Human Nature

Would Darwin be a Socialist or a Libertarian?

A debate about regulation and competition

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By Michael Shermer (read Robert Frank’s response essay Why Libertarians Should Support Many Forms of Government Intervention)

When I entered the world of competitive bicycle racing in 1980 no serious cyclist wore a helmet in training, and the leather “hair net” required by some race organizations—thin bands of leather-wrapped cotton stuffing—did nothing more than prevent your hair from getting mussed upon impacting pavement. Bell Helmets already had the technology from their motorcycle division to make a viable crash-tested safety helmet for bicycling, but elite cyclists are an elitist cohort that follows the trends of what looks good as much as what works well. The perception at the time was that a helmet was delimiting on performance and made you look like a “Fred”—two-wheel-speak for geek.

Even if an individual cyclist wanted to don protection, unless everyone else did as well the competitive choice was to race sans helmet. When I was sponsored by Bell to compete in the Race Across America—the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle race—they engaged me to help design a helmet that elite cyclists would wear that would, in marketing theory, inspire the masses of two-wheelers to follow in emulation. We came up with the V1-Pro, a model that aped the leather hair net in design but was made of the same compressed polystyrene foam utilized in motorcycle helmets for absorbing the energy of an impact. Nonetheless, it was shunned by the pros until the Union Cycliste International (UCI)—the governing body of professional cycling—mandated the use of safety helmets for all cyclists in all races. No helmet, no race. Period. I was relieved, as were many other cyclists I knew, because I wanted to wear a helmet but didn’t want to stand out or lose a slight competitive edge. In time, as helmet use grew in popularity market forces worked effectively to make them lighter, cooler, and colorfully trendy. Now everyone wears them and we are all better for it.

The collective action problem

According to the Cornell University economist Robert Frank, this is an example of a collective action problem that requires top-down government-like regulation.Without such mandated intervention, people will not do what is best for themselves or the group, and this leads to market inefficiencies and moral failures. In his book, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, Frank uses such collective action problems to make the case for why governments must intervene in economic transactions. Financial exchanges in a free market carry externalities—benefits and costs not included in the price of the transaction that is incurred by one or more of the parties involved, with or without their knowledge or agreement. In my aforementioned example, the UCI had to intervene into and mandate the use of helmets for the collective good, because individual cyclists within the collective body known as the peloton will not have the motivation to do so otherwise (Frank uses NHL hockey helmet rules as his type specimen but the principle problem is the same). From governing bodies in sports, Frank extrapolates to government agencies in society, arguing that in order to correct for market inefficiencies and moral failures we need more government regulations and taxes.

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Frank’s term for this collective action problem is the “Darwin Economy,” which he derives from his understanding of Darwinism and the mechanism of natural selection. The ornate and ostentatious tail of the peacock troubled Darwin for a spell because natural selection holds that animals should evolve characteristics that protect them from predation. The peacock’s radiantly colorful tail is not exactly a model of stealthy camouflage. “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it,” Darwin bemoaned in an 1860 letter to his colleague Asa Grey, “makes me sick.”1 Darwin resolved the paradox a decade later through his theory of sexual selection, presented in his two-volume work The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he demonstrated how females select males based on certain characteristics they find attractive, and males compete with other males for status, hierarchy, and females.2 In Frank’s view, what is good for the individual peacock in attracting peahens by building a flamboyant tail is bad for the species in making everyone a greater target for predation; as well, building ever fancier tails is a waste of resources. If the peacocks could form a governing organization to establish and enforce rules to delimit tail design the species would be better off. In like manner, Frank continues by example, the Brobdingnagian rack of antlers on the North American bull elk may intimidate other males competing for status and mates, but it endangers the species by decreasing efficiency of escape from wolves and other predators through thickly branched forests in which said rack would become entangled. This principle of individual success versus collective failure is so important to Frank that he goes so far as to predict that his fellow economists will, in time, come to see Charles Darwin as the most important economist in history.

The human analogue of tails and antlers for Frank are McMansion homes, expensive business suits, high-heel shoes, and extravagant coming of age parties. Much of his thinking here is derived from research conducted by behavioral economists, who report that relative position on the economic ladder—“positional rank”—matters more than absolute value to most people. Once you have a roof over your head and three square meals a day, it doesn’t matter how much more money you make above basic needs as long as it is equal to or exceeds that of your neighbors. As H. L. Mencken quipped, “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.” Remarkably, research shows that given the choice between, say, a $500,000 home in a neighborhood of million-dollar mansions and a $400,000 home on a street surrounded by $300,000 dwellings, most people opt for the latter.3 They are apparently willing to pay $100,000 for the opportunity to be relatively richer even while being absolutely poorer. Economists call this the hedonic treadmill. Run as fast as you like, you’ll never get there because there is no there there, without a relative context that gives you a positional rank among your fellow consumers.4

In like manner, men competing for limited high-paying jobs will enter an arms-race with their competitors for ever nicer and more expensive suits. If everyone wore a $500 suit to the interview the playing field would be level, but when someone ups the ante and arrives in a $1000 suit, the rest of the field has to…well…follow suit. All are poorer because of it. Ever increasing height in the heels of women’s shoes is another example of a fashion arms race in which everyone would be better off in flats. Once a few start to inch up their heels, the fashion trend takes off forcing those who would not otherwise do so engage in an Achilles-tightening arms race. Coming-of-age parties suffer the same positional rank fate. When the mega rich produce a festival fit for a king for their 16-year old queen, the next economic tier down must up the catering bill to satisfy teenage wants that have been artificially adjusted upward. Money that should be spent on, say, food, clothes, health care, future college tuition, or mortgage payments, is being wasted on frivolous ceremonial one-upsmanship.

The hidden costs of market failures and moral hazards

Moving from examples to analysis, Frank employs a technical model developed by the economist Ronald Coase that shows precisely how economists can take into account such transaction costs in order to better understand macroeconomic phenomena and correct for market failures. Here Frank claims that the transaction costs of keeping up with the Joneses is not presently included in the price of homes, suits, shoes, and parties in terms of the real benefit to the owners, so this is an example of a market failure (and, he opines, a moral hazard) that he suggests can be remedied through a progressive consumption tax wherein these newfound liabilities would not only adjust the transaction costs to account for the hedonic treadmill while simultaneously curtailing needless consumptive behavior, it would also generate additional tax revenues from the rich that could be used to shore up our crumbling Social Security and Medicare accounts.

Once you concede the point that markets fail to correct for transaction costs and that individuals must be coerced to act in ways that benefit both themselves and the collective because they would have no economic incentive to do so otherwise, it’s Katie bar the door for adding rules and regulations, taxes and incentives right and left, and while we’re at it correct for the hedonic treadmill and the positional rank problems with some serious income redistribution from those who have it to those who don’t. So-called “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco are just a start. Frank would like to tax sugared soft drinks under the rubric that obesity leads directly to diabetes and heart disease and premature deaths from other causes as well. Although economists counter that such early deaths may save us money down the road had these folks lived long enough to incur massive end-of-life health care costs (in a straightforward amoral cost-benefit analysis), the sugared soft-drink consumers will be thankful in the long run that taxing their favorite sodas led them to consume less of the harmful substances. Frank admits that this could lead us down a slippery slope of taxing fried foods, ice cream, and candy, not to mention bad television sit-coms that rot the brain. “But,” he concludes, “we’re forced to go part way down slippery slopes all the time. It’s a concern we can set to one side until we have traveled further down this particular slope. Consuming large quantities of soda laced with high-fructose corn syrup clearly causes substantial harm. And as long as we’re continuing to tax saving, job creation, and other beneficial activities, the case for replacing such taxes with taxes on harmful activities is compelling.”5

Either way, we’re paying taxes

Libertarians and other critics of big government might counter that if, say, you don’t want to wear a helmet or pay taxes, you can go somewhere else. But where are you going to go? Just as there is only one National Hockey League and only one Union Cycliste International in which professional hockey players and cyclists can compete, so too are there no tax-free countries. As Frank notes: “Without mandatory taxation, there could be no government. With no government, there would be no army, and without an army, your country would eventually be invaded by some other country that has an army. And when the dust settled, you’d be paying mandatory taxes to that country’s government.”6 Either way, we’re paying taxes, so we might as well concede the point and get on with the business of determining with the best analytics available where, when and how much we should be taxing ourselves to solve these assorted market shortcomings.

Robert Frank is a gifted economist and a skilled rhetorician whose regular commentaries in the New York Times, coupled to his blogs, podcasts, radio and television interviews, and popular books, make him a formidable and influential public intellectual who well represents those who tend to favor top-down government solutions to social problems. Frank’s ideas therefore deserve thoughtful consideration and response, which I shall endeavor to do here from the perspective of someone who has also written extensively on evolutionary economics—what I called evonomics—in my book The Mind of the Market.7 I too start with Darwin, but with a very different outcome from Frank’s analysis.

Economics: the connection between Adam Smith and Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was not an economist and never penned a single statement or treatise on economics, so it is difficult to imagine how or why a century from now, in Frank’s words, “if a roster of professional economists is asked to identify the intellectual father of their discipline, a majority will name Charles Darwin.”8 Not likely. There is a connection between Darwin and economics, but it isn’t in the way Frank thinks it is.9 In October of 1825, Darwin matriculated at Edinburgh University where, as a matter of general course curricula, he studied the works of the great Enlightenment thinkers, including David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith. A decade later, upon his return home from the five-year voyage around the world on HMS Beagle, Darwin revisited these works, reconsidering their implications in light of the new theory he was developing.10 Although Darwin does not reference Smith directly, Darwin scholars are largely in agreement that he modeled his theory of natural selection after Smith’s theory of the invisible hand.11 Compare, by example, these two descriptions from Smith and Darwin:

Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. … He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Book IV, Chapter II

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensiblyworking, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.

—Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859, p. 84

These descriptors—invisible hand and natural selection—are so powerful, and so deeply annealed into our thought and culture, that it is difficult not to think of them as forces of nature, such as gravity and electromagnetism, or as mechanical systems, such as gears and pulleys. But they are not forces or mechanisms, because there is nothing acting on the agents in the system in such a causal manner. Instead, Smith’s invisible hand and Darwin’s natural selection are descriptions of processes that naturally occur in the economies of nature and society. The causal mechanisms behind the invisible hand and natural selection lie elsewhere in the system—within the agents themselves—which is why Smith invested so much work on understanding the natural sympathies of people, and Darwin advanced so much effort toward comprehending the natural tendencies of organisms.

If there is a connection between evolution and economics—between Charles Darwin and Adam Smith—it is this: Life is intricate, complex, and looks designed, so our folk biology intuition leads us to infer that there must be an intelligent designer, a God. Analogously, economies are intricate, complex, and look designed, so our folk economic intuition is to infer that we need an intelligent designer, a Government. But as Smith and Darwin demonstrated, life and economies are not intelligently designed from the top down; they spontaneously arise out of simpler systems from the bottom up. Natural selection and the invisible hand explain precisely how individual organisms and people, pursuing their own self-interest in their struggle to survive and make a living, generate the emergent property of complex ecologies and economies. Charles Darwin and Adam Smith each in their unique way trying to solve a specific problem, independently stumbled across an elegant solution to what turns out to be a larger and overarching phenomenon of the emergence of complexity out of simplicity. Apparent design from the bottom up does not imply the necessity of intentional design from the top down.

Corporations as species

If there is a specific analogy to make between evolution and economics beyond a description of bottom-up self-organized emergence, it is that species are analogous to companies and corporations, not to societies and nations. In evolution, extinction is the rule, survival the exception. Most species go extinct because they fail to adapt to changing environments, and in their stead arise new species that are better adapted…for the time being anyway. The economist Joseph Schumpeter’s descriptor for this process in an economy was “creative destruction.”12 The term has been adopted by modern economists to describe the natural evolution of firms, companies, corporations, and even entire industries that go extinct and/or are replaced with new ventures better adopted to the ever-changing needs and wants of consumers.13

The meteor impact 65-million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs opened up new niches to be filled by fledging mammals living in the nooks and crannies on the margins of ecosystems. A good case can be made that were it not for the demise of the dinosaurs we would not be here.14 That’s life. Ditto dinosaur corporations. In 1917 Bertie Forbes published his list of the top 100 U.S. corporations. By 1987, 61 of them were gone, and of the remaining 39, 21 were no longer in the top 100 and 18 underperformed the average growth in stock market value. The only company to both survive and outperform the market was General Electric. Similarly, of the 500 companies that made up the Standard & Poor’s original list in 1957, only 74 survived through 1997, at which point they had all underperformed the S&P 500 index by an average of 20%.15 In both natural ecosystems and economies, extinction is part of evolution. Think Kodak.

Kodak once so dominated the film and camera industry—at one point enjoying a 96% market share—that government bureaucrats were wringing their interventionistic hands in panic that such a monopoly could bring about market inefficiencies, or worse, Americans would get so hooked on capturing their “Kodak moments” that the film giant would force addicted consumers to pay artificially jacked-up prices. In response, the feds sued Kodak twice for antitrust violations in 1921 and 1954, opening the door for Fuji film to jump into the market. The result? Kodak and Fuji became a duopoly, and like most gargantuan organizations both grew sclerotic and failed to keep up with the digital revolution that, in the case of Kodak, saw their stock price collapse from $60 a share in 2000 to less than .50 cents a share at the time of this writing shortly after the story broke that the fearful giant was preparing to declare bankruptcy.16

Apple and Google are hot today, but who knows what a couple of grad students are dreaming up in their dorm rooms this year that in the near future will reconfigure the economic landscape? These giants—which the antitrust regulators are fretting about today—will almost assuredly turn into GM-like lumbering sloths unable to respond in time to the next shift in the economic ecology, and they too could go the way of Neanderthals. The Darwinian focus for economists should not be on societies and nations but on companies and corporations, and at this level of analysis top-down interventions are neither justified by the evolutionary analogy nor necessary for the long-term prospects of either societies or nations.

Peacocks and bull elk are doing just fine, thank you

In evolutionary theory, “good” and “bad” for a species is measured by “reproductive success.” The bottom line for organisms is getting their genes into the next generation. To that end entertain this thought experiment: If you were a gene what would you do to survive? First you create a means of reproduction, then you build a vehicle to house your self-replication machinery. You start with chromosomes as a template to hold your self-replicating molecules, then add a surrounding nucleus with a semi-permeable membrane for moving liquid nutrients in and out of the cell, then build yourself a multi-cellular vehicle with eyes for seeing and ears for hearing and legs for propulsion. You can greatly increase your reproductive success by reproducing sexually instead of asexually because this generates greater genetic diversity to adopt to ever-changing environments. You will also want to develop various mechanisms to avoid or prevent other vehicles that want to devour your vehicle, such as claws and teeth and wings and camouflage. You might also want to grow something on your body that will intimidate other members of your sex and to attract members of the opposite sex that is a proxy for your good genes, such as elaborate and colorful tail feathers if you are a peacock or a huge rack of antlers if you are a bull elk.

In such a thought experiment we can see that there are constant conflicts and trade offs in evolution. Heavy armor plating may be good for defending against claws but slows you up for escaping fast predators. Colorful feathers may grant you higher status and attract females, but predators will see you hiding in the bushes. Antlers may ward off challenging males and appeal to females, but you might win a Darwin Award for allowing yourself to be taken out of the gene pool by a predator. The value of such features to the species depends entirely on its overall reproductive success. If effervescent tail feathers leads to more matings with their resultant offspring than they lead to individuals being consumed by predators, then the overall reproductive success for peacocks and peahens is increased and we can say that the peacock’s tail is “good” for the species. Darwin explained such effects with his theory of sexual selection, of which there are at least two forms: (1) female selection of males based on characteristics that are proxies for good genes, (2) male v. male competition for females, status and hierarchy, and dominance. These sexual selection factors can increase the reproductive success of a species far more than natural selection through predation can decrease the reproductive success of the species. In fact, both types of selection go on simultaneously and so each case must be examined in detail to determine whether or not a feature is good or bad for a species.

This interaction of natural and sexual selection is further complicated by a mechanism described by the Israeli evolutionary biologists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi as Costly Signaling Theory (CST).17 Broadly speaking, in a CST model, people do things not just to help those related to them genetically (kin selection), and not just to help those who will return the favor (reciprocal altruism), but sometimes to send a signal that says, in essence, “my altruistic and charitable acts demonstrate that I am so successful that I can afford to make such sacrifices for others.” That is, altruistic acts are a form of information that carries a signal to others of trust and status—trust that I can be counted on to help others when they need it so that I can expect others to do the same for me; and status that I have the health, intelligence, and resources to afford to be so kind and generous. In the specific context here, CST allows us to see that a large rack of antlers or radiantly colorful tail signals to other members of the group that your genes are so good that you can afford the risk that such features may bring as a result of predation.

As the UCLA evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond explained it to me in an email discussing Frank’s thesis, “animal signals have to demonstrate the validity of their intended message if they are to be believed. For example, if a male moose evolved to try to signal its superior genes to a female merely by growing a small tuft of red hair on top of the head, any scrawny lousy moose could afford to grow such a tuft, and the tuft would not be a reliable signal of individual quality. When a female sees a bull moose that is lugging around a huge set of antlers and has still survived despite that handicap, then the female can be sure that that really is a superior individual bull moose. More generally, the animal signals involved in sexual displays often or usually carry some disadvantage for natural selection, offset by an advantage for sexual selection. Thus, one can’t say that the peacock’s tail and moose’s antlers are bad for the species.”18

In point of fact, both peacocks and bull elk are doing just fine as species, contrary to what Frank suggests in his claim that such features are inefficient and therefore not good in the long run. In any case, whether or not something is good or bad for peacocks and bull elk has nothing whatsoever to do with what is good or bad for other species, including humans, especially the political economy of humans. As Diamond summarized the problem, “In addition, analogy is dangerous guidance: regardless of whether the peacock’s tail is good or bad for the peacock species, the merits of government regulation have to be assessed without reference to peacocks.”19

I would go even further. Taking Frank’s analogy seriously, not only are such features as the human equivalence of peacocks’ tails and bull elk antlers not a detriment to our species, sexual selection may very well account for most of characteristics that we so admire about our species: art, music, humor, literature, poetry, fashion, dance and, more generally, creativity and intelligence. Science itself may be a byproduct of the cognitive process of trying to impress others in order to gain status and mates by making breakthrough discoveries and formulating important new theories. The University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller makes a strong case for just such selective effects in his book The Mating Mind.20 Sexual selection, he argues, has driven organisms from Bowerbirds to brainy bohemians to engage in the creative production of magnificent works in order to attract mates—from big blue Bowerbird nests to big-brained orchestral music, epic poems, stirring literature and even scientific discoveries. Those organisms that do so most effectively leave behind more offspring and thus pass on their creative genes into future generations.

Thus, contrary to what Frank argues, a viable case can be made that the evolutionary arms races he so detests—men’s suits, women’s high heels, McMansion homes, and elaborate coming of age parties—are products of a larger system that drives our species to be so successful. By carrying out the biological analogy into political economy, if anything we should be rewarding the most ostentatious displays of power, prestige, wealth, creativity, health, vigor and intelligence with tax breaks and even subsidies! At the very least one could argue that a consumption tax on the rich could very well backfire and reduce the reproductive success of our species by attenuating the creative productivity that has given us so much of our culture that we cherish.

It may sound crude and unromantic to reduce the arts and sciences to little more than the product of organisms trying to impress others in order to gain status, resources and mates, but as the late Christopher Hitchens once advised me after we imbibed several doses of what he was fond of calling “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative,” once you’ve mastered the pen and the podium you need never dine or sleep alone.

Positional ranking, relative happiness, and individual liberty

One of Frank’s justifications for taxing the rich involves the matter of positional ranking and relative happiness. If research shows that the existence of wealthy neighbors puts me on a hedonic treadmill that I can never satisfy, legislated policy is therefore justified in forcing my neighbors to redistribute some of their wealth to me and others less fortunate. This, Frank argues, will not only adjust the positional ranking problem, it will help shore up the leaking budgets of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid (which, with the defense budget, constitutes two-thirds of the overall budget). The problem with this argument is threefold:

Taxing away the debt crisis. If, say, we followed Warren Buffett’s proposal for taxing the “super rich” who make between $1 million and $10 million a year at an effective rate of 50%, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation using figures from the IRS, this would reduce the national debt by a grand total of 1%. What about the “mega rich,” those making more than $10 million a year? If we taxed them at 100%—that is, we confiscated every last dollar made by every person in the country at this level, the national debt would be reduced by only 2%. Taxing the rich will not solve our debt crisis.21

Taxing away unhappiness. In what way, exactly, will redistributing money from the rich to the poor increase the latter’s happiness or decrease their unhappiness? In fact, research shows that economic self-reliance makes people happier than economic dependency, and studies show that people are happier, healthier, and more generous when they voluntarily donate their money to causes they deem worthy, instead of having their money confiscated from them and given to causes that they may not have otherwise chosen to support. Evidence for this claim can be found in two sets of data: A. studies on international happiness and freedom, B. studies on national charitable giving.

International happiness and freedom. Research on happiness and freedom internationally reveals that an increase in personal autonomy and self-control leads to greater happiness, and that people tend to be happier in societies with greater levels of individual autonomy and freedom compared to those in more totalitarian and collectivist regimes. The Erasmus University, Rotterdam social scientist Ruut Veenhoven, for example, conducted a comprehensive survey on happiness as a function of three social conditions: individualism, opportunity to choose, capability to choose. “The data show a clear positive relationship,” Veenhoven concludes, “the more individualized the nation, the more citizens enjoy their life.” Further, he found no “pattern of diminishing returns,” meaning that “individualization has not yet passed its optimum.”22 In other words, greater levels of individual freedom and autonomy could lead to even greater levels of happiness, and this could very well counter the alleged decline of happiness due to one’s lower positional rank.

National Charitable Giving. Research on the difference between forced and volunteer giving reveals a counterintuitive finding on the differences between the political left and right. According to the Syracuse University professor of public administration Arthur C. Brooks, when it comes to charitable giving and volunteering, numerous quantitative measures debunk the myth of “bleeding heart liberals” and “heartless conservatives.” The opposite, in fact, appears to be true. Conservatives donate 30% more money than liberals (even when controlled for income), give more blood and log more volunteer hours. And it isn’t because conservatives have more expendable income that they are more generous. The working poor give a substantially higher percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group, and three times more than those on public assistance of comparable income. In other words, poverty is not a barrier to charity, but welfare is. One explanation for these findings is that people who are skeptical of big government give more than those who believe that the government should take care of the poor. “For many people,” Brooks explains, “the desire to donate other people’s money displaces the act of giving one’s own.” In this sense, liberals feel that they already donated to the poor through their taxes, whereas conservatives believe that it is their duty, not the government’s, to assist those in need. The effects on happiness are measurable in terms of societal health: charitable givers are 43% more likely to say they are “very happy” than nongivers, and 25% more likely than nongivers to say their health is “excellent” or “very good.”23

Positional ranking exists throughout life. The George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux made an important observation about positional rank and relative happiness in responding to a New Yorker article in which the financial analyst John Cassidy argued for income redistribution because of the hypothesis that people’s health is harmed by relative (instead of absolute) positional rank. In a nature analogue Cassidy claimed that “dominant rhesus monkeys have lower rates of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) than monkeys further down the social hierarchy.” Boudreaux showed how, in fact, income redistribution could have the opposite effect: “Because status among humans is determined not only by income but also by traits such as political power, athletic prowess, military heroics, intellectual success, and good looks, equalizing incomes will intensify the importance of these non-pecuniary traits as sources of status. And there’s no reason why persons with low status in these non-pecuniary categories will not suffer all the stress and envy now allegedly suffered by people with low incomes.”24

In the end, then, following Frank’s line of reasoning, the government should give tax breaks to conservatives, the wealthy, and the working poor in order to reward their pro-social behavior and encourage more giving, and the government should stimulate income inequality in order to attenuate status seeking in other non-pecuniary traits. All liberals in favor of such policies please raise your hands.

Other hidden costs: what is seen and what is not seen in government actions

Even if evolutionary psychologists are wrong in this analysis of sexual selection and CST, and it was determined that ostentatious displays of wealth, power, prestige, and creativity should be penalized through a consumption tax because of Frank’s analysis using Coase’s transaction models that reveal the hidden transaction costs of positional ranking and subsequent arms races, there are transaction costs of implementing such a tax. In fact, once you concede the point that at least some government services are necessary and must be paid for by taxes, then to the short list of services such as military, police, courts, and tax collectors, one can bolt on any number of additional services justified under the collective action problem rubric: fire departments, roads and bridges, schools, libraries, national parks and forests, postal service, social security, welfare, Medicare and Medicaid, foreign aid, and countless others embodied in the alphabet soup that this slippery slope line of reasoning has given us. Herewith are just a handful, and these only a select few from the letter A: Administration for Children and Families, Administration for Native Americans, Administration on Aging, Administration on Developmental Disabilities, Agricultural Marketing Service, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Bureau, American Battle Monuments Commission, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, Archives and Records Administration, Armed Forces Retirement Home, Arms Control and International Security, Army Corps of Engineers, Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Interagency Coordinating Committee. Imagine how long this list grows when you start tossing in all the “Bureaus” “Committees” “Councils” and “Departments” in working your way through the alphabet.25

The not-so hidden costs include the fact that each of these government agencies must be located in an office rented or leased, running up monthly utility bills and staffed by people who must be paid, provided health benefits, retirement programs, and the like. As well, once such agencies are established they are almost impossible to terminate, not to mention that they are also subject to the usual bureaucratic inefficiencies, political favoritism, and corruption and graft that is part and parcel of what we have come to expect from the public sector. A day doesn’t go by that we do not read of politicians and government bureaucrats busted for something they should not have been doing with tax-payers’ money.

And these are not even the hidden costs to which I refer in my subhead. The French economist Frédéric Bastiat demonstrated the difference between what is seen and what is not seen when governments intervene in the marketplace. A public-works project, such as the infamous Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” is seen by all, gloried by its producers, and appreciated by its few users. What is not seen, however, are all the products that would have been produced or the services provided by the monies that were taxed out of private hands in order to finance the public project. It is not just that individual liberties are violated whenever governments interfere with freedom of choice in the economic realm, but that, in fact, the net result is a loss not just for the individuals directly affected by the confiscation of their monies, but for the nation as a whole for which the government action was originally intended. “There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one,” Bastiat explained, “the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must beforeseen.”26 What is not seen when tax programs are implemented is what that money would have been used for in the private sector.

Fatal conceit redux

Robert Frank strikes me as an intelligent and thoughtful man who genuinely wants to employ science and reason to improve the design of society for the betterment of all. His arguments are carefully crafted and artfully presented to make the case that since we’re in the business of designing society from top down anyway we might as well go whole hog and do it right. It is this that worries me—the conceit that interventionists of all stripes hold that if a little interventionism is good then a lot must be great. Granted, we need a military to protect us from foreign invaders, but do we really need a defense budget that currently accounts for 43% of all military spending in the entire world, more than the next 14 largest defense budgets combined? Yes, we need some social services, but a century ago Americans somehow survived and thrived with a government that consumed only 8% of our GDP; today it is over 40% and climbing. Currently we spend $204 billion or 1.4% of GDP servicing the debt. The Congressional Budget Office is now projecting that in the next 70 years that figure will climb to $27.2 trillion, or a whopping 41.4% of GDP. What will happen when servicing the debt exceeds 50% of GDP? Agreed, we need some regulatory agencies, but according to the Small Business Administration we are presently spending $1.75 trillion annually on regulations, which is almost double the amount collected on all individual income taxes in 2010.27 Looking at the global picture, in 2011 government spending rose on average to 35.2% of world GDP, up from 33.5% in 2010. What will happen when that figure reaches half, when half the world is completely financed through taxes paid by the other half?

This is the consequence of the fatal conceit that we can design a society from the top down. “The curious task of economics,” observed the Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Hayek understood (more than most economists) that Darwinian evolution is a self-organized bottom-up process of design without a designer. “To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.” Hayek called this the “extended order,” the result not of planning and design but of a system that “constitutes an information gathering process, able to call up, and put to use, widely dispersed information that no central planning agency, let alone any individual, could know as a whole, possess or control.”28 The fatal conceit of socialist planners was tested experimentally over the course of the twentieth century and it failed in every case. Presciently, Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit was published in 1988, just before the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, so this was an experimentally verified prediction.

Robert Frank is not a socialist and yet the design conceit is there nonetheless. Even when gussied up in economic jargon with Darwinian overtones, hints of the totalitarian mind from millennia past creep into our thoughts and reach for the controls. Somebody should do something. Take command. Control our actions. Direct our thoughts. Dial our desires. The clan elder, the tribal leader, the chiefdom big man, the state king, the central planner, the apparatchik, the lord savior, the infallible pope, the chief rabbi, the dear leader. Someone somewhere somehow will save us by telling us what to do and how to live. The impulse is a deep one that harkens back to our Paleolithic ancestry. It’s counterintuitive to think bottom up instead of top down. It is why so many people struggle to truly grasp the deep meaning of evolutionary theory, and it is why so many people fail to see that economic order is the product not of human design but of human action.

2016 March 28

  1. Darwin, C. (1860). Letter to Asa Gray. Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge, Letter 2742.
  2. Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.
  3. Solnick, S., & Hemenway, D. (1998). Is More Always Better? A Survey on Positional Concerns. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 37, 373–383.
  4. Carlsson, F., Johansson-Stenman, O., & Martinsson, P. (2007). Do you enjoy having more than others? Survey evidence of positional goods. Economica (Online Early Articles).
  5. Frank, R. (2011). The Darwin Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 193.
  6. Ibid., p. 6.
  7. Shermer, M. (2008). The Mind of the Market: How Biology and Psychology Shape Our Economic Lives. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.
  8. Frank, R. (2011). The Darwin Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 16.
  9. I outline some of these connections and illuminate why conservative should embrace the Darwinian view of human nature as parallel to their own in Shermer, M. (2006). Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.
  10. Browne, J. (2000). Voyaging: Charles Darwin. A biography. New York: Knopf. pp. 36, 366.
  11. Carey, T. V. (1998). The Invisible Hand of Natural Selection, and Vice Versa. Biology & Philosophy, 13(3), 427–442. Ghiselin, M. T. (1974). The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Gould, S. J. (1980). Darwin’s Middle Road. In The Panda’s Thumb. New York: W. W. Norton. Gould, S. J. (1993). Darwin and Paley Meet the Invisible Hand. In Eight Little Piggies. New York: W.W. Norton. Khalil, E. L. (1997). Evolutionary Biology and Evolutionary Economics. Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics, 8(4), 221–244. Schweber, S. S. (1980). Darwin and the political economists: Divergence of character. Journal of the History of Biology, 13, 195–289. Ahmad, S. (1990). Adam Smith’s four invisible hands. History of Political Economy, 22(Spring, 1), 137–144. Walsh, D. (2001). Darwin Fallen Among Political Economists. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 145(4), 415–437.
  12. Schumpeter, J. (1942). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Routledge.
  13. Reinert, H., & Reinert, E. S. (2006). Creative Destruction in Economics: Nietzsche, Sombart, Schumpeter. In J. G. Backhaus & W. Drechsler (Eds.), Friedrich Nietzsche: Economy and Society. New York: Springer.
  14. Gould, S. J. (1988). Wonderful life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 318.
  15. Foster, R., & Kaplan, S. (2001). Creative Destruction: Why Companies That are Built to Last Underperform the Market—and How to Successfully Transform Them. New York: Crown Business.
  16. Gillespie, N., & Welch, M. (2011). Death of the Duopoly. Wall Street Journal, June 18.
  17. Zahavi, A., & Zahavi, A. (1997). The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’S Puzzle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  18. Personal correspondence by email, December 21, 2011.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Miller, G. (2001). The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Random House.
  22. Veenhoven, R. (1999). Quality-of-Life in Individualistic Society.Social Indicators Research, 48, 157–186. Veenhoven, R. (2000). The Four Qualities of Life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1, 1–39.
  23. Brooks, A. (2006). Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. New York: Basic Books.
  25. An A–Z list of government departments and agencies can be found online at:
  26. Bastiat, F. (1995). What is Seen and What is Not Seen. In G. B. de Huszar (Ed.), Selected Essays on Political Economy. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education. pp 1–2.
  27. Mackey, J. (2011). To Increase Jobs, Increase Economic Freedom. Wall Street Journal, November 16, p. A17.
  28. Hayek, F. (1988). The Fatal Conceipt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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  • Fouad Khan

    Complexity evolves out of a shifting balance between two ends of a dichotomy… when two opposing forces are continually struggling to balance each other out. A uni-directional system (all bottom-up and no top-down), such as the mis-characterization of evolution described here can never give rise to complexity.

  • Derryl Hermanutz

    Complex economies did not emerge “accidentally” as the natural product of bottom-up processes. Complex economies began with civilization, and civilization has always been organized by “government”. Some person or group comes up with the idea of “organizing” individual effort into group effort; into “corporate” effort. The corporate leaders who manage the organization of the individuals are “the government”.

    Some people are put to work tilling the soil. People with skills are put to work in the society’s nascent industries: smelting and metalcraft, pottery, etc. The producers of food and pottery and buildings do not “own” what they produce, and trade their surplus production among each other. The corporate body collectively owns it, and “the government” distributes the fruits of industry as it sees fit. Governors live in palaces. Producers live in hovels.

    In the Roman era labor was performed by slaves who were captured by military conquest and owned by citizens. Skilled builders, artisans and craftspeople — then as now — enjoyed semi-independent lives producing works for their wealthy patrons.

    Today the patrons are corporations who hire talent, but the talent still doesn’t own the fruits of its productive efforts. The corporation owns it. The talent was given blocks of shares in the newly created corporation, before the IPO that sold shares to “the public”.

    Small business entrepreneurs — and their coworkers-employees — can still make a good “semi-independent” living exploiting niches that are not amenable to corporate organization and monopolization. Small scale business cannot produce its own metals and other hitech fruits of corporate industry, nor the energy and communications and other necessary infrastructure it needs in order to succeed. But within the corporate civilization, small businesspeople can exercise their libertarian ideals of do-it-yourself rugged individualism.

    Owner-operators of small businesses invest their own time and money, and own the fruits of their productive efforts, which they directly sell to the people who buy their products and/or hire the small business contractors. Corporate workers are all “employees” of the corporation: the corporation owns everything the employees produce, and pays the employees salaries, bonuses and wages for their individual contribution to the corporate effort. Government workers are all employees of the government. Only owner-operator entrepreneurs actually “own” what they produce. Productive small businesses work in what Adam Smith would call a “free market”, where the individual who produces stuff directly sells their stuff to consumers.

    Except Smith imagined a barter economy where products were traded for products, rather than bought and sold for money. Smith did not understand money and a buy-sell money economy, and mainstream economics still models a barter economy. In a buy-sell economy, money is the ENTIRE demand side of every buy-sell, demand-supply economic transaction. And critically, the economy does not “produce” the money. Today we use bank credit as money, which is created by banks and which is owed as debt by borrowers/spenders. When earners/savers end up “owning” all the credits, and borrowers/spenders end up “owing” all that credit-money as their debts, the commercial bank credit/debt money system fails and we get “financial crisis”, like the 1930s and today.

    Nor did Smith describe a “productive” economy. He described a “trading” economy, where people spend their days truck, barter and trading with each other rather than “working” at producing something to trade.

    In his opus, Adam Smith was not “describing” a real-world free market economy inhabited by independent entrepreneurial tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers. He was “imagining” a better alternative to the actual political economy of 1776 Britain, which was state-corporate mercantilism as practiced by Royal Navy-supported transnational merchant corporations like the British East India Company. In his section, Conclusion of the Mercantile System, Smith observes that successful corporate lobbying produces government policies that favor import-export corporations at the direct expense of the domestic producers who perform the essential function of paying out the national earned income as their costs of production.

    65 years later in 1841, Friedrich List published his National System of Political Economy, which described the world as it is rather than the ideal free market that Smith imagined and that “the popular school” of economics had adopted as “reality”. List observed that every nation that has developed its economy, has done so by explicit state support of its nascent industries.

    Less than 40 years after List published his System, Canada’s first government applied it in John A MacDonald’s “National Policies”, designed to build up Central Canadian financial, manufacturing and commercial industries at the direct expense of resource producers, Prairie farmers, and American industrialists who “could have” sold machinery and equipment at lower prices to Cdn farmers and resource producers, were it not for the high tariffs on these imports.

    Applying evolutionary theory to economic development assumes self-organizing complex free market economies “exist”. That is antihistorical, counterfactual, not true of the real world. Complex economies have always been deliberately built by human organizers acting as “governments”. Whether the government calls itself a Board and Executive of a private corporation with $400 billion in annual revenues to allocate; or whether the government calls itself a President and Cabinet with a $400 billion annual budget to allocate; does not alter the reality that these small groups of men are “managing” and “organizing” the collective efforts of millions of other people.

    Small free market entrepreneurs manage “their own lives and their own money”. Political governments and corporate managers manage “other people’s lives and money”. Management that organizes the efforts of individuals within a corporate body is “government”; or “governance”.

    Once we stop pretending we live in a self-organizing free market economy, we see the choice is not between being “governed” and being “free”. It is between having your life organized by private corporations, or by political governments; or by both, acting in competition and collusion with each other.

    • iLLivaniLLi

      “When earners/savers end up “owning” all the credits, and borrowers/spenders end up “owing” all that credit-money as their debts, the commercial bank credit/debt money system fails and we get “financial crisis”, like the 1930s and today.”

      In Fiat economies, issuance of debt creates more money so it is impossible for anyone to hoard all of the credit as long as someone is willing to take on debt. However, what you say was true for the Great Depression only because they intentionally over-lent in a currency that was not completely Fiat as it was still backed by Gold.

      • Derryl Hermanutz

        Yes, as long as total credit/debt increases “forever”, it is impossible to hoard all the credit. But debt runups end, and people sell assets and use income to pay down debt, rather than borrow new credit to buy assets and spend income consuming. When total credit/debt is increasing, there is plenty of spending and money earning and saving and “economic prosperity”. When credit/debt growth flattens, we get no growth or recession. When total credit/debt declines as people pay down old credit/debt rather than spend new credit/debt, we get depression.

        Steve Keen is foremost in building a new macroeconomics that correlates changes in total credit/debt with changes in the direction of GDP growth. Orthodox economics treats banks as financial intermediaries who get money from depositors and lend it to investors. The models assume the money “just exists”, without identifying where the money comes from in the first place. Which is why orthodox economics was blind to the catastrophic runup in mortgage debt and real estate price inflation that preceded the 2008 and ongoing debt-deflation crash.

        • Orthodox economist were not blind to the “catastrophic run up in mortgage debt, Pres. Bush tried to cut back on what was going on ….. But the Democrats did not want to let Fannie May and the Big Banks Cut back on loaning money to the very poor.

    • Swami

      “Complex economies did not emerge “accidentally” as the natural product of bottom-up processes. Complex economies began with civilization, and civilization has always been organized by “government”. Some person or group comes up with the idea of “organizing” individual effort into group effort; into “corporate” effort. The corporate leaders who manage the organization of the individuals are “the government”. Some people are put to work tilling the soil. People with skills are put to work in the society’s nascent industries: smelting and metalcraft, pottery, etc. The producers of food and pottery and buildings do not “own” what they produce, and trade their surplus production among each other. The corporate body collectively owns it, and “the government” distributes the fruits of industry as it sees fit. Governors live in palaces. Producers live in hovels.
      In the Roman era labor was performed by slaves who were captured by military conquest and owned by citizens. Skilled builders, artisans and craftspeople — then as now — enjoyed semi-independent lives producing works for their wealthy patrons. Today the patrons are corporations who hire talent, but the talent still doesn’t own the fruits of its productive efforts. The corporation owns it. The talent was given blocks of shares in the newly created corporation, before the IPO that sold shares to “the public”.”

      It is simply not true that commands-to-till-the-soil preceded the tilling. Agriculture, pottery, trading, specialization and so forth emerge from the decentralized activities of coordinated social beings. Indeed I am at a loss to figure out how you assume master planners knew the value of making pottery before the invention of the pot. Were they like omniscient wizards or something? Read a few books on the evolution of technology and culture for God’s sake. I could recommend a half dozen or so. Seriously you come across like a child arguing for the role of the stork in making babies.

      Now, it is true that once people came up with agriculture and tools, and institutions of coordination that:
      1). Predatory elites formed coalitions to exploit the masses and privilege the system in their favor.
      2). States began to compete with each other and the elites of successful states to capture other states and the masses
      3). That the elites created empires where people and their activities were significantly under the direction of the privileged elites and their cronies
      4). These states most certainly DID put slaves and serfs to work, some under central direction, others in a decentralized way (you till the MY earth, I get half)

      The insight in market based economic systems, is that with sufficient levels of freedom of entry, exit, market cooperation (trade, employment, investment, etc) along with property conventions and shared impartial rules and laws and a monetary system, that vast, complex, decentralized networks of cooperation develop. These are characterized by a level of constrained and constructive competition, extensive specialization, economies of scale and so forth. In brief, complex markets are decentralized, distributed problem solving systems for the creation, spread and improvement of human problems of fulfilling our material and service needs. And yes, there is a centralized, top down element along with the predominant decentralized one.

      Market are not the only way to solve problems, they aren’t even the only decentralized system (science is another). In addition, as above, we already know that elite master planning can also organize human activities into complex systems (though not especially effective ones due to several well known problems).

      You are of course correct that corporations are islands of extensive top down direction and hierarchy. However, they are themselves just larger agents in a substantially broader system. These agents are still broadly decentralized and competitive. It isn’t all bottoms up vs all top down. Every society is a blend of both, but the key insight to growing markets is that what emerges out of it is contingent upon the diverse activities of countless competing and cooperating agents — whether people, corporations, non profits, or whatever. And by decentralized, that includes the goals, the path, the products, and so on.

      Yes, markets require rules, and these are conventionally enforced by government, but even the rules themselves evolved via the decentralized process of open access democracy (where parties vie for control by responding to needs of electorate — another decentralized problem solving system, this one for the right to create centralized rules).

      In general, you are inserting a naive, all bottoms up vs all top down dichotomy where it is not appropriate. You are not grasping the paradigm that you attack.

      “Once we stop pretending we live in a self organizing free market economy, we see the choice is not between being “governed” and being “free”. It is between having your life organized by private corporations, or by political governments; or by both, acting in competition and collusion with each other.”

      Well, kind of, but you are again missing the point. Governments are usually monopolies within their domain. Within markets there are countless industries, corporations, non profits, sole proprietorships we can choose from, and we can always go into business for ourselves. Thus one is a coercive entity of imposition with no easy exit option. The other is a system where people choose who they will cooperate with. It is often beneficial to join a hierarchical organization, but the hierarchies compete vigorously with each other for the employee (just as potential and real employees compete with each other for choice jobs). And we are all free to start our own hierarchy and see if others want to join us (if we can make it worth their effort).

      The key difference is competition and exit/entrance options. And this is what markets work so much more like forager societies in terms of cooperativeness and minimal exploitation. Nomadic foragers also have exit options and thus are resistant to exploitation and bullying.

      The increased importance of Market based decentralized, competitive cooperative social organizations was an essential part of what historians and economists refer to as the great enrichment or great divergence where those adopting freer markets began to see quality of life, prosperity, lifespan, freedom, opportunity and literacy steadily increase. I can also refer you to a couple of dozen books which both elaborate upon and explain the process.

    • Complex economies did emerge “accidentally” as a result of Bottom-up processes. Take our lives today, Apple (Steve Jobs) and Microsoft (Bill Gates) were nothing compared to IBM, and IBM was slowly changing the way business operated, but alone came some college drop outs and they went into business for themselves, and they changed the world, perhaps more than any other two people. As did Edison, and Ford …. The list goes on and on. Top Down planing was the English way, which was very powerful based on being a major sea power, and having companies that were “approved” by the state. Within a very short time, a nation of no bodies, became the most powerful nation in the world, based on it’s bottom up economic power.

    • Smith understood the cash society….. He had an understanding of the economic world, even of corporations. People own corporations … And Corporations are not government. As for one’s private live I know a lot of people that have little to do with government, and even less to do with big corporations. I not one of them since I like what I think is a highter Standart of living. In our Free Enterprise system. And take someone like Gates and Jobs, they started their own business and beat the big boys in the process of becoming one of the big boys …. Our system is full of stories of small people who have chosen to make it big. I do not believe in the Democratic goal of organizing/controlling the people …. I think we should try not to promote big government which leads to big business.

  • carmiturchick

    “For the good of the species” is naive group selection which was disproven over fifty years ago. Sexual selection as a driver of the evolution of intelligence is also a fairly weak hypothesis, and in general its applicability to the question of economics seems highly dubious to me.

    This is not simply a question of modeling complexity either. It is a question of finding the correct models, and there are better models.

  • Martijn Hover

    Like many libertarians, Mike’s main gripe with the government seems to be his obligation to pay taxes. He does not like paying taxes. Taxes are paid to the government. And so Mike doesn’t like the government. That is an example of astoundingly simplistic reasoning, for a man who calls himself a skeptic…

    • Is it that he does not like paying taxes, or is it that he does not like the misallocation of funds. Government almost never make the best investments. No one has a vested interest in getting the tax payer money’s worth. True there are some investments that only the government can make …. But most of the time, the government does a poor job. Take OHSA, OHSA cost tax payers money, and they never benifited my workers, they only caused my workers to earn less, on the other hand Worker’s Comp (mandated by law, but not operated by the government) run by private Insurance companies has improved safety in the workplace and help our company become a safer place to work, and in the long run improve the income of both workers and the company.

      • Martijn Hover

        “Government almost never make the best investments.” Unlike the big corporations who move their profits to tax havens while destroying the environment, you mean? Every time you drive your car on a road, you profit from tax payers money, including your own. If there weren’t any taxes or governemt, you’d have to swim across every river, because there would be no bridges. You wouldn’t know how to read or write, because there wouldn’t be any schools.
        Governments are made of people and people make mistakes, that is true.
        But if the governemt wants to regulate industrial emissions, it is not meddling in the business of the Koch brothers, to name a couple of notoriuous libertarians, bit it is trying to work for all of us, including those who don’t have the money to lobby for “deregulation”.
        You live in a democracy. That means you ought to be able to elect a better government. Not if you vote for Republicanbs or Libertarians, though. If Americans are unhappy with their government, that’s because they always vote for the wrong people, i.e. the people who basically want to destroy the government because it’s “bad for business”. The world, especially the “business world”, needs more government, not less. It’s really about time you people woke up to the real world.

        • You should know that the Democratic Party is the party of Big Banks, Big Business, Big Labor Unions, and Big Government …. Walmark is pro Big Government because the new management discovered, that Big Government protected them from competition. ….. By the way, it is Free Enterprise that employ most of the people and give them the ability to do better than their parents. Where Government is big, employment is low, and the Standart of living is less. Unless it is a very small country that does not allow for immigration. Governments on the Right make for happier people, governments on the Left makes for happy rulers.

        • You know “public schools” were not know until the late 1800s. And in our cities it is the public schools that are failing to teach the inner city Poor. While the same students can be educated for less money, and get a better education. In fact the adverage back woods man in the early 1800s could read and write better than most nobles in France before there were public schools in the USA. In fact much of what the government is doing poorly can be done better by non-government groups. Which is not to say there is no need for government, it just our founding fathers had a better understanding of the limits of Big Government. You might want to read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation to learn what government can do best and what other groups can do best. Big Government tend to make the Poor poorer.

  • Duncan Cairncross

    This article smells
    “A Tax rate of 50% = 1% reduction in debt”

    The top 1% earn 23% of the US income share – back in 2011 and its MORE now!

    US Dept = 61% of Income

    So doubling the taxes on the top 1% would reduce debt by about 10% PER YEAR!

    • Would it reduce the debt, or would it reduce employment, tax revenue, and the debt? Kennedy made the case for lower taxes based on increasing tax revenue, and he was correct, lower tax rates led to increase tax collection. FDR had a major tax increase on the wealthy, resulting in a reduction of tax revenue and an increase in unemployment.

      • Duncan Cairncross

        FDR raised taxes at the wrong time – the economy had not fully recovered – ALSO he raised them not to 50% BUT 94% – a horse of an entirely different color
        The point of the Laffer curve is that at some point raising the taxes will reduce income
        And that is almost certainly correct – the issue is how high can you go before that happens?

        It will depend on what the economy is doing BUT the crossover will be a lot closer to 90% than 50%

        Raising from our current top tax levels to 50% is completely different to raising from 90% to 94%

        • Duncan …. When you say 50% are you talking about total taxes paid, on only about Federal Income Taxes? Because the Top Incomers are already paying 50% income taxes (state and Federal) …. You understand the Laffer Curve so where to you think the total city, state, and Federal taxes should be on people? Where do you think it should be on corporations? Also, if you were in the top 1% income earners, and had $!00,000 to invest where would you invest it? A small business or established businesses, or tax exempt investments?

          • Duncan Cairncross

            The top Incomers are already paying 50%?????
            How much was Mitts tax? 15% – and that was in the year that he showed us – he wouldn’t show us the other years

            Tax evasion aside money in the hands of the bottom 10% has much much higher velocity then in the hands of the rich so re-distribution downwards increases the velocity of money
            Form an economic POV – a high tax on the top is a good idea

            As a democracy we have a problem – money is power –
            As Louis D Brandeis famously said

            “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

            So we should tax more as the incomes rise – and as incomes rise higher we should tax even more

            So how about
            Above $1M – 50%
            Above $4M – 75%
            Above $8M – 90%
            Above $16M – 95%
            Above $30M – 98%

            This is above the Laferty curve but the reason is that we are not trying to maximise tax income but to discourage wealth accumulation
            (Like the tobacco tax)

            And we should also have a wealth tax

          • Let’s look at the bottom 10% and see what the velocity of money (paper, gold, silver, shells ….any means of trading) does. If we go to the tribes in the back waters, people are poor, and there is not much difference between the wealthiest, and the poorest. Society does not advance much. As there become the ability to accumulate wealth, and to go beyound basic needs, and to invest in long term project, the Standart of Living of all goes up. Today the Poor in the USA have a higher Standart of Living than the early Kings of England.
            As for wealth concentrated in the hands of a few …. The top 1% in the USA is made up of over 3,000,000 people all with conflicts of interest. Some support the Right, most suport the Left …. What is important is that we not have a special class of nobles …. We need to be free to climb up the economic ladder or to climb down the economic ladder. Bill Gate nor Steven Jobs were the sons of the wealthy. Then there is the top 10% which one can join with a little skill. My Uncle could have been one of the three founder of HEP …. Instead he choose to not join the team that became HP company …. It was his choice to live in the present instead of going after a dream.
            President Kennedy promoted lowering the taxes on the wealthy to increase tax revenue of the Weathy, and to increase jobs, and the strength of the economy.
            The taxing wealth to prevent accumulation is asking the wealth to go overseas. It would only make the Poor poorer. What we should do is repeal all employment taxes on employees and employer, and make it easier for people to earn income, and to become wealthy by their own efforts.

          • Duncan Cairncross

            It’s not the top 1% that is the problem
            It’s the top 0.01%
            And they did NOT make their money – they inherited it
            People like Gates and Musk are the exceptions
            If the rentier class go overseas – who the hell cares!

          • OK, now you are talking about 300,000 people! Most are busy with their business, and there are people like old man Walmart that was Conservative, and now that he died, his Son support the Democrats, becasue he has learned that the Democrats make it differcult for any other small business to grow and complete against them. Now the top 300,000 are not much different than the top 3,000,000 other than they have more wealth. As it turn out the supper wealthy are the new comers, the one that made their money. And then there are those that started out with a lot and ended up making a whole lot more. BUT you should know that the USA the wealthy “class” is very free flowing, with families moving into it, and falling out of it. There are very few families that are super wealthy for more than three generations. Most work for it, some like the Clintons get wealthy from there positions. The Clintons are new comers. What is important is these people provide jobs, and people with a whole lot less money are willing to take risk to become “Wealthy”. Where they have high taxes on wealth, the wealth and the jobs flow out of the country. In NJ that had a millionaire tax, and two years later they had half as many millionaires. And when NJ wanted to place a heavy tax on Campbell, well they moved out of state. You may be wealthy and do not need a job, but most people need jobs for themselves and their follow citizens. More Jobs, less unemployed people, equal better wages.

          • Duncan Cairncross

            I’m sorry Rjschundir but you are talking nonsense
            Look u the difference between productive investment and rents – the vast majority of the very rich deal in rents

  • Lawrence Milford

    I’m not sure how the author of this article got from shoring up Social Security, which is separately financed from the general budget, to paying off the national debt… Where was is stated that a goal was to pay off the debt in the first place? Nowhere. Classic anti-government misdirection… Followed by the lumping of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid with the bloated military budget to come up with a scary 2/3 figure and then a slew of cherry-picked figures (and flat out ridiculous figures such as govt. comprising over 40% of GDP? and $1.75T lost to regulation?) that are given without context or explanation. Weak…

    • Lawrence Milford: Social Security IS NOT Separately Finance, back in the 1960’s President Johnson put all FICA revenue into the General Fund. There is not a FICA bank account or investment account where the funds or stored. FICA is just another source of tax revenue. Nor is there any fixed payout for Social Security. Social Security pays out only what Congress allocates, and those who receive payment are only those that the current Congress identifies, It could be 62 this year and next year it could be 102 years of age. IF you do not want to payoff the National Debt, at some point people will not lend money to the government and then the government would have to print money (like they are now) to pay for goods and services. Which would lead to inflation. Or the government could turn us all into slaves, and tell us what to do and for how much….then your Standart of living will really decline. So if you like it or not Social Security is lumped with Military Spending.

      • Lawrence Milford

        You misunderstand government accounting. Social Security IS a separate revenue/expense stream, which is why the SS Trust Fund owns circa $2T in special treasuries and why the Greenspan commission had to adjust payroll withholding rates in 1983. As for the rest of your statement, please tell me at what level people will magically stop buying government debt. Right now, the markets are saying we do not have enough debt… If we are “printing money” now and printing money leads to devastating inflation am I missing something? Or is the dreaded hyperinflation “just around the corner”? You also seem to be conflating “debts” and “deficits”…
        It is important to remember that the government is just part of the overall economy. $1 of government debt is also a $1 asset to another entity, be it a private individual, investment or pension fund, or another branch of the government itself. So, just looking at one piece of the whole makes it difficult to come to correct conclusions.
        On a separate, but related note, it is often overlooked that the US Dollar is the global reserve currency. Therefore, along with the “exorbitant privilege”, comes the “negative” of an external demand for increased government deficits.

        • Social Security is not separate Revenue/Expense stream. It all goes to general revenue. There is not TRUST FUND, there is on place where the funds are kept. The Dollar is a global reserve currency, however, have you not heard the talk of wanting to displace it. As for Inflation it is here today and has been. Read the papers when I was working Min.Wage was $1.25 an hour, now there is talk about $15.00 an hour. I remember First Class stamp was $.04 , now it more like $.47. Later was I was old enough to drive I was able to get a new VW for $1,800 now it is $26,000. Now to you inflation is nothing because you are young and inflation makes it easier for you to pay of your loans, but to the retiree, it devalues his life savings and his fixed income. In 1978, my old home went from $78,000 to over $100,000 in a six months. It went for over $700,000 in 2013, and was worth over $1,200,000 in 2016. So even after the deflation of homes it still went up a lot. SO ARE YOU MISSING SOMETHING? Yes …. Oh I went to Penn State as an out of state student in 1964 for $2,500 a year, now I am told it around $31,000 for the same degree. Yes we have inflation…… But not as much as we will have…..

          • Lawrence Milford

            The only thing I am missing is a reliance on anecdotal “evidence” and allowing my behavioral biases to shape my perception of reality.
            On a separate note, there has been talk of displacing the usd but the question always comes back to “with what?”…

          • If you want to see inflation that is not anecdotal, go to
            It now takes $10.00 to buy what 1.00 did in 1950. That is what is called inflation.

            On your separate note, there is talk about going back to gold and silver, which I do not support; or to a currency mix, which I would have to study to see what if would support or not. I think we should consider basing it on population …. However, at present the important thing to not is that the world is considering a new international base.

  • Right on the money, Michael. Beautifully stated.

  • Those are not the only options.

    I suspect Darwin would have evolved into someone like myself, neither socialist or libertarian, and with some attributes that acknowledged the need for the greatest degree of individual liberty possible, within a social context where the life of individuals within that social context was of greater value than any perceived liberty. Holding such values does not involve the idea that the needs of the state are paramount, or that the state must dominate individuals. And holding such values in the context of an understanding of evolution, of complexity theory, and of the notion of dispositionality of complex systems, does impose upon individuals involved in all levels of governance, a requirement to put restrictions on liberty where the unfettered liberty of some imposes unacceptable risk to the life of others.

    And that is always something of an art form, particularly in environments and contexts where all information and all interpretive paradigms carry significant uncertainties.

    Michael Shermer states:

    “Apparent design from the bottom up does not imply the necessity of intentional design from the top down.”

    While this is true, it doesn’t explicitly allow for the levels of complexity that emerge from systems that contain multiple levels of awareness, and multiple levels of creativity and intentionality and tendency and freedom.

    Raw natural selection, at its simplest, relies on climbing Mt Improbable, with each step requiring that it contribute to the probability of survival, or at least not detract significantly from such survival probabilities, before encountering some further mutation that does add significantly to the survival probability.

    Anyone who has ever climbed up a scree slope to the top of a mountain will understand that it is possible to make it to the top, even if one slides back two steps for every three steps taken. It just takes a long time, and is sometimes the only safe path up particular sections of particular types of mountains. Evolution often has to work like that, in the various levels of its random walk through the space of possible strategies available in the contexts actually present.

    Where I disagree completely is with the notion:

    “Corporations as species

    If there is a specific analogy to make between evolution and economics beyond a description of bottom-up self-organized emergence, it is that species are analogous to companies and corporations, not to societies and nations.”

    Evolution is about forms that can replicate.

    Nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) can replicate in certain chemical environments, and cellular and viral life forms are examples of strategic interactions at that level, allowing the emergence of other levels.

    Cells are higher levels, based on RNA and DNA.

    Bodies are yet higher levels, based upon cells, which are based upon RNA and DNA.

    Societies are collections of bodies, based upon ….

    And there is something else at play also – as Dawkins described in the latter chapters of his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene – for which he coined the term memes.

    Memes exist in the minds of individuals.

    Individuals exist in the context of societies (which have many levels of cultures).

    Cultures can be viewed as ecosystems of mimetic entities, and corporations are but one form of entity within that vast ecology.

    So while I acknowledge that both you and Frank have some very valid points, you both miss the deeper and much more salient (in terms of existential risk) issue involved here.

    Markets, and their derived measure money, are scarcity based measures of value.

    The more abundant things become, the less value they have.

    That makes a certain level of sense, when most things are genuinely scarce, and few things approach universal abundance.

    When the only thing universally abundant was oxygen in the air, everyone could easily ignore the fact that air is arguably the single most important thing to any human, yet it has zero market value.

    Then automation started to make a real impact.

    Initially it was the industrial revolution, and the production costs of some goods dropped to near zero, but there was still distribution costs that were real, so the system limped on.

    Now automation is really starting to bite.

    It is already the case that information can be essentially free. So the idea of intellectual property has been invented to impose some artificial barrier upon that abundance, and turn it into a marketable scarcity. Most ignore the cost of that to those at the bottom end of the distribution curves. Few economists, with notable exceptions like Robin Hanson, have the intellectual honesty to point out where this must lead.

    But few people have really come to terms with the fact that automation is moving a large and exponentially expanding set of goods and services into the set of things that are universally abundant, and therefore outside of the ambit of market forces.

    If one is stuck in a simplistic understanding of Darwinian evolution, and is looking only at low level of competition and survival, then one does in fact see corporation as a species, and it is a useful ability to be able to see them as such, in a sense.

    And it is far more useful to see them as a species adapted to a certain scarcity based view of reality, as one can view anaerobic life forms as life forms adapted to live in environments without oxygen.

    And it is true that way back in the beginnings of life on earth, all of the environments were without oxygen.

    And that is no longer true.

    Now it is true that there are only a limited set of conditions that are without oxygen, and within which anaerobic biota can flourish, and our guts are one such set of environments. So it is possible to conceive of humans as gene machines for the transport of such anaerobic environments, and that can be a useful perspective for certain aspects of our relationship with the anaerobic flora in our intestines.

    And in a similar (though more abstract) sense, it is now useful to view scarcity based thinking (market values) as a mode of thought that was useful in a world where universal abundance was limited to a small set (oxygen and light most of the time), but in not nearly as useful (and actually becomes toxic) in an environment where automation allows us to produce universal abundance of all of the necessities of life for every human being.

    We are now in a transition phase.

    Just as anaerobes became confined to a restricted set of habitats as a result of the oxygen released by cyanophyta all those millions of years ago, leading eventually to us and our technologies, so now our ability to automate processes is leading to the need to move beyond market based thinking (with its attribute of ascribing zero value to anything universally abundant), and into actually valuing individual life and individual liberty as our highest hierarchy of values, and within that context of valuing every life capable of conceptualising itself as having value, and the freedom of all such individuals to self actualise as they see fit (given the infinite variations possible in such a possibility space) giving people the greatest freedom to be as competitive or as cooperative as they choose. Markets cannot do that.

    And given that all of our distinctions and abstractions are fundamentally based in useful heuristics, and therefore are necessarily probabilistic, we need to have a test of reasonableness at all levels. And such a test necessitates that what may seem reasonable at some levels of abstraction may not be at all reasonable at other levels of abstraction – recurse to infinity!

    Welcome to evolution in a context of infinite levels of complexity!!!

    • One other economic value one must understand, is that people always want that which there is less off. So people made cards, then Cards because mass produced, then smaller companies came up with new designs, etc. etc. making some cards cheaper, and other more expensive …. And so the marker grew. When automation can do everything for design to production, than home made cards will again become popular. Also as machines replace labor in the production of goods, labor will move to services. There will always be a demand for labor, if the government does not mess up the market place. Market base thinking is just trying to figture what other people want, and how to provide for that need …. There is no going beyound. In fact a lot of market base thinking has gone into freeing up people so that they can spend less time providing for their needs and more time getting what they want … Freedom, Understanding, Joy.

      • Some people have been conditioned to want what is scarce. Such conditioning is possible, and it is not necessary.

        We are on the cusp of a robotics revolution that will see all forms of labour become universally abundant. The rate limiting factor is energy. Solar photovoltaic energy production has been on a steady exponential for over 40 years, and is currently delivering about 1% of current demand, or 14 years from meeting 100%. But that is a misleading figure, and most people would use a lot more energy if they had it available. Ensuring that every individual had 4KW continuous energy available would take 18 doubling, 36 years on current exponential – or three years if we decided to take it out of the realm of “market forces” and adopt it as a none market goal, and delivered a 2 month doubling time.

        Why should any of us concern ourselves with what others want – surely that is their business – unless it involves us, at which point it becomes a matter for conversation and agreement.

        What is of concern to all of us is what impacts we each have on the environment we all share (all aspects of environment – human, biological, and physical). So there is a test of reasonableness, and we can expect there to be considerable local variation on what groups consider reasonable, and within limits we need to accept such diversity.

        Markets are all about exchange.
        What happens when we all have the machinery and energy and matter we require to deliver what we want?

        We don’t exchange anything for air now.
        Air is arguably the single most important thing for any human being.
        Automation makes possible the delivery of any good or service in similar such abundance.
        Exchange fails in the face of such abundance.
        Markets fail under such conditions.

        There does exist the possibility of going beyond markets.

        I agree, that historically, markets have done a lot to get us to where we are now.
        Just as I noted that the anaerobic bacteria that once totally dominated this planet did a lot to get us to where we are, but are now found only in a restricted subset of environments.

        Evolution does things like that, from time to time.

        Evolution is not about grand balances – it is much more about dispositional complex systems which periodically adopt multiple stable state equilibria, and then moves beyond them into new possibilities.

        A big part of freedom comes from security – and there is no security for the vast majority of humanity in our current market system.

        • Read “The Forgotten Depression” by James Grant….equipment was replacing workers …. Inflation was out of hand …. The economy was dead …. Our Market System provides more security than any other, What we do need more than ever are good grade schools and high schools, different schools for different type of students, but all students should be able to be able to find a school that meet their needs, …. This means the public school (one size fit all) is obsolete. As Adam Smith pointed out in 1776, be need schools that meet the needs of the students, and not the needs of the administration.
          About GREED, it is always with us, we always want something better or different, what we spend money on changes to once it was mostly for food, now food is petty low on the list, and we buy food from all over the world. Once we want mass produced items, and I see more and more that people want “hand made” item. And when so many things are mass produce and cost so little, then people will have more money to travel and develope new micro beer! And the very wealthy will be able to vacation on the moon. Market Systems as in Free Enterprise meet the demands of people better than any other type of system, while at the same time is changes the established order of things.
          By the way, the market changes things faster than government. If it was up to the government we would not have cell phones, and home computers.

          • Sorry – you have missed the points I was making.

            The market system certainly does not provide more security than any other.
            I am not arguing for government control – quite the reverse.

            Almost half my income goes on food. It is scary how much food costs for us. And I am vegan – no meat, dairy, fish – just plants.

            Government is mostly run by corporations. Corporations try to slow down developments to maximise profit. Innovation cuts margins. Marx identified that dynamic a long time ago.
            Yes – our market system is complex – acknowledge that.
            And it is not an optimal solution to human wellbeing, creativity or opportunity (and it is better than central control in any form – grant that too). I am not promoting central control.
            I am promoting facilitation through cooperation to develop a set of technologies that make every individual functionally independent for all essential needs.

  • Swami

    The author makes some excellent points:
    1). Positional races can have strongly positive effects when channeled properly into socially constructive pursuits. Economic endeavors in reasonably functioning markets do have such positive externalities (as both authors would surely agree)
    2). Income based status is just one of countless forms of relative status, and reducing inequality on this dimension is likely to just squeeze more into the others.

    Putting points one and two together, the danger is suppressing status competitions in positive sum, socially constructive ways and pushing it into less productive or even destructive realms.

    The author is also right to be skeptical of the never ending acceleration to growth, sclerosis, bureaucracy, regulation and bloat in government. This is a real and obvious danger. However, absent strong evidence to the contrary, the author has a burden of proof of showing prosperous societies without government and taxation. The more reasonable assumption is that taxation is a reasonable way to collect funds for public goods and that we should then consider if we have to have taxes, which is the best way to gather them (and control largess)

    It seems taxes on luxury consumption are better than most in terms of efficiency. I certainly would not support additional taxes for the government to piss away on wars, iatrogenic welfare programs, crony subsidies, special interests and bureaucratic largess. But as a replacement of current taxes, it seems worth considering.

  • Alex Nongard

    Obvious answer; Darwin would have voted Green Party.

  • X-7

    This morning (or this mourning), I’m saying pick your “fatal conceit” regulation or the market.
    If your culture’s relationship with the sky and ocean are deadly, your cultural genome sucks.

    I’m saying exponentially accelerating complexity has crushed the efficacy of our cultural genome.
    Too much to regulate; and too much accruing relationship complexity for world culture’s dominant information processor — humans using monetary code — to process with sufficient reach, with the sufficient speed, accuracy and power necessary to generate selectable relationship hierarchies in and across geo eco bio cultural & tech networks, and across time. Essentially, both the market and its regulation are overwhelmed by emergent complexity. This is understandable.
    Dr. Frank Vertosick, author of the brilliant, “The Genius Within” told me to “give up” in 2006.
    I didn’t. Interview here:
    Musician / artist Frank Zappa told me essentially the same thing in 1984. I didn’t listen, kept busy with all this. Interview here:
    Today, I’m listening to them, staying down on the canvas, while listening to Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” “I’ve seen the future, brother: It is murder. / Things are going to slide, slide in all directions / Won’t be nothing Nothing you can measure anymore.”
    Verily, be sure to watch for my new line of colorful family euthanasia kits: Gentle Deth, Perma Sleep, and my fav, E-Z Out.
    Think “The Horror”, the physics called self-organized criticality, is in the mail, systemic dominoes being currently engaged in the aligning process, ultimately rendering gallows humor ugly, anything but humorous.
    Burying 3-year-olds, or eating them … alphabet code fails.

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  • “Financial exchanges in a free market carry externalities—benefits and costs not included in the price of the transaction that is incurred by one or more of the parties involved, with or without their knowledge or agreement” ….. As it turns out the same is true with goverment spending. Except with even less requards as to any benifit. Hense, the wealthiest towns are in the Washington DC area. Where wealth is not based on production or innovation, but on power, not on results on perceptions. Hense, Pres. Johnson gets credit for his “War on Poverty”, when it actually slowed the gains the poor were making. FDR get credit for looking after the poor during the Great Depression, when in fact his policies caused the Great Depression, and hurt the POOR the most. Pres. Obama policies extended the Great Recession and for the first time since FDR the poor and middle class actually earnings actually declined. There is a role for government, but it needs to be very limited, the free market as demostrated it can help the poor more than the state programs.

  • Tygh

    Of all the metaphors here, the bicycle helmet is the most relevant with respect to human existence. The arguments I hear against controlling carbon emissions for example fall into this same template. “Other countries won’t take the same steps, so why should we ruin our economy?”
    The peacock survives long enough to reproduce, which is really sort of a low bar. Natural selection is all but gone from the human equation. Premature babies are saved, diseases are cured, nearsightedness is corrected, and the weakest among us (physically, at least) are able to thrive in an environment that has evolved much faster than genes can mutate. Actually, *delaying reproduction in humans is the stuff of wide-scale social engineering. People of all economic stations have mastered reproduction, but this is no longer adequate for what we might call success. We have conquered natural selection to the point that almost nothing any of us do to survive has anything to do with a survival advantage in the natural world. The task of our species, is not, and has not been individual survival for a long time. The argument that what is best for me is best for the species, may work as far as reproduction, but reproduction is really not the issue.
    The question of how much we should tax each other and what Darwin would think about it sounds sort of silly with respect to our civilization. Every bull elk is born with more-or-less the same wealth as every other bull elk. Your herd may have better or worse terrain for grazing, but you don’t inherit your father’s horns or feathers. As an elk, my herd doesn’t accumulate more than it needs, it doesn’t corner the market, it can’t even save for the future. Humans have created a world that is much the opposite.

  • I’m sorry, but I find many of the arguments in this piece to be off the wall. For example:

    “Yes, we need some social services, but a century ago Americans somehow survived and thrived with a government that consumed only 8% of our GDP; today it is over 40% and climbing.”

    Aside from the fact that according to the BEA total government expenditures in the US were 33% of GDP in 2015 (which makes me wonder where the rest of the facts and figures in this piece come from), does anyone really believe it would be desirable to return to the 19th centaury government with virtually no paved roads, bridges, public health and sanitation, etc. and a life expectancy at birth of about 40 years just to avoid paying the taxes we have to pay to reap the benefits we get from today’s government compared to those of the 19th centaury? This just boggles my mind. See: