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Turtles All The Way Down

I'd previously made the connection between flawed arguments for belief in God and flawed arguments for belief in certain political-ethical systems, but it wasn't until I read Jacob Lyles' splendid editorial that yet another connection became clear. Jacob writes,

Thomas Hobbes believed that humans were naturally violent, nasty, and mean. Left in a state of nature, man will constantly try to bash his neighbor over the head and run off with his money. Under anarchy “might makes right” and the strong survive by plundering the possessions of the weak.

Hobbes thought that the only way to change this was to institute a government. If its armed men were stronger than everybody else, then the government could provide a safe environment, ensuring that its citizens could go about their business without fear of being killed or mugged.

But there was a fatal flaw in Hobbes’ reasoning. The government is also made up of men. Instead of ending theft and murder, the men in government become the most flagrant thieves and murderers. Since they are more powerful than everyone else, they exploit their position to conduct plunder on a vast scale.

The bloody history of the world’s governments shows this to be true. They have slaughtered at least half a billion people during the 20th century alone. Hundreds of millions have lost their lives in wars to expand the glory and power of their government. When not killing foreigners, governments have been busy at work killing their own subjects. To cement their power, communist regimes killed additional hundreds of millions of innocents through starvation, forced labor, and the execution of dissidents.

In the United States our leaders have been mercifully slow to kill their own citizens since 1865, but we are not left in peace. Our government has become the largest den of thieves in the history of the world. It serves as a conduit for corporate farmers, arms makers, steel makers, oil companies, trade unions, and others with political pull to siphon away our hard earned money to the tune of $3 trillion per year. The old steal from the young, the rich and poor steal from the middle class, and the politician steals from us all until theft becomes so commonplace as to go unnoticed.

I like to call this the "turtles all the way down" fallacy, grokking an anecdote Stephen Hawking used in A Brief History Of Time.

A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?"

"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down."

Besides appearing in arguments purporting to justify the necessity of government, this fallacy is also frequently committed by those attempting to prove the existence of God. St. Thomas Aquinas, if not the originator of the First Cause argument, was certainly its popularizer, giving philosophical respectibility to this line of thinking.

  1. We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world.
  2. Nothing exists prior to itself.
  3. Therefore nothing is the efficient cause of itself.
  4. If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results.
  5. Therefore if the first thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists.
  6. The series of efficient causes cannot extend ad infinitum into the past, for then there would be no things existing now.
  7. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

Now it's just plain as day to me that the fourth premise contradicts the conclusion. First we say that everything that exists must have been created by something else, but then we promptly forget the rule we just asserted and say that God is the creator and cause of all things, and he himself needs no creator. Total blank out, as Rand might say. Or as an acquaintance of mine once put it,

Super-God is a necessary being for any theist. How could God have been created; where did it come from? The concept of Super-God answers this question. It turns a once laughable religion into a rock solid belief system. All you losers pray to God, I go one step up and talk to Super-God.

I don't mean to disparage all arguments for the existence of God or the necessity of government here; rejecting the turtles-all-the-way-down fallacy does not by itself constitute a rejection of either God or government. But I have yet to hear a good explanation for why so many people find this type of argument attractive. It just seems obviously wrong on its face, and yet the frequency with which it is used in theological and political contexts is both surprising and even a little scary, for it indicates that either I'm missing something incredibly obvious or almost everyone else is.

Scott Scheule, the newest addition to the illustrious Catallarchy crew, gave a more formal analysis of this fallacy as applied to government in his guide for policy makers:

[T]here are two proper requirements to be fulfilled before implementing a policy. I will state them first casually, then in more precise economic terms.

To justify a policy you must show:

  1. Something is wrong.
  2. There is a way to fix it.

Now, in economic terms. You must show:

  1. The private market is erring.
  2. The political marketplace will yield a result that fixes the corresponding private market error.

The second requirement is usually ignored. In fact, it was for a long period of time assumed that the government was a perfect actor with perfect information. These assumptions were wrong. Once this was realized, the field of public choice economics emerged, which discussed in detail why the political marketplace has its own errors. I believe the second requirement has never once been fulfilled in the history of mankind, and that is why I am an anarchist.

The readings we've been assigned have a sort of "gotcha" feeling to them. Empirical study comes out, shows that people significantly overvalue risk when it's widely publicizied, and the statists cry, "Gotcha! The private sector erred, capitalism has failed here." Requirement one, satisfied. Time for the government to fix the problem.

Ah, but what of number two?

Irrationality will arise just as surely in the political marketplace as the private one. Every datum offered for a failure of neoclassical assumptions applies just as easily to the political marketplace. Yet the latter extension is ignored. Government is presumed perfect; requirement two is glossed over.

Classic example. It is generally presumed that monopolies are bad. Many prescribe antitrust laws administered by the government to prevent the formation of monopolies in the marketplace; without realizing that the government itself is a monopoly, and one backed up by far more force than any software giant. The market was bad because it was monopolistic, and antitrust proponents assume that an even larger monopoly will be able to fix the initial ill.

Economics is not a game of "Gotcha." It is the study of how people make choices. And how do they do that? A person picks the most preferable of his options.

So, with regards to the big picture, it is not enough to say the market is flawed. Everything is flawed. One must satisfy the second requirement; they must provide a less flawed alternative; we have the entire field of public choice to show why government is not such an alternative.

Unlike most other errors in economics, this is one that is all too frequently made by professional economists with fancy degrees and lots of letters after their names. Why? What explains this glaring blindspot? An unwillingness to part with tradition, both social and academic? An excessive faith in the regulatory power of democracy?

The best explanation for this failure is touched upon in the following two articles: "Do Pessimistic Assumptions About Human Behavior Justify Government?", by Benjamin Powell and Christopher Coyne, and "Do We Really Ever Get Out Of Anarchy?", by Alfred G. Cuzan. Many of us think of the government as “conceptually external,” exogenous to the overall social system. (The same is often said of God - God is external to physical existence, and therefore unbound by its constraints.) The founder of public choice, James Buchanan, made this critical error when he wrote, in The Limits of Liberty:

The state emerges as the enforcing agency or institution, conceptually external to the contracting parties and charged with the single responsibility of enforcing agreed-on rights and claims along with contracts which involve voluntarily negotiated exchanges of such claims.

Yet, if public choice theory has taught us anything at all, it is that governments are composed of men – the very same breed of men who compose markets – and therefore governments must be conceptually internal, endogenous to the social system. Buchanan himself seemed to recognize this fact, observing that

There is no obvious and effective means through which the enforcing institution or agent can itself be constrained in its own behavior. Hence, as Hobbes so perceptively noted more than three centuries ago, individuals who contract for the services of enforcing institutions necessarily surrender their own independence.

Murray Rothbard, writing in For a New Liberty, described the system of checks and balances with which government is supposed to constrain itself:

As we have discovered in the past century, no constitution can interpret or enforce itself; it must be interpreted by men. And if the ultimate power to interpret a constitution is given to the government’s own Supreme Court, then the inevitable tendency is for the Court to continue to place its imprimatur on ever-broader powers for its own government. Furthermore, the highly touted ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ in the American government are flimsy indeed, since in the final analysis all of these divisions are part of the same government and are governed by the same set of rulers.

Very clever, these checks and balances, very clever. But it's turtles all the way down.

Follow-up:Turtles and Lizards and Snakes, Oh My!

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