Monday, 7 January 2008

BB2:Trade creates trust to resolve tribalism:Michael Shermer

[This is talk 2, session 2 of 2, on the first day of the The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

Michael Shermer is the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, writes a column for Scientific American and has written many books - his latest being "Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design". This second talk of the afternoon, following Jonathan Haidt, changes the subject from the so far dominating religion/morality themes and instead looks at how trade can help create trust between otherwise antagonistic tribes.

He wants to focus on tribalism, with it's in-group amity and out-group enmity. He accepts that there always going to be people and groups with beliefs that are different to each other and that educating out false and dangerous beliefs is simply not going to happen. So the the issue is to have a society where that does not matter, where one cannot be threatened or killed for having different beliefs. What type of society would that be?
A political state based on the rule of law,property rights, a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system, economic stability, a reliable infrastructure, the freedom to move about the country, freedom of the press, freedom of association, education, protection of civil liberties and a clean and safe environment.
Economics research shows that there is a correlation between these items and trust and this is key for different tribes and beliefs to peacefully co-exist. The causal relationship to explain this correlation, he argues, is trade. He looks at the evolution of trade over the last 100,000 years which can be summarized that if we look at this as compressed into one year, then the "great leap forward" of the last 250 odd years the last day or if considered over 24 hours, it represents the last 3.6 minutes! What we consider normal is very, very new in the evolution and development of the social primates species we call humans, us.

There is a big difference between the past and the present is that for the large majority of the history, tribes focused mostly on internal in-group issues and only now are the barriers of out-group tribalism enmity being continually tested. How to overcome these barriers is through trust and one of the main means of achieving trust and all the related social networks and other elements is through trade. The benefit of trade to deal with out-group enmity is given that "where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will" with the corollary that "where goods cross frontiers, armies won't" -there are, of course, exceptions to this but on the whole, he asserts, this is correct - trade will not prevent war but attenuates its likelihood. Trade enables political alliances to be more easy to accomplish, given the trust and cooperation required for trade and this trust cooperation is continually reaffirmed through a positive feedback loop. In his forthcoming book he provides many examples of how trade and cooperation beneficially altered the dynamics of hitherto warring indigenous people as evidence that "trade accentuates amity between groups, and attenuates enmity between groups".

He finishes by observing this process in China with a Starbucks in now in the forbidden city! He makes this the "Starbucks corollary - where Starbucks crosses frontiers, armies will not"! Finally he adds the "Google Theory of Peace - where information and knowledge cross frontiers, armies will not" (not withstanding certain issues google had to deal with in China...) . A modern recent example is the development of Europe from the Treaty of Rome to the present day - the "wikification of the economy". The wikipedia being a good metaphor of the modern economic possibilities i this world being "open Source, peer produced, mass collaborated, bottom up, self-organized". The free movement of products, information and people can resolve tribal enmity Freedom finds a way.

It is interesting that Shermer does not mention democracy in his list of conditions for people to live together with different beliefs. Obviously whatever is happening in China is without, for the moment, suitable democratic changes. As the USA is finding out in Iraq, it is very difficult to impose democracy, maybe it has to come from within. Omitting democracy from his list is interesting as how does it relate to his wikification metaphor? One of the main issues in Europe is the loss of democracy in the creation of a new Europe - a referundum on the new quasi-constitution in the UK anyone?Indeed there are many elements that are the opposite of his open source view in the history and development of Europe.

Whilst it is welcome that Shermer presents a positive and optimistic view of Enlightenment 2.0, I do not think that many here needed to be convinced of the benefits of trade. The bigger issues are the problems of trade. For example, free markets are not necessarily efficient markets and many of these inefficiencies are taken advantage off by the more experienced partners - the USA and Europe when trading with the rest of the world for example And what mechanism does one use to make markets efficient? What about externalities - costs unpaid for that can, say, damage the environment - whether this the local water supply or the global climate? I am guessing that Shermer is both familiar with all this and deals with it in his book but this is just a guess. What happens if economic stability collapses? Look what happened between the two World Wars. Then again, there was an arguably greater and certainly more evenly distributed flow of people and money across the world before WW1 than today - yet WW1 followed.

One can look specifically at an area like the Middle East which has huge amounts of the highly valued natural resource of oil and has been a key factor in world trade in the 20th century. Still such trade has, far from leading to greater and further trust and coooperation with its external trading partners been instead used to fund ideologies antithetical to enlightenment values. That situation is obviously more complex than the caricature I painted here but the same would go for any other analysis of these issues around the world.

Whilst his focus has not been on the other themes plaguing previous speakers, how does his view help those issues, to translate it in his terminology - with already existing trading partners within countries where there has been a renewed growth of religious tribalism, loss of trust and inter-tribal enmity? He is correct to bring to the table economics as a key feature of Enlightenment 2.0 - indeed as Singer argued, correctly I think, economics (or commerce as she put it) played a significant causative and constitutive role in the birth of the original Enlightenment and trade can be a significant contributor to creating more fertile environments for enlightenment values to take hold elsewhere, but is not sufficient as the Middle East example shows above. So I cannot help leave his talk without thinking he is painting a Panglossion veneer on the challenges of Enlightenment 2.0.