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The Rules of Capitalism, Part 3

by Michael Shermer, May 18 2010

Liberty and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

This is the third essay in a series on the relationship between rules, freedom, and prosperity.
Read part 1 on Skepticblog.org and part 2 over at True/Slant
.

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I believe that the following commentary on the necessity of law and order has some bearing on what is unfolding in Arizona—when the rules are not clearly written or consistently enforced, people will take the law into their own hands because society cannot run smoothly without law and order.

In Part 3 in my essay series on the relationship between rules, freedom, and prosperity, I want to turn to one of my favorite films, John Ford’s 1962 classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a clash of moralities unfolds in the wild-west frontier town of Shinbone, Arizona. There in the dusty streets and ramshackle buildings two self-contained and self-consistent moral codes come into conflict. One moral code is the Cowboy Ethic, where trust is established through courage, loyalty, and personal allegiance to friends and family, and where disputes are settled and justice is served between individuals who have taken the law into their own hands. The other moral code is the Law Ethic, where trust is established through the transparent and mutually-agreed upon rule of law, and where disputes are settled and justice is served between all members of the society who, by virtue of living there, have tacitly agreed to obey the rules. Only one of these moral codes can prevail.

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In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the Cowboy Ethic is represented by two people, one good and the other evil. John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, is a fiercely loyal and deeply honest gunslinger duty-bound to enforce justice on his own terms through the power of his presence backed by the gun on his hip. Lee Marvin’s title character, Liberty Valance, is a coarse and unkempt highwayman whose unruly behavior provokes fights with the locals, most of whom fear and loathe him.

The Law Ethic is represented by Jimmy Stewart’s character, Ransom Stoddard, an attorney hell bent on seeing his beloved Shinbone make the transition from cowboy justice to the rule of law. Employing the commonly-used flashback technique, John Ford opens his film at the end of the story with the funeral of Tom Doniphon, which is attended by an elderly Stoddard swamped by reporters inquiring why the now-distinguished U.S. Senator would bother returning to his native town just to be present at the memorial services of a down-and-out gunfighter.

When they were younger and coming of age in this western territory just slightly out of reach of the long arm of the law, Stoddard and Doniphon were of radically different minds when it came to how justice should be served, each believing that the other’s strategy is either outdated (Doniphon’s gun) or naïve (Stoddard’s law). Despite this difference, or perhaps because of it, they become faithful friends, both believing that in the end justice must prevail. When Liberty Valance arrives on the scene it is clear that he respects only one man, Tom Doniphon, because they share the Cowboy Ethic that men settle their disputes honorably between themselves. As Doniphon boasted, “Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the Picketwire—next to me.” But Valance’s disdain for the milksop Stoddard and his naïve notions about the effectiveness of the law knows no bounds. Entering a restaurant where Stoddard is dining, for example, Valance berates him, taunts him, and finally trips the waiter, sending Stoddard’s dinner to the floor. As Stoddard meekly tries to avoid a confrontation, Doniphon enters and stares down Valance, who snaps back, “you lookin’ for trouble, Doniphon?” In his inimitable John Wayne drawl, Doniphon responds, “You aimin’ to help me find some?” Valance caves to Doniphon’s challenge and scurries out of the restaurant. “Well now; what do you supposed caused him to leave?” Doniphon wonders rhetorically. The sardonic response from a patron in reference to the impotency of Stoddard’s philosophy reveals which ethic is still dominant: “Why it was the specter of law and order rising from the gravy and the mashed potatoes.”

Despite Valance’s constant taunting, Stoddard holds to his belief that until Valance is caught doing something illegal there can be no justice. When Doniphon tells Stoddard “You better start pack’n a handgun,” Stoddard rejoins, “I don’t want to kill him. I just want to put him in jail.” At long last, however, Stoddard can take the derision no more, so he decides to take Doniphon’s advice that “out here a man settles his own problems,” and turns to him for gun-fighting lessons. When Valance challenges Stoddard to a dual, the overconfident naïf accepts and a late-night showdown ensues. In a darkened street, the two men square off. Stoddard is trembling in fear while Valance mocks and scorns him, shooting first too high and then too low. When Valance takes aim to kill, Stoddard shakily draws his weapon and discharges it. Valance collapses in a heap. Having felled one of the toughest guns in the west Stoddard goes on to become a local hero, building that image into political capital and working his way up from local politics to a distinguished career as a United States Senator. It appears that the Law Ethic prevailed over the Cowboy Ethic.

Not so fast. The man who shot Liberty Valance was Tom Doniphon. Knowing that Stoddard was no match for Valance, in a replay of the dual we see Doniphon lurking in the shadows and fingering a rifle, which he engaged to kill Valance at the crucially-timed moment when the two men drew their weapons. Holding to the cowboy ethic of loyalty and friendship, Doniphon takes the secret to his grave, where at the end of the story Stoddard is now paying his respect. When Stoddard finally reveals to a newspaper reporter the truth about who really shot Liberty Valance, the paper decides not to print the truth because, in what has become one of the most memorable lines in filmic history, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Despite this being a typical shoot-em-up western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance contains many moral subtleties. The philosopher Patrick Grim, who called my attention to the film as a tale of moral conflict, notes that both Stoddard and Doniphon violated their principles, but they did so because this was the only means by which one moral code could displace the other. By agreeing to a dual with Valance, Stoddard adopted a form of conflict resolution that he previously deemed illegal and immoral, and after discovering the truth about who really shot Liberty Valance, he chose to live a lie of omission then capitalized on his unearned heroism. For his part, Doniphon violated his moral code by ambushing Valance from the shadows instead of facing him man to man in the street, and then hiding the truth about what really happened, thereby tacitly endorsing Stoddard’s faux use of the Cowboy Ethic in order to help bring about the Law Ethic. In fact, both men violated both codes of morality, and with ample irony the only person who did not violate his moral code was the scurrilous Liberty Valance. But in the end, as Shinbone grew in size the transition from one moral code to the other had to happen, and in this moral homily it was friendship and loyalty that facilitated the change. It was the psychology of trust between individuals that enabled a society of trust among the collective to come to fruition.

The fictional Shinbone embodies any small community in transition from an informal to a formal moral code and system of justice. As long as population numbers are low and everyone in a community is either related to one another or knows one another through regular interactions, the code of the cowboy can work relatively well to keep the peace and ensure trust and social stability. But when communities expand and population numbers increase, the opportunities for unchecked violations of such informal codes expands exponentially, requiring the creation of such social technologies as codes, courts, and constitutions.

Continue reading part 4 over at True/Slant.

Recommended Reading

60 Responses to “The Rules of Capitalism, Part 3”

  1. Max says:

    This is like Civics 101.
    Time for Grammar 101: “duel” vs. “dual”.

  2. Beelzebud says:

    Ummmmm, okay….

  3. Alan says:

    Honestly, I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. It is either so subtle I am missing it or so obvious that this essay is like arguing the sky is blue.

    The fact that both formal and informal rules are necessary in a society is a basic truism. What I would like to see is how your libertarian beliefs handle the fact that over the past thirty plus years Big Business has been twisting and abusing those “informal” rules to its benefit at the cost of everyone else — only to hide behind “we’re following the [formal] rules” when people complain.

    In other words, I agree that the informal “social compact” is a vital part of any just society — and that the “social compact” has been shredded to bits by the same institutions (e.g. business) that libertarians routinely tell us will magically fix everything if we only take away even more oversight over their dealings and shower even more benefits upon them.

    So, how do libertarians (or, at least, you) propose a system that will nurture and expand the informal “social compact” in a real, practical way — as opposed to just offering yet more pro-business platitudes about “freedom” and “liberty” that only whitewash real concerns?

    • tmac57 says:

      I think it goes a little like this: “Many a man would make his rules,and many a rule was fla-awed.The Ayn whose sought-Liberty balance-she sought-Liberty balance.She was the greatest Rand of alllll.”

    • Patrick says:

      Bending informal rules? Como? They’ve been getting government to write VERY FORMAL rules giving them tax breaks, subsidies, restrictions on competition, monopoly powers.

      In what way are any of these informal rules?

    • JGB says:

      Interesting point about people violating the informal rules and defending their actions by pointing out that they are obeying the formal rules (laws).

      A colleague with an MBA once remarked that Smith’s “invisible hand” only works when self-interest is moderated by adherence to social mores. When ignoring morals is common, confidence in the system erodes and it all breaks down. For example, predatory lenders legally bilking people out of life savings discourage people from borrowing from legit lenders, too.
      (admittedly, borrowing too little hasn’t been much of an American problem – but the point remains: Economics requires trust between trading partners not just civil courts where you can sue)

      • Patrick says:

        Predator lenders is a loaded and useless term. Both parties acted in their own self interest. Both parties were responding to existing incentives (many pushed by the government). If anything, its predator government policies we need to avoid. If the government was simultaneously pushing cheap houses (which, not surprisingly thanks to the laws of supply and demand result in more expensive houses in the long run) and cheap credit and pushing banks and lenders to loan to people with bad credit we wouldn’t have had this problem.

      • Alan says:

        Predator lenders is a loaded and useless term. Both parties acted in their own self interest.

        This is an absurdly simplistic and convenient view of the world. It amounts to arguing that, say, any physical fight is “fair” as long as both parties are ambulatory, even if one is a 90-year old who must use a walker and the other is the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. In other words, you provide a simple-minded excuse for treating both sides as equal (and therefore equally to “blame”) when it is painfully clear that is nowhere near the truth.

        When it comes to lending you are talking about one side with a huge advantage of money and knowledge versus novices who were paying the first group to give them accurate and fair expertise. When you give money to someone in exchange for their services the whole relationship is based on the requirement that the services are being offered keeping in mind the best interests of those paying!

        For instance, when you go to the doctor it is not you vs. your doctor where he is acting to screw you over at the first chance; rather, he is supposed to be on your side while giving you value for your money. A doctor who used his knowledge and your vulnerability to advance his own interests at the cost of yours would be (rightly) seen as unethical if not acting criminally. The same is true for every other “service” provider from lawyers to roofers.

        Yet, somehow we are supposed to believe in this case that despite the patently unequal relationship between lender and buyer as long as the first wasn’t literally holding a gun to the head of the latter then anything goes. Not only is this contrary to the assumptions of moral society it is also contrary to the basic precepts of capitalism — how can capitalism work if you can’t trust the other side of the deal not to screw you over at the first opportunity?

        Your argument therefore amounts to arguing that the powerful have every right to prey on the weak. If that is the case then why are we bothering to even attempt democracy and capitalism? We might as well just go back to the days of feudalism where “might makes right”.

      • Patrick says:

        So your saying a person who wants to buy a home when perfectly good alternatives like renting an apartment exist is like a 90 year old getting beat up by a heavy weight boxer?

        Give me a break.

        Feudelism is a left-wing economic philosophy btw.

      • tmac57 says:

        “Feudelism is a left-wing economic philosophy btw.”
        Where did you get this notion Patrick?

      • Gregg says:

        I don’t think Patrick is very familiar with mortgages. I, however, work in the mortgage fraud business. There are very clear cases of predatory lending.

        For instance, I reviewed one loan wherein the borrower refinanced her home. The settlement statement had a mysterious charge for $20,000. Upon further research, I found that $20,000 went to the loan officer’s wife. That was $20,000 that should have been the borrower’s.

        In other cases, I frequently speak with borrowers who were misled about the nature of the loan. They weren’t told that their payments would increase, or to what extent, and honestly believed they could afford the house. Indeed, they may even have been able to afford the house, but the adjusted payments exceed what they would have paid with fixed payments.

        So I concur with the person who said that your position, which seems to be based on the supposition that everyone in foreclosure knew they could not afford a house and should have rented an apartment instead, is absurdly simplistic and convenient.

      • tmac57 says:

        Gregg-I totally agree with what you are saying,because my wife worked in the mortgage loan business for nearly 24 years,and she saw many irregularities,especially on the loan officer side.Most of the worst offenses occurred in the last 5 or 6 years,as sub-prime and mainstream lenders battled to get more and more customers.They began compromising their tried and true lending practices just to get their numbers.Apparently they believed that the party would never end,or more cynically,they figured,”what the hell,we can sell off this piece of s**t loan to some other sucker!” Not their problem after that.Right?

  4. Beatrice Honningforth says:

    Has this become a film review site now? Did I miss the memo?

  5. Cambias says:

    It’s always amusing to watch self-described rational skeptics hounding someone for heresy.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Heresy? Many of us are just at a loss to see how this post relates to skepticism…

  6. To: Alan says:

    “What I would like to see is how your libertarian beliefs handle the fact that over the past thirty plus years Big Business has been twisting and abusing those “informal” rules to its benefit at the cost of everyone else — only to hide behind “we’re following the [formal] rules” when people complain.”

    When you say Big Business has been abusing informal rules at the cost of everyone else, do you mean ALL big businesses? It is hard to tell because you capitalized “Big Business” as if it were an all-inclusive pronoun. There have been some big businesses that abuse informal rules, and many that do not. It is also important to remember that businesses are just collections of individuals. Sometimes individuals in a business act immorally while the other employees are ignorant of what’s going on and not supportive of it (e.g. Eron). The business itself wasn’t immoral, but some individuals within it were. AND even those individuals at Enron that acted immorally didn’t impose a cost on me, like you said (“…at the cost of everyone else”). Only stakeholders in that company were affected, unlike GOVERNMENT TAXES which really are a COST OF EVERYONE!!

    • Patrick says:

      Bending informal rules? Como? They’ve been getting government to write VERY FORMAL rules giving them tax breaks, subsidies, restrictions on competition, monopoly powers.

      In what way are any of these informal rules?

    • Alan says:

      When you say Big Business has been abusing informal rules at the cost of everyone else, do you mean ALL big businesses? It is hard to tell because you capitalized “Big Business” as if it were an all-inclusive pronoun.

      Do we really have to play games with semantics? This isn’t a formal scientific journal, but just people offering opinions. It was clear how I was using the ubiquitous, if informal term “Big Business”. Let’s not get into arguments over minutia that just amount to word games meant to obscure the actual topic.

      So, yes, I am talking about “Big Business” as a group keeping in mind that there are, of course, always exceptions to the rules and that some businesses will be worse than others. This is about general trends rather than apportioning blame in painful detail.

      AND even those individuals at Enron that acted immorally didn’t impose a cost on me,
      Only stakeholders in that company were affected…

      …unlike GOVERNMENT TAXES which really are a COST OF EVERYONE!!

      Whether or not you personally consider yourself a libertarian this is a tactic/mistake I see libertarians make all the time, namely conveniently ignoring any “cost” that can’t be easily reduced to a line on a spreadsheet. It allows them to offer an artificial view of economics where since the costs of government on the rest of us tend to be direct and the costs of business indirect the latter gets too little blame and the former too much.

      OF COURSE Enron’s collapse imposed costs on our economy as a whole and not just on “shareholders.” People lost their livelihoods, governments lost tax revenue, more aid had to be given to the now un- or under-employed, health rates declined due to stress and financial factors, business in general suffered due to everything from lower real estate values to a general loss of confidence, and so forth.

      Likewise, the costs will continue thanks to people having to suffer from the loss of income and pensions. In fact, as later studies have shown, on average ex-Enron employees have not gotten back to their original standard of living. That represents a long term if not permanent loss of economic value that has ripple effects across the whole system.

      And, naturally, this effect is true for Big Business in general. Over the past thirty plus years there has been a massive redistribution of wealth and value from the average worker to the business elite. For instance, despite the fact that the average worker has become far more productive and the nation in general far more wealthy wages have stagnated or even declined for the vast majority of people. Likewise, business has been doing its best to socialize their costs — they have been rushing to dump pensions, lower their tax rates, and enact policies that stick the country in general for the costs of everything from bail-outs to environmental clean-ups.

      Of course, all of this does not translate well to a spreadsheet as they affect us for the most part indirectly. For instance, when business in general is dumping their pension obligations on the government or just jettisoning them completely it is hard to point to any one party and say “look, they are at fault.” This is especially true when business can insist they had “no choice” since “everyone” is trying to do the same thing. The end result is the worker in general getting less return for more work, but it all gets excused as some variation of “the system made me do it.” Or, to put it another way, what is outrageous for a single large business to do becomes accepted if the whole system does it.

      By comparison, taxes that go to the government pay for services that generally benefit everyone — good roads, safety regulations, food quality control, military defense, and so forth. Sure, the money isn’t necessarily spent on the best projects or done in the most efficient manner (note — contrary to common libertarian ideology government departments are no more or less efficient than businesses of similar size), but at least the attempt is being made to benefit all citizens.

      And, as citizens shouldn’t we be expected to pay for the services that government provides? We do when it comes to the private sector generally without debate, but somehow for libertarians having to pay their way for things like the roads that allow for commerce or the police force that defends their property is somehow outrageous. Libertarians often seem to take such things for granted as if, say, good sanitation was a natural law akin to gravity. Obviously, no one should have to “pay” for gravity, but the benefits of government — even intangible results like “peace and harmony” — don’t produce themselves. They need to be funded.

      So, if anything (IMHO) libertarians come off as freeloaders who want something for nothing. They want the benefits of government without having to pay for them, but disguise what would otherwise look like an exercise in selfishness by implying that somehow dodging responsibility to our larger society is an act of “liberty” or “freedom.” It is selfishness being portrayed as a virtue.

      • Patrick says:

        Actually American purchasing power has increased. Goods are cheaper relative to our incomes or better yet, relative to the hours we work.

        To say otherwise is akin to “Primitive beliefs given the guise of science in the 19th century by Karl Marx and other practitioners”

      • Patrick says:

        By the way, that is some backwards logic you have. You totally ignore the compliance, regulatory and opportunity costs of government action in our economy. Additionally you make a straw man argument in several ways 1) assuming Enron collapsed because an absense of government regulations and 2) that libertarians don’t believe in any rules at all.

      • Alan says:

        But, American income and benefits have not increased.

        I call this argument the “Bread and iPods” fallacy after the Roman notion of bread and circuses. It amounts to suggesting that since we can buy nicer toys that makes up for the growing economic injustice of the last forty years. I’d consider that absurd — the problem is a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to a tiny economic elite regardless of what is or is not available to buy at your local Wal-Mart.

        Would it be okay for me to cheat you out of money as long as I gave you a coupon to go buy a yummy strawberry sunday at the local ice cream shop? Of course not — cheating is still cheating even if the only practical effect was that you could “merely” buy ten sundaes rather than just one.

        So, the point isn’t whether or not “purchasing power” has increased; it’s whether it has increased as much as it should have in a truly fair economic system. I submit that it clearly has not.

      • Patrick says:

        American personal income has increased, as has the gdp per capita, as has our purchasing power. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_States (personal income)

        “So, the point isn’t whether or not “purchasing power” has increased; it’s whether it has increased as much as it should have in a truly fair economic system. I submit that it clearly has not.”

        Prove it.

      • Alan says:

        Prove it

        Sorry, but I refuse to get into these sorts of disengenuous arguments where no matter what evidence is posted you’ll just dismiss it out-of-hand. Been there and done that all too many times.

        If you want the evidence just Google it like the rest of us do — the fact that income has been stagnant for decades in the US is well established.

  7. Majority of One says:

    I really must have missed something here. How does this relate to what is going on in Arizona now? I didn’t realize people were taking things into their own hands. I thought they’d passed a controversial law, but the enforcers were still the police.

    I’m lost on this one. Did enjoy the movie review, tho…

  8. sproutlore says:

    Name calling (propaganda)demands Cowboy Justice (institutional militancy) and overwhelms a small town lawyer (rule of law) = the rules of capitalism? Really weak.
    But, since we’re talking movies….
    What’s interesting about Liberty Valance is that only Lee Marvin is morally consistant. He lives and dies by his code, while Wayne and Stewart betray their professed beliefs, Wayne by shooting Marvin in the back and Steward betraying the rule of law.
    The movie is a bit of muddle morally. It sets up the moral dilemma and then does not only ignore the moral failure of 2 of it’s characters but dismisses the failure with the “…print the legend” tag.
    In the end Ford believes in the rule of the gun over the rule of law.

  9. Patrick says:

    Perhaps this is an attempt for “skeptics” of libertarian political philosophy to get a solid foundation (in order to keep them from building strawmen before they have a remote understanding of what a libertarian is talking about). Often, on this blog and others, I’ve noticed that anti-libertarians make believe that libertarians believe in chaos and disorder when in fact libertarians (for the most part) understand that rules and laws are necessary. Anarcho-libertarians tend to believe this as well, just disagree that the rules and laws have to be written by an entity that also has been granted a monopoly on the use of violence.

    That said, (from Reason Magazine) http://reason.com/blog/2010/05/18/selective-denialism

    Market denialism

    In a nutshell: Economies can be better directed from the top down by benevolent politicians and bureaucrats

    Origins: Primitive beliefs given the guise of science in the 19th century by Karl Marx and other practitioners

    Call themselves: Progressives and socialists

    Influence: Unfortunately growing, now three stars ***

    • Patrick says:

      Yes, Dr. Shermer, that was one of Reason Magazines additions to your list of deniers in the New Scientist

      the others are,

      Biotech crop denialism

      In a nutshell: Biotech crops are dangerous for human health and environment

      Origin: Leading NGOs, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Union of Concerned Scientists

      Call themselves: Environmentalists, or greens

      Influence: Five stars*****

      Drug war denialism

      In a nutshell: We are winning the war on drugs

      Origins: Early 20th century progressive prohibitionists

      Call themselves: Drug Enforcement Agency, Congress

      Influence: Waning, but still four stars ****

    • Alan says:

      Market denialism…
      - snip -

      This is one of the tricks that, in my experience, frustrates people when dealing with libertarians — their habit of offering logical fallacies under the guise of “reason”.

      In this case we have the classic fallacy of the black and white strawman — equate a call for any measure of government involvement with the economy with full scale socialism as if there are only two possible choices, namely “free capitalism” (which usually isn’t truly “free”, but just a system where the economic rules and biases libertarians prefer are dominant) or a Soviet like command economy. When you paint any contrary view as “obviously” absurd strangely enough libertarian “ideals” come off as “superior”.

      Of course, the reality is that it is not all or nothing, but that advocating some measure of government involvement is entirely reasonable and logical. If nothing else the matter is far more complex then the simplistic, self-serving notion that “Reason” magazine is trying to offer here.

      In fact, it’s this sort intellectual and ideological snobbery that often makes it hard to take libertarians seriously, IMHO. All too often libertarians seem to take the superiority of their ideas for granted and don’t bother to offer sophisticated arguments that take into account the numerous rebuttals out there of libertarian ideology. Instead, they tend to either get offended or, as in the case of Mr. Shermer, seem genuinely flabbergasted that anyone thinks differently than they do. Either way, they end up dodging the question and (I guess) just hoping it will go away.

      The final result is that a group that outwardly holds its supposed intellectual acumen in such high regard ends up coming off as naive, evasive, or even just simple-minded.

      • Patrick says:

        You are an example of market denialism Alan – that is a belief in government management of the economy over the market (that is all of us, managing for ourselves). Somehow, magically selfless men and women can pull the levers of the economy and know exactly what people want, how much they want, how they want it made, when they want it delivered, what is good for them, what is bad for them, what is safe for them, what to ban, what to see, what to watch, what to hear.

        The evidence to date suggests the more economic freedom the better. Though we have no evidence to date that says how much is best.

        We know when trader barriers are low, regulations are simple, taxes are low and or non-complex, that economies flourish, people become wealthier, education rises, health increases, the environment is cleaner and poverty drops

        As for strawmen, when did I equate any government regulation with a call for socialism? You don’t seem to get the point of Mr. Shermer’s point on this subject.

      • Patrick says:

        PS, your argument can be applied to the Bush/Obama bailouts and all the people who defend that it works. It can be applied to Keynesians, Marxists, Socialists, Greens whatever. It is utterly meaningless.

      • Alan says:

        You are an example of market denialism Alan – that is a belief in government management of the economy over the market

        Honestly, did you actually read my post before commenting on it? I specifically pointed out how I was speaking about a middle-ground between no government involvement and a command economy. My point was that libertarians IMHO habitually and unfairly paint a conveniently black-and-white strawman where the only alternative to their own strong views is an even more extreme view from the other side of the political spectrum.

        Remember, you were the one quoting directly from Reason magazine — and the definition you posted did not offer any middle-ground.

        Did you post an inaccurate quote? Since it fits with the libertarian ideology I’ve read before it sure didn’t seem so, but maybe your quote was badly wrong. If that is the case I will reconsider my evaluation. Otherwise, the argument stands (which mirrors a common criticism of libertarianism).

      • Patrick says:

        I see the same thing among people on the left. Building straw men, and assuming libertarians want international chaos devoid of any sort of rules.

        Additionally, when debating people on the left I tend to note a lack of willingness to answer my own questions.

      • Alan says:

        So, your response is “I know you are, but what am I?”

        Spiffy.

      • Eric says:

        “Somehow, magically selfless men and women can pull the levers of the economy and know exactly what people want, how much they want, how they want it made, when they want it delivered, what is good for them, what is bad for them, what is safe for them, what to ban, what to see, what to watch, what to hear. ”
        Patrick, this is textbook socialism. This is government control of the means of production. It is the reason why socialist economies fail. This is exactly part of the false dichotomy Alan talks about. As a former libertarian, i can agree with you on the point that many liberals do create Straw Man arguments over what Libertarians believe. However, libertarians and other conservatives portray liberals as socialists, just like you did and your “Reason” magazine. It is also a Straw Man. There is a difference between government regulation when it is favorable and all out government control. For example, natural monopolies will always be inefficient because corporations base their prices on marginal supply and demand, which is necessarily different than supply and demand for monopolies. Competition actually drives up prices when talking about natural monopolies because demand is usually within a downward sloping part of the supply curve. So it is favorable for the government to set the price. When it comes to environmental issues, conservation tends to be favorable with less government control, but the government is theoretically necessary for pollution control because businesses don’t pay for their pollution, so what is the incentive to minimize pollution (theory of negative externalities)? I would encourage any modern libertarian to read book 5 of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of nations.” You may find him to be just as liberal as today’s modern progressives, despite the fact he is the most influential founder of free-economics.
        “Primitive beliefs given the guise of science in the 19th century by Karl Marx and other practitioners”
        actually these aren’t primitive beliefs. Any objective economist of historian of science can show you how much of an over-simplification this is. Even if you don’t agree with Karl Marx or John Keynes, they are widely respected as some of the most brilliant economists of all time, along with Adam Smith. Adam Smith based his theories of free markets on the division of labor, whereby labor was largely responsible for the worth of an economy. Up until the industrial revolution, this labor reaped their just rewards for their hard work under the ‘putting out” system. However, with the advent of factories and large corporations, labor stopped reaping their just rewards, which went to executives instead. It is only natural, if you see labor as such a strong driving force in your economy, to think the economy should be centered around it. Adam Smith never pictured the modern markets we see today. He was merely protesting the government run monopolies of his day, such as the East India Trading Company.

  10. Bill Naumann says:

    From the article: “When Valance challenges Stoddard to a dual, the overconfident naïf accepts”
    The copy-checker for Shermer who took the trouble to show off his or her basic French with the slightly arcane ‘naïf’, should (as an early responder noted) return to English Grammar 101 for refreshment and use “duel” rather than ‘dual’.

  11. 5 stars. Just to keep “vote bots” away :)

  12. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    I advise Mr. Shermer to read his own book:
    “Why People Believe Weird Things”.

  13. rob says:

    “the code of the cowboy can work relatively well to keep the peace and ensure trust and social stability”

    This is utter hogwash. Cowboy justice is vigilante justice. Vigilante justice is not evidence-based. I thought this blog was dedicated to rational skepticism!

    The law (ideally) goes to great pains to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, the guilt of a suspect. Cowboy justice usually just targets the most unpopular guy in town.

    Years ago, a young girl was murdered in my small town. Cowboy justice prevailed, and a homeless bottle-collector was beaten within an inch of his life. It wasn’t him of course.

    Lynching blacks in the South? Yep, cowboy justice.

    • tmac57 says:

      I agree rob.There is something really wrong with Shermer’s analysis.

      Shermer-“One moral code is the Cowboy Ethic, where trust is established through courage, loyalty, and personal allegiance to friends and family, and where disputes are settled and justice is served between individuals who have taken the law into their own hands. ”
      Shermer again-“…the Cowboy Ethic is represented by two people, one good and the other evil. John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, is a fiercely loyal and deeply honest gunslinger duty-bound to enforce justice on his own terms through the power of his presence backed by the gun on his hip. Lee Marvin’s title character, Liberty Valance, is a coarse and unkempt highwayman whose unruly behavior provokes fights with the locals, most of whom fear and loathe him.”

      Now let me get this straight, Valance, as portrayed in the movie is a murdering,sadistic bully and gang leader, and he somehow embodies the “Cowboy Ethic” as defined above?

      • rob says:

        Now that you mention it, I might have stopped reading at “good and evil.” It’s a terribly naive thing to reduce the world to binary morality.

        On the other hand, it doesn’t surprise me that the model for his theory is an old western. I haven’t yet met a libertarian to whom it had occurred that Ayn Rand was a writer of fiction.

  14. Patrick says:

    Alan,

    Which worked better post World War II,

    France
    Germany

    Why?

    • Max says:

      I’m sure that Germany losing the war has nothing to do with it.

      • Patrick says:

        Actually Germany losing the war had nothing to do with it because Germany’s economy ended up doing better than in France for some very good reasons. France chose a welfare state under more central direction, Germany went with a market driven welfare state. Just another example of why markets are superior to government driven economies.

      • rob says:

        …and why apples are superior to oranges. Well done.

      • Patrick says:

        Rob, you missed the point. Many people here seem to believe markets fail and government does a better job so I brought up an instance of 2 welfare states that took very different approaches to providing services and operating the economy. Market based welfare state vs. state based welfare state. Its comparing the use of markets vs. the use of government.

        The fact that Germany came out ahead of France so quickly had a lot to do with the use of markets rather than central direction from government.

  15. Patrick says:

    Alan,

    Name one country that has used socialism to pull itself from 3rd world status to first world status?

    • Alan says:

      Name one country that has used socialism to pull itself from 3rd world status to first world status?

      When did I champion socialism? I’m just talking about government involvement (primarily in the realm of safety regulation and social justice) in the economy, not government control of the economy.

      Again, it’s not all or nothing.

      Economic efficiency is not a worthy end in itself if it comes at the cost of social/economic justice. By that I don’t mean “entitlements”, but a system where (beyond the most basic needs of life and health) merit and hard work actually pay-off fairly.

      What we have now is ample evidence that this is not as true as it once was or should be — productivity and overall national wealth has greatly increased even as the benefits to the average worker have stagnated or declined. Meanwhile, the economic elite (who have the most control over the “rules” and workings of our economic engine) have seen their rewards skyrocket. You don’t need to be Karl Marx to see a serious problem here. Capitalism is supposedly about making markets work efficiently (and, by extension, fairly vis-a-vis work and worth), but what we have is a system that is being more and more unfairly distorted in favor of a privileged few.

      To put it another way, evidence shows that it is the very “champions” of capitalism that are doing the most to undermine it.

      Like any man-made system our economy won’t magically become fair if we remove all the rules and let business do whatever it wants. Would, say, baseball suddenly become a paragon of competitiveness and fair-play if we took away all the umpires? Of course not — it would devolve into a survival-of-the-strongest free-for-all where players might literally be at each other’s throats. Therefore, we have umpires to promote sportsmanship and have a “good game”.

      Our capitalist economic system works the same way — we need a strong umpire (e.g. government) to make sure we have an economy that rewards people fairly and not just because they can wield enough power and privilege to get whatever the want. If we wanted that we wouldn’t have gotten rid of kings and nobility.

      So, if libertarians want to be taken seriously they have to demonstrate how their views would correct the problems in our system and promite social/economic justice. That can’t be done just by repeating tired ideological platitudes — which is all Mr. Shermer has offered us so far.

      • Patrick says:

        That is funny, because progressives used to demand government control over the economy for reasons of economic efficiency. Turns out they were wrong. Now efficiency is abandoned just for social justice which turns out it does a poor job of that too.

        Are government anti poverty programs getting people out of poverty? No.

        Are government run schools getting kids out of poverty? No

        Are government jobs getting people out of poverty? No.

        In America, Wal-Mart does a better job helping the poor than our government.

      • Patrick says:

        Speaking of strawmen, who said anything about taking away the umpires?

        Btw, umpires in baseball don’t give a team extra runs just because their first basemen is sick or because they’re losing by 10 runs, or because the teams salary is $100 million short of their competitors.

  16. Patrick says:

    Btw, economic efficiency increases wealth. That means more goods and services can be produced. Better lifestyles enjoyed. The pie gets bigger for everyone instead of cutting the same size pie to split around. Social justice (a loaded term at best) – if you mean equal opportunity, eliminating poverty, increasing human health, improving the quality of live for everyone – is served best by free markets and capitalism.

  17. Patrick says:

    Alan what is your idea of rewarding people fairly?

    If I build X product and it becomes very popular and everyone in America wants to buy it and make me rich, am I rewarded fairly?

    You seem to think that income disparity is prima fascia proof that unfairness must exist.

    Why must it be a strong government? Do you not realize that our strong government just bailed out all the big corporations and wealthy Wall Street fatcats? Where is the fairness in that?

    The problem is when government power grows to the point where people influence it to benefit them at the expense of everyone else. If you want fairness, support limited government power.

    • Somite says:

      If you want fairness you want a strong pro-regulation government that keeps the competition fair. Without government regulation you invariably see the adverse effects of greed on society and formation of oligarchy.

      Remember; corporation exist to make money inasmuch their pursuit is not adverse to society.

      • Patrick says:

        Does working for government make you magically caring and unselfish? If government does work for the profit motive, why civil asset forfeiture continued to increase?

  18. Beelzebud says:

    Libertarians. Building a bridge to the 19th century.

  19. TO: ALAN says:

    Alan said:
    “Like any man-made system our economy won’t magically become fair if we remove all the rules and let business do whatever it wants. Would, say, baseball suddenly become a paragon of competitiveness and fair-play if we took away all the umpires? Of course not — it would devolve into a survival-of-the-strongest free-for-all where players might literally be at each other’s throats. Therefore, we have umpires to promote sportsmanship and have a “good game”.”

    You have made a HUGE mistake now, Alan. You have just given away the fact that you do NOT understand free-market capitalism. You see, our economy in a free-market system would not be a “man-made system”. Shermer himself explains this better than anyone. Capitalist economies are self-emergent complex adaptive systems. CAPITALISM IS THE ONLY ECONOMIC SYSTEM NOT DESIGNED BY MAN. This point is of huge significance, and it is obvious from what you’ve said that you were previously ignorant on this point. And I think most people on this board would be in favor of some “umpire” rules, such as not stealing from people or defrauding them. However, comparing the economy to a man-made game is a false analogy. A better analogy would be an outdoor ice-skating rink, in which multiple people are driven by their “self-interest” to both i)enjoy the skating rink to their benefit and ii)be careful not to run into other people. Because everyone would get hurt if they ran into someone else, everyone is careful FOR THEIR OWN SAKE. This results in a fairly complex moving group of skaters who are now cooperating, for their own sake, to keep the circle of skaters running smoothly. (pwned)

    • Somite says:

      Consistently corporations engage in behavior that is adverse to society to increase profits. Only present regulations prevent this from happening in a larger scale. I shudder to think what would happen without an FDA or EPA. According to libertarians it would work like this: “My 6 year old just lost her sense of smell from that nasal spray. It’s ok. We just won’t sponsor that company anymore”

      Libertarians: just pay your frakking taxes.

  20. tmac57 says:

    Okay, I just finished re-watching ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ on DVD. I had suspected that Dr. Shermer had some of the details wrong, and indeed there were many errors. That in itself is not all that surprising, but the nature of the errors and omissions are revealing. For example,Shermer mis-characterized all three of the main figures in the story. Doniphon is not at all a hero in the story,neither is he a friend or loyal to Stoddard.In fact he is depicted as being indifferent to Valance’s crimes unless they concern him,and almost every action that he takes in the movie is about his increasing jealousy and fear that his girlfriend is being drawn to the idealistic and truly heroic Stoddard. Stoddard is in no way a meek or “milksop” character here. At every turn in the story,he is about the only person,including Doniphon,that stands up to Valance,despite his lack of gunfighting skills,and only reluctantly engages Valance in the duel.Even then he doesn’t fire 1st,and is wounded by Valance in his ‘gun’ arm,but still finds the courage to pick up the gun with the other arm and defend himself.Though it wasn’t his bullet that killed the villain, that still makes him the true hero of the story.It is a cynical interpretation to suggest that he used the unfortunate situation for personal gain.He tries to beg off of entering the political situation because he feels guilty of having killed Valance,and only then finds that Doniphon did the deed,and not for Stoddard,he did it because his girlfriend wanted him to do something to help Stoddard.
    Also, a significant omission in Shermer’s version, is the main background narrative of why Valance is causing all of this trouble.It turns out that he had been hired by the big cattle ranchers to scare off the homesteaders so that they could keep the territory from becoming a state.They wanted to keep all of the open range and watering holes for themselves (Valance and his gang are identified as murdering two brothers because they refused to stop using the watering hole on their homestead for irrigation).So Valance in no way is ever shown to be operating by some ethic or moral code,indeed he is a sadistic, murdering,bullying,gunslinger and highwayman.
    Some of the other errors are less important to Shermer’s overall point, but do show sloppy research:
    1. Stoddard was actually acting as the waiter in the restaurant scene, and it was he who was tripped(he was working as the dishwasher at the time).He was carrying Doniphon’s dinner into the dinning area and Valance trips him.His intervention to stop gunplay between Valance and Doniphon were actually rather brave and motivated by a sense of law and order,not by the implied cowardice.
    2.As stated above Stoddard and Doniphon were never friends but rivals (at least in Doniphon’s mind),and Stoddard never went to Doniphon for shooting lessons.He had been secretly practicing on his own,when Doniphon drags him off to his ranch to basically show him that he was too inept to go against Valance(he appears to be trying to scare him off).He ends up trying to humiliate Stoddard by shooting a paint bucket over his head drenching him in paint,for which he gets punched out by the “meek” Stoddard.
    Although Stoddard,as an aging typical politician at the beginning of the story is
    somewhat annoying,in the end it was Stoddard’s courage and belief in the law that finally brought the town of Shinbone into civility,even though he did compromise in the use of violence,but understandably so due to the circumstances.Doniphon from the beginning only wanted to marry his sweetheart and go about his business until Stoddard’s appearance sent thing awry. That was why in the end the woman was drawn to the better man.Doniphon degenerated into a destructive drunk,and died in anonymity.

    • Beelzebud says:

      LOL… For some reason I’m not surprised. I’ve said for quite some time that what Libertarians really want is a return to the Wild West. I always thought that was a bit hyperbolic, myself, but perhaps it isn’t.

  21. steve gray says:

    Michael imposed his favorite movie on us in his review of Pinker.I have zero interest in that movie and wonder why Shermer spent so much space on a movie review. Michael would be more credible if he treated Rand (an ax-grinding hypocritical crank) and Randism with the same skepticism as he applies to other silly claims. Libertarianism gives liberty and money to the rich and takes them from the poor. Randians see exactly what they want to see, and nothing else.