Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

The high price of ideology

In my recently published book, The Price of Everything, I propose that people –and societies– are hard nosed about their decisions, evaluating the costs and benefits of the options we face even in the most seemingly personal domains of life. We compare cost and benefit to decide whether to get married, speed on the highway, or even join a religion.

This proposition has substantial backing among economists. It has failed, however, to persuade American conservatives. Most recently, Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard wrote in the Wall Street Journal that The Price of Everything is a collection of “liberal pieties dressed up as logic.” The book’s thesis that environmental pressures and material incentives sway humanity seems to have caused him considerable distress.

Like so many conservatives, Mr. Last chooses to understand the evolution of societies as a matter of good ideas (those espoused by conservatives, of course) emerging from out of… somewhere to push bad ideas aside. In his eyes, the proposition that societies evolve by assessing prices, central to The Price of Everything, amounts to a liberal assault against his faith in a world shaped by personal responsibility, molded by “beliefs, doctrines and worldviews.”

Mr. Last’s is the worldview of the ideologue, one in which all improvement arrives by the hand of good conservative intentions, evidence to the contrary be damned. It is a worldview well known to neo-cons, who championed the war in Iraq and wrote the script to a rapid victory on the basis of their ideas alone. It makes for bad policy, as it makes for bad science.

Like most ideological approaches to the world, Mr. Last’s faith-based approach to reality ultimately fails to address reality as it is —leaving his arguments to hang by the impassioned yet thin thread of his beliefs and doctrines. So confused do these become that he ends dismissing as liberal dogma ideas that were first articulated by Gary Becker, an extraordinary economist from the University of Chicago who nobody would accuse of being liberal. But Last’s assault upon my supposed “liberal pieties” is ultimately undone by his inability to make his arguments fit social, economic or historical fact.

He takes particular offense at the proposition that polygamy declined as an institution because of economic incentives. The most compelling hypothesis I discuss is that polygamy waned because it allowed rich men to hoard women, leaving poor men without a mate or a chance to reproduce. This undermined social cohesion, putting polygamous groups at a disadvantage compared to monogamous societies –making them more prone to civil strife.

Last, by contrast, would have us believe that polygamy declined because the right belief set –“Judeo-Christianity”—emerged to do away with the barbarous practice. Presumably, people imbued by “Judeo-Christian” values were struck by the supposed immorality of one man mating with more than one woman. “Ideas matter,” he says.

Ideas do matter, of course. But history matters too. The historical fact is that “Judeo-Christianity” did not bring about the decline of polygamy. Saint Augustine called monogamy a “Roman custom.” And polygamy remained an acceptable, even popular institution well into “Judeo-Christian” times. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon were all polygamous. The Torah even aims to regulate polygamy, requiring that polygamous men provide sufficient resources for all their wives. A synod called by the Rabbi Gershom ben Judah did prohibit polygamy, but only among Ashkenazi Jews and only in the 11th Century of the Christian era.

Polygamy also popped up across Christendom –including among the Anabaptists in 16th century Germany and the Mormons in the United States 150 years ago. And it was an entrenched institution among the European nobility throughout the Middle Ages, when Kings and sundry royals kept stables of concubines and servants to mate with.

Mr. Last’s doctrinal approach to social change, his notion that great (and good) thoughts propel us, leads him to dismiss the idea that the family changed because women entered the work force. Women’s entry into the labor force provided them a wage –increasing their value at home and in society beyond being wombs and homemakers. This contributed to a decline in fertility across the industrial world.

He seems especially upset about the proposition that Americans remain deeply religious due to the depth of poverty in the United States –which increases demand for religion as an insurance policy –or salve– against economic insecurity. Apparently he believes that socioeconomic circumstance has no bearing on people’s faith. Belief springs fully formed from… somewhere.

It must be difficult to go about life believing that all good comes through the agency of the ideas one espouses. The belief may help rally the faithful. But it is a fragile, brittle world-view, prone to be brought down by even the slightest shade of doubt or contact with the real world. The Price of Everything, which proposes that ideas emerge from economic considerations, is an unwelcome shake to this shaky edifice.

That is, however, what honest inquiry is meant to do.

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