; outlining the central principles of free-market economics (let’s call it FME from now on) theory – albeit not making any distinction that such principles were not shared by Shermer himself. The rest of the book is not so much an attack on FME, but rather an interdisciplinary analysis and critique of FME from diverse fields like psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary biology. There have been a lot of developments and recent research in these fields that offers further insight into (and in some cases complete rejection of) FME theory.
The book draws on much of Shermer’s prior works (I know because I’ve read them). At times, this can become tedious for those who have read his other works. Overlap between works by the same author is almost expected, though, so I don’t hold it against him. I mean, there are probably some endnotes that are too good to leave out. For those who are new to Shermer, though, the book is a wonderful collection of material from these earlier books.
During the four years I was at BGSU, I was exposed to a lot of economics and critical thinking through my interactions with Dr. Neil Browne, who founded/enabled/nurtured/supported the learning community I was in: IMPACT (Integrating Moral Principles And Critical Thinking). Dr. Browne is an economist by training, and his critiques of FME and orthodox economic theory in general are almost mirrored in Shermer’s latest book. The copious research from psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary biology add additional evidentiary support to many of the arguments presented by Dr. Browne (which is why I’ll suggest this book to him).
Why am I telling you about this Dr. Browne? Because almost all my exposure to economics has been in some way relative to my education at BGSU with Dr. Browne. So, whatever agreements/critiques of Shermer’s book I may make, keep in mind that I’m making them from a partially predisposed position.
That said, the one area that I think Shermer either has never heard of, or didn’t agree with (and decided not to critique) is the criticism that FME and democracy doen’t always mix well together. This became especially apparent in the Epilogue where Shermer makes the general argument that spreading FME will encourage democracy, and that “where goods cross borders, armies will not cross.” He cites the historical fact that no democracy has ever gone to war with another (obviously, this leaves some debate over what type or kind of democracy we’re talking about).
What Shermer really doesn’t make the argument for (or really address at all) is the effect of the FME/democracy combo in developing countries; which is to say the most important place in which to test his theory of goods/army crossings. World on Fire, by Amy Chua, actually looks at the evidence for the effect of FME combined with democracy in developing countries – and it turns out to be in stark contrast with the “model” developed countries.
Chua paints a very different picture from that of Shermer with respect to the universal applicability of the FME/democracy bundle. Rather than try to summarize the point myself, I found a very concise summation of her FME/democracy point in a review of the book on The Guardian’s website (a leading Brittish newspaper):
[Chua] suggests that the western mantra of free markets plus democracy is ill-conceived and a recipe for disaster in such circumstances [ethnic tensions caused by vast wealth disparities]. Here the author, in challenging such a verity, not to say cliché, of modern western discourse is on powerful, if heretical, ground. The western assumption is that democracy engenders a more liberal and tolerant society, but where that society is marked by a profound ethnic cleavage, the reverse may be true. There is no doubt that the anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia reflected the sentiments of the majority; similarly, in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s desire to appropriate white farms was not least a populist appeal to the overwhelmingly black electorate.
For Chua, free markets exacerbate ethnic divisions and, furthermore, democracy can act as the vehicle for a huge ethnic backlash by the majority. She believes that the idea that the two somehow form some kind of virtuous circle is wrong. Historically, this was never the case in the west: the rise of capitalism and the market long predated the achievement of democracy. And when democracy was achieved, the market was rapidly attenuated by redistribution and the welfare state, the antithesis of the kind of market policies preached and applied to the developing world by the Washington consensus.
So I don’t come away from the book with the same conclusion as Shermer regarding FME and democracy. But what I find so valuable about Shermer’s books is that I don’t have to agree with his overall conclusion to get a lot out of reading the books. That says a lot, I think, to the amount and quality of information Shermer includes in his books. He doesn’t skimp on evidence – a rarity quality in books these days. I still get his books out to reference a particular study or concept or anecdote that stuck in my mind over the years.
It would be common to find books with ample evidence to either be way too long, or be too dense for anyone but a small minority to find interesting. Shermer avoids these pitfalls (well, most books in general fall under the “too long” category, and Shermer could have trimmed some from his book) and makes the book accessible to a larger audience. I say “larger” instead of “general” because almost no science/economics non-fiction books are read by a “general” audience. Maybe a highly educated and intellectual audience, but not your average Jane or Joe Public.
Shermer’s latest book, The Mind of the Market, although frustratingly orthodox in its tone at the beginning, reveals itself to be a educational and intellectually stimulating critique of free markets via the incorporation of an interdisciplinary mix of recent research. For those (like myself) who have read Shermer’s books before, this one doesn’t disappoint. And for those of you who have not had the opportunity to read any of his books before, this one is certainly among his best. A book whose intellectual value is well-worth the time it takes to read.
Until next time, bonnes pensées.