Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, a columnist for Scientific American, and the author of, most recently, The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics (Times Books). Shermer's new book seeks to explain "how evolution shaped the modern economy and why people are so irrational about money."
A Ph.D. in the history of science and an adjunct professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University, Shermer lives and works in Southern California. His previous books include Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, and Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?
In January, Shermer sat down with reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie to talk about the intersection between evolution and capitalism, trust in a globalized world, and his "Google theory of peace." What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation; video of the interview is online at reason.tv.
Q: What's the basic idea behind The Mind of the Market?
A: That trade is the best thing we can do to break down the natural animosities between groups. For trade to work, two individuals have to have a certain amount of trust. We know from game theory that once trust breaks down, subjects begin to defect rather than cooperate. What does it take for them to cooperate? Trust. What does trust take? Trust takes a number of exchanges in which there are no defections.
Q: You've called this a "consciousness-raising book."
A: I'm trying to convince my liberal friends that this evolution stuff they're already completely comfortable with really applies to the market. That they can accept free market economics as yet another one of these bottom-up self-organizing systems. And I'm trying to convince my conservative friends who already like free market economics that evolution is an OK thing.
I have very little doubt that it will be much harder to convince liberals. I think the cultural embeddedness of the anti-capitalistic mentality on the left is so deep that it's a long row to hoe.
Q: How do your politics influence your work?
A: I've been a libertarian all my life, but I'm mainly a science guy. In The Mind of the Market, I'm allowing myself to say what I actually believe, but not just as a political position that I want to be true. I back it up from what I know about science.
I don't like the labels liberal, conservative, libertarian. They force people to quit thinking. There are so many different forms of libertarianism. Give me exact points on abortion, on immigration, or whatever. I like the concept of fuzzy sets. There is a set of core beliefs we pretty much share, but on the boundaries there is a fuzziness. Life is way more complex than our linguistic categories allow us.
Q: What's a good market system to your mind?
A: I differentiate among market systems by asking how we get the most choice for individuals. It doesn't need to be measured by stock keeping units or gross domestic product. Do people have the freedom to buy and sell and trade as they want without interference from on high?
To that extent, the Internet is the best thing that ever happened. I call this my Google Theory of Peace. Geographic borders are extremely porous because of cyberspace. Open access to all knowledge for all people everywhere will be the end of dictatorships. I love the idea of the $100 laptop for every person on the planet, the Google scanning of every book on the planet. The control of information is the way dictators control their people. Where everyone has access to information, no one person can control it. I think the free market trade of ideas is the key to world peace, prosperity, and freedom.