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Science and Freedom

Somewhere out in the infosphere is a picture of me, surrounded by close friends, peering into the mystical wisdom of the Communist Manifesto. The expression on our faces says it all. Four college students raging against the injustice done to the proletariat by the bourgeois under the evil capitalist system. Today, I can’t tell you why communism held such a sway over my psyche at the time. I was in college. Lots of ideas held my mind for while before either being displaced by ideas that sounded better or, hopefully, by ones a bit more rational or evidence based. Communism is a hard one to let go of, though, as the injustice in the world appears to be the result of greed brought on by a capitalist system that sees people as profit potential instead of human beings. Communism, despite its failure, seemed like an alternative worth considering. However, communism in Russia and China was no better than the sweatshops in the America during the late 19th and early 20th century. The difference was, people had freedom in America. Freedom to leave the factories or freedom to protest their conditions. Under communism they just disappeared while being fed lies about production and the strength of the country. Capitalism has the evidence to support its efficacy in growing an economy; communism doesn’t. It took awhile for me to realize this.

Timothy Ferris, in his book The Science of Liberty, argues that the success of capitalism and the failure of communism rests in the approach each of its standard bearers used in making their case. Adam Smith used the evidence before him, observing how markets work and how traders, merchants, and farmers actually conduct their business. As Ferris describes, Wealth of Nations is a scientific approach to economics. Marx, on the other hand, high jacks Darwin’s theory of evolution to postulate an evolution of human society towards a communist economic system with little to no evidence. The result was totalitarian systems that eschewed all contradictory evidence, as it had to, to justify a system that just didn’t work. The anit-science strain in totalitarian systems is strong, and Ferris shows how the apparent scientific prowess of the USSR was just a mirage. Capitalism, in combination with liberty, is an experimental system, allowing for things to be tried and to fail, the best or most successful experiments rising to the top (making money for the merchant, and hopefully, great product for the consumer).

Two quotes sum this up the success of science and liberalism (and thus, capitalism)*:

The efficacy of science and liberalism in realizing such results is underscored by the tragic example of sub-Saharan Africa, which has persistent extreme poverty, and where neither science nor democracy has yet made many inroads. By contrast, in East Asia, where science and democracy have been on the increase, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from eight hundred million to under three hundred million in only three decades. 

An objective analysis of the best available data (which, admittedly, are far from flawless) indicates that while larger inequalities did crop up here and there, global inequality overall ceased growing from 1980 to 2000 and in many respects began to shrink.

Ferris argues that the success of capitalism is rooted in two parts: it is based in scientific thinking and freedom. Ferris doesn’t argue that capitalism is perfect, and I would be the first to argue for regulations and that certain things just can not be left to the markets (such as education, libraries, roads, security, health care, etc.). However, when it comes to ensuring a robust economy, in general, capitalism is the best system we have so far. Any system that would replace capitalism must be based in scientific evidence and processes, be adaptable, and ensure freedom.

The thesis of Ferris’s book is that the source of democracy is the rise of science in Europe during the Enlightenment. The natural experimental and suspicious of authority nature of science led the great thinkers of the time to apply scientific thinking to society. It led Adam Smith to write the Wealth of Nations and others to conjure a system of government that would guarantee the freedom of its citizens and be in constant debate with itself. And once science inspired freedom, freedom then allowed science to flourish. They seem to be inseparable, and wherever both are found, wealth and happiness follow.

The stories of what happened to science in totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia and China seemed a warning to our current debates here in the states: “but to exploit that power without accommodating the scientific culture that produced it, as illiberal states have done, is to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” The current debates in our country, much of which lambaste so called elitist scientists, threaten to undermine science. It is as if, now that America has achieved a certain level technological prowess, Science is now the enemy. If the public loses faith in the process and purpose of science, America will begin to fall behind, not just in innovation, but in freedom. Laws that demand teachers teach the controversy or that doctors lie about the scientific evidence to their patients eerily echo the anti-science mandates of Communism Russia which reported higher crop yields while their population starved. An extreme comparison, but apt. These laws should not even be considered.

Ferris’s book is as much a history of science and freedom as it is a battle cry. Ferris writes in a passionate and accessible manner. I came away with a stronger conviction that science must be promoted and made accessible wherever possible. Freedom works. Science works. We need to preserve the integrity of both and ensure that they reach every corner of the globe.

*As I read the book on the Kindle, I don’t have page numbers for these quotes. I apologize.

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