Date: 24/03/15 Peter Foster

Talk in the House of Lords, Committee Room 3 – London 24 March 2015

Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book on the structure of scientific revolutions, points out how difficult scientific paradigms are to shift. He suggests they become even more so when there is a moral element involved. I will suggest that projected catastrophic man-made climate change is less a scientific theory with a moral element than a moral crusade that has recruited a scientific theory.

The great global warming fandango is – at root — the latest example of politically expedient demonization of the capitalist system. First let me provide some background on how I came to this issue, and pay tribute to a very important academic advisor to the GWPF: David Henderson. Two of David’s works — his Reith lectures, Innocence and Design, and his book, The Role of Business in the Modern World – were both inspirational for my own recent book: Why We Bite the Invisible Hand.

I became particularly fascinated by what David calls “Do It Yourself Economics.” This consists of a set of common, but erroneous, assumptions about the way economies work. These include “Unreflecting centralism,” the notion that things are always best planned from the top. A firm faith in local preference and national champions. And the conviction that new technology creates long-term unemployment.

I was inspired to probe exactly why people should not just get economics wrong, but all tend to get it wrong in the same way. There seems to be a structure to human economic ignorance. Where does it come from? For a long time before I read Innocence and Design, I had been puzzled by how people seemed to take for granted the stunning benefits of capitalism, benefits that seemed to me to be “right in front of their eyes”?

Eventually I realized that I was being naïve. What is in front of our eyes is entirely a function of what is behind them: that is, our minds. I eventually became convinced that to understand our minds — and in particular their quirks and limitations — we have to understand in what circumstances those minds were formed. I believe that the answer to the conundrum of Do It Yourself Economics lies in the controversial field of evolutionary psychology. What we see – both physically and conceptually – is determined, and constrained, not merely by biological but social evolution. Indeed, we have to talk about coevolution.

The crux of the issue is that in recent millennia, and in particular the past two or three centuries, society has been evolving at light speed relative to biology. People are inclined to believe that there is a world “out there,” but it is a world that is peculiar to us. For example, there are no “colours” in nature. Colours are our brain’s interpretations of different wavelengths. Our perceptions of people and social relations can also be subject to quirky assumptions.

I approach this issue in my book via an old joke. A man goes to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist shows him a series of Rorschach ink blots. The man interprets each ink blot as some form of sexual perversion. At the end of the session, the psychiatrist tells the man, “You have a sex problem.” “Me?” says the man indignantly. “You’re the one who’s showing all the dirty pictures!”

The man who sees the dirty pictures would be routinely considered an example of “abnormal psychology,” but increasingly psychologists have come to realize that “normal” psychology is filled with misinterpretations of the way the world works. One of the big problems of capitalism — as an emergent natural order that has appeared in the biological blink of an eye — is that people can have their cake and condemn it too. Or perhaps condemn their cake and eat it too.

We don’t have to understand how markets work to thrive within them any more than we need to memorize Gray’s Anatomy in order to stay alive. The question is why we might not just fail to appreciate the workings and results of capitalism, but be inclined to condemn it. According to evolutionary psychology, our minds were mostly formed in that very very long period when we lived as hunter-gatherers, in groups of perhaps at most 150 people, when there was no extensive commerce, little division of labour, and no voluntary employment; when working for others meant literally being a slave. And when there was no technological advance, no money, and no economic growth.

I believe that we are still haunted by the assumptions of such a world, and thus easily confuse employment with exploitation, income and wealth inequality with inequity, and the command of economic resources with dangerous political power. These aren’t so much economic perceptions as moral ones, since morality is significantly rooted in the sharing of, and struggle for, resources; in tribal solidarity, but also in predation and the demonization of outsiders. Morality is fundamentally collectivist and groupish, and is inclined to condemn economics as being hard-hearted because it is based on personal preferences, which are easily parodied as the rule of individualistic greed. Morality is certainly about right and wrong, good and bad, but it’s also about the irresistible urge to tell other people how to live their lives, and to condemn – even kill – outsiders.

The most moral people in the world are suicide bombers.

When it comes to the assumed depredations and dangers of those who command economic resources — that is, “the rich” — it’s as if people can’t tell the difference between Bill Gates and Genghis Khan. Or between the Forbes 400 and the court of Louis XIV. The big difference is that the Forbes 400 created their wealth, and countless millions of jobs in the process. They didn’t steal it (Unless, of course, they got rich through government favours or bail-outs, which really was the old-fashioned way).

Do It Yourself economics is the economics of the small self-reliant tribe, which of course is nothing like the extended order of commerce on which modern economics is based. I believe that the insight that we are essentially hunter-gatherer moralists with cell phones makes it easier to understand persistent convictions about corporate conspiracy. It also helps explain naïve Do It Yourself Economic beliefs in grand, centrally-planned solutions to allegedly global problems.

But there is also another critical factor in the equation: the exploitation of economic ignorance and moral misapprehension in pursuit of power. Capitalism has been seen since before Marx as a “dirty picture.” That dirty picture has been extraordinarily useful in political terms.


I should note that when opponents of the Alberta oil sands – including President Obama — talk about “dirty oil,” they are not talking about any need for soap and water. They are using dirty in the “dirty picture” sense, as morally reprehensible. Which brings me specifically to climate as a moral issue.


Two recent Global Warming Policy Foundation papers have touched on climate and morality, one by Peter Lee and one by Andrew Montford. Professor Lee differentiates between those who regard the environment in an Eden-like sense, as a pristine system which is corrupted by man, and those who believe that Nature is here for man’s use.

(The elevation of pristine Nature is in fact often synonymous with hatred of man, which goes with the desire to control him, and his wicked ways. That hatred is particularly strong towards the parody of capitalist man – homo economicus – as a short-sighted, rational maximizer with no concern for his environment or other people beyond their commercial use to him).

Professor Lee acknowledges that pragmatic approaches to poverty, and adaptationists approaches to climate “will not satisfy those… who have unstated ideological ambitions such as anti-capitalism or wealth redistribution enmeshed with their ideas for the mitigation of climate change.”

I would suggest that those ideological ambitions may not just be unstated. Those in their grip may be either unaware of them, or at least reject the notion that they are in any way ideological. It is a peculiarity of the liberal left since Marx to believe that ideology is for others. They, by contrast, are motivated by nothing but “inconvenient truth.” When Professor Lee concludes with “a plea for balance, transparency, honesty and achievability” in climate policy, I suspect that he realizes that his plea is falling on deaf ears. But then deaf ears are in fact an aspect of evolved moral psychology. I’ll get back to that shortly.

Andrew Montford’s latest paper notes how the “sanctimonious slogans” of “intergenerational justice” don’t seem to fit with the realities of inefficient, bird-mangling windmills, and biofuel policies that starve the poor. Andrew rightly suggests that “A public debate on the damage being done by climate change policy is long overdue.”

The problem is that the Church of Climate has no interest in such a debate. Indeed, from its perspective, even to listen to opponents is to dignify wicked people. In my book I tell how, In 2009, I attended a conference in New York City organized by the Heartland Institute. At the end of one of the sessions — on the unfolding disaster of European “green” energy policies (Benny Peiser was on the panel) — a young man spoke up from the back of the room, declaring that he had never witnessed “such hypocrisy.” How, he asked, could the panellists sleep at night? Benny – obviously puzzled — asked the young man with which parts of their presentations he disagreed.

“Oh,” said the young man. “I didn’t come here to listen to the presentations.”

And that is very significant.

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