14 December, 2011

Some Thoughts on Evolution

Having had the opportunity recently to participate in a discussion about the theory of evolution by natural selection, my brain has been going full-tilt on the issue. Ergo, I have decided to do some writing.
First, I want to deal with the idea that one either 'believes' that evolution is true, or 'believes' that it is not. The term 'belief' implies faith, and there is no faith involved when one accepts a scientific proposition. Either the evidence supports it, and we hold it to be true, or the evidence does not, and we hold it to be false. All the while, of course, understanding that a new evidence comes in, our original position will most likely need to change. 
The Tree of Life
I don't see evolution as an absolute truth in the way that some folks seem to see religion. I don't have 'faith' in evolution. Nor would I stand by it in the face on contradictory evidence. I know what it would take for me to stop thinking that evolution is true. And I know that our current understanding is probably not the whole picture, simply because our understanding is limited and our knowledge is finite. The only reason that I think evolution is correct is because it fits the observed data better than any alternative, and has far greater predictive and explanatory power than any alternative. When this ceases to be so, my support of the theory will likewise cease. You know what that is called? Skeptical, scientific thinking.
On the contrary, I have noticed that folks who don't think evolution is a correct theory tend not to be so skeptical or scientific in their views. They go into their study of the theory knowing which outcome they plan to draw, which is quite the antithesis of good thinking.
Evolution, both microevolution and macroevolution, are well-documented and supported by (literally) billions of individual pieces of mutually-buttressing evidence. They are elegant and simple explanations that account for life in its amazing splendor, but they are unfortunately often misunderstood or misrepresented (in particular by those who feel they have a theological reason for disbelieving in them).
One of the more common misconceptions that I've run into is that evolution by natural selection means that life came from non-life. It doesn't. All evolution by natural selection describes is what happened to that life after it got started. The life-from-non-life phenomenon is described by the theories of abiogensis.
Another misconception about evolution is that it implies that the universe had no creator. Evolution has nothing to do with cosmology; there are a myriad of cosmological theories, some consistent with a creator, some not.
Also, despite what creationist in particular wish to say, evolution has nothing to do with luck. There is often a straw man argument put out claiming that evolution must be wrong because the statistical odds of a, for instance, human randomly coming to be is akin to a tornado blowing through a junk yard and assembling a 747. Now, they're right in saying that such a thing spontaneously happening is ludicrously improbable. However,  evolution is driven by natural selection, which is the opposite of luck, and mutations in the genetic code, which happen quite frequently thanks both to shoddy biochemistry and radiation from cosmic sources. When you add together all of the individual probabilities along the way with this in mind, we see that such an occurrence isn't unlikely at all.
I like the way that Richard Dawkins put it- life is the result of non random selection of randomly varying replicators.
Or, some Darwin for you: there is a grandeur in this view of life.
Nor is the current understanding of the theory 100% accurate. No theory is 100% accurate, because we do not know 100% of the evidence (and never will). The best we can do is eliminate the biases and errors that we find, and continue to refine our scientific best-guess. That doesn't make the theory wrong, just imperfect (like every other theory). When folks try to claim that one piece of evidence (which they, of course, are privy to) totally disproves the theory of evolution (usually with the addition: 'and therefore creation theory is correct), they clearly fail to understand the scientific process as detailed above.
I have likewise seen claims that the laws of thermodynamics, entropy in particular, to discredit the theory of evolution. Using the second law of thermodynamics in attempt to discredit evolution is, pulling no punches, daft. Entropy applies to closed systems, which the earth (with its constant influx of energy from the sun and release of energy through various processes) is quite simply not. Furthermore, the constituent organisms themselves are not closed systems either. Put simply, entropy has no deleterious effect on macroevolution.
 In the end, I think anybody who approaches the theory of evolution by natural selection with a skeptical, critical, unbiased mind will find that it fits all the evidence, that it has tremendous explanatory power, and that it isn't this kid-corrupting evil that some folks seem to think that it is.
It is a truly remarkable achievement of the human mind, and it allows us to see the world in all of its true glory and splendor in a way that simply shrugging one's shoulders and appealing to divine authority just simply doesn't permit. I'm awestruck at the variety, complexity, and cooperation of life here on Earth.
When you understand how it all took place, it is even more beautiful.

30 November, 2011

Chicks Dig Jerks

So, maybe I'm a bit disgruntled. Or maybe I'm just more perceptive right now. Either way, the following are some thoughts on the fairer sex that have been rolling around in my gourd for the past few weeks.


We humans are no different than any other species insofar as we have certain predispositions coded right into our DNA, thanks to evolution. I don't think that there will be much resistance to that assertion. We are predisposed to find sugars to be sweet, for instance, because they are an energy-rich source of food, and our ancestors millions of years ago who thought that such substances tasted good ate more of them, and had more energy, and had more sex. There's no controversy (among educated folk, that is) here.


Now, I will assert that one of these predispositions is that women seek mates with certain properties. We see this sort of thing all over the animal kingdom. Peahens select for mates the peacocks with the most brilliant plumage, et al. But we human males don't have bright tail feathers (I'm sad to say). So in order to understand this phenomenon, we have to understand what the underlying message is. The females don't prefer the tail feathers for their own sake; they prefer what they represent. They represent a robust male with a healthy immune system, among other things, for only such a male has the energy and resources to grow such a tail. The tail also correlates with testosterone levels.


Ah, testosterone. The most combustible chemical known to humankind. An accelerant better than any hydrocarbon in the arson of life. Testosterone may allow the peacocks to grow their bright displays, but it does other things as well. LIkewise, in humans, testosterone allows men to grow facial hair, have deep voices, and so forth (the so-called secondary sexual characteristics). And, likewise, the testosterone does more than just that in men as it does in peacocks.  


Testosterone is directly proportional, in men, with aggressiveness, competitiveness, assertiveness, violence... Your alpha-male mentality is caused, largely, by high levels of testosterone in a man's blood. Okay, no surprise there. Everyone knows that. But what does that mean?


Well, here's what I think. I think that, just a peahens are genetically predisposed to favor peacocks with the brightest and biggest tail feathers (a display of testosterone), women are largely predisposed to favor men who are aggressive, assertive, competitive, and so forth. 


Now, of course, human women are sentient and intelligent whereas the peahens are, largely, not (at least not to the same degree). Human woman are members of a society, and have evolved a frontal lobe that the peahens lack. There is a social veneer on top of the animal instincts in modern humans, and I would be wrong to ignore such a veneer. I'm not suggesting that women will always choose the most testosterone-laden mate; there are many other factors involved in a woman's choice. But I don't think that I am remiss in saying that women will be, on average, most attracted to such men, whether they choose them or not.

It is cultural. Our (Western) society tends to lionize and reward asswipes. The cutthroats get ahead time after time, and the good guy, as they say, often finishes last. It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, especially among men. Mens' social hierarchies tend to be much more stratified and rigid than womens' social hierarchies, and right there at the tops are invariably the alpha-male personalities.


Would you like an example of what I'm talking about? Well, here you go. Contemporary women thought that Marlon Brando's character from 'A Streetcar Named Desire' was one of the sexiest men they had ever seen, and fawned over him. That's right.  Even though he beats Stella, and cheats on her, women at the time found him almost irresistible. Such a hunk. I think that says a lot.

I have my own  anecdotal evidence, as well. I won't go into extreme detail, but I have personally experienced throughout my life, and have talked with many other men who have experienced throughout their lives, being passed over for somebody who is at least a tad more of a jerk. Ask any guy about how many times he's been put into what is colloquially called 'the friend zone' because they come across as nice, caring, and compassionate. They'll bear me out on this one.

So here is my cynical conclusion. If a guy wants any chance at getting a girl, he will almost certainly follow the following prescription:
1. Be aloof. It drives most girls crazy when they don't have your attention, and they will devote time and energy in getting it
2. Be unsympathetic. Don't listen to a girl's problems or desires.
3. Constantly avoid spending time with her, except when it is convenient for you and not her. I don't know why, but this works almost every time
4. Tell her that you don't care. Even if you do. Or at least, don't bring the subject up unless you absolutely have to.

That combo right there works 4 times out of 5. Men will change once they've got the girl, and then they'll be the nice guy that they probably are. But out the gate, you can't be nice. You'll lose to the tactics I described above almost every time.

In short, chicks dig jerks. But it isn't their fault.

Marriage


The following is a discussion that I had with one of my favorite intellectual sparring partners. We got to talking about whether or not gay marriage ought to be allowed, and it became a discussion of not only that issue, but also of the virtue of having the government involved in the marriage business at all. If nothing else, I think that it was an interesting conversation. I would love to hear each of your thoughts on the matter!

So, without further ado:


ME: I cannot understand why the government feels the need to be involved in marriages...

THEM: The family is the fundamental unit of society. The traditional family unit (father, mother, child) is the BEST environment (I understand there are GOOD environments, too many to be listed here). Strong/healthy "best" family environments equals an educated, responsible, socially confident/competent, et al, person. For a philosophy of government envisioned by our founders (one of self government) there is no better family endorsement to make. That being said, I don't think restrictions should be placed on other associations among adults (co-habitating). Government endorsement (marriage licenses) of the traditional marriage is practical and essential for the "best" society.
Let me clarify, best family environments are the MOST COMMON place to find the "educated, responsible...". I understand bad people can come from "best" environments. The validity of my point still holds. Government should endorse specific family relationships for best society and government.

ME: I think that the issue of whether or not marriages (in the traditional sense) foster healthy children is irrelevant to this issue. The government ought not endorse any form of marriage; at least, not at the federal level. There is no valid reason for it to do so.
To take your argument to its logical conclusion, one would have to also crack down on single-parents (divorcees or widows/widowers alike), since they also don't fit the 'one-man-one-woman' definition of marriage.
The government has no business issuing marriage licenses any more than they do issuing pregnancy licenses or faux-hawk-hairstyle-wearing licenses. A marriage is, quite simply, a religious ceremony symbolizing a union between to individuals. Legally, it is a civil union between to adults, wherein the formalize their relationship with one another and become, for some purposes, a single legal entity. The federal government has no business interfering with religion or the free exercise of property rights (which is in essence what such a legal union breaks down to), so I can't see how it has business interfering with a marriage, either through endorsement or denial.

THEM: Healthy children/adults are not irrelevant. Good government (federal or state) requries good citizens. We have already clarified that government endorsement and not punishment of freedoms is best government. That government had original support of its citizenry and continues to have mine.

ME: My problem is not quotidian, it is from first principles. The concept of limited government ought to be extended into this realm; the government should not get involved in marriage one way or the other.
And then there's the edge-of-the-wedge side of things... if we permit the government to micromanage our personal lives in this regard in the name of 'healthy families,' then what is next? The abolishemnt of any form of non-traditional family- get a divorce and your children become wards of the state? Become widowed and have 180 days to remarry so that 'the children can have a father?' Where does it end?
And even you will admit that a traditional family doesn't always produce good results, and non-traditional families don't always produce poor ones (in fact, from as far as I have been able to research, the rates of success in children is statistically independent of whether they were raised by heterosexual parents or homosexual parents, but I digress...). So how can you presume to legislate accordingly?

THEM: Good government (We the People) saw the benefits of a best marriage relationship (from religious ceremonies or not) for society and government as a whole and [we] want those to continue. If government endorses all relationhips or none, the same [result then] follows. I know, currently, [the] government does not endorse all relationships but it has divided and marginalized its support for the traditional family since at least the 60s. What has happened? Bigger government and an unwise, unhealhty, citizenry growing ever more dependant on government for its sustanance and survival. If government fail to endorse the best [family format] we will naturally get whatever else comes.

ME: It seems that you're making the argument that a shift in government policy toward alternative lifestyles has led to the nanny-welfare-state that we have now, and I must say that I emphatically disagree.
The modern quasisocialist state that we have today traces its roots to the Progressive movement around 1890, culminating in the election of our second-worst President ever, Woodrow Wilson. It was Progessivist ideas that seeded the soil; it was FDR who watered the fields and sowed the crop of increasing government with the tractor of War.
I would contend that our reliance on the Federal Government for basic necessities comes more from the actions of those Presidents, and later on in Johnson's 'Great Society,' than from any cultural shift toward tolerance. To claim that giving homosexuals basic civil rights would lead to a more invasive federal government is a leap that no amount of argument or evidence could bridge.
The government should neither endorse nor condemn any particular form of 'family.' We should treat marriage as a legal matter similar to incorporation, since that is what it really is. Any added context to marriage is supplied on a personal (or community/religious level) and ought to stay personal.

THEM: Of course the welfare state was started by someone, I think we agree on the historical context. You won't disagree that the disintegration of the traditional family unit (nurturing mother, protective providing father) adds to the welfare state? I don't argue tolerance or alt lifestyle, let them do what they want. The question was (if I'm not mistaken) does government have a purpose in supporting/endorsing the institution (incorporation) of marriage? Since our government (when its healthy) relies almost exclusively on the product of traditional families I say the answer is yes it does and can endorse that incorporation. Based on your last statement our society (which is essentially the government) has endorsed that in the past. Asking "why?" seems imply more that it's silly. I don't think so.

ME: You are correct in ascertaining that my purpose was to call into question whether or not government has a purpose in supporting/endorsing (or, for that matter, denying/preventing) matrimonial incorporation. I don't think that it does; I can't foresee a breakdown in society simply because children are not exclusively raised in the type of family you described above.
As a microcosm, I offer myself up as an example. My parents are divorced, and each has remarried and redivorced (and in the case of my mother, married thrice). One of my brothers lives in OK, one in ID. My father doesn't fit into the protective stereotype described above, and my mother doesn't fit the nurturing one. Yet I would say that I am a productive member of society; certainly, I am not a detriment to it.
I know that what I just described is anecdotal evidence, but my point is this: the government, on principle, should not interfere with what is essentially a business decision, and a religious decision. As long as that decision is agreed upon by two consenting adults, I honestly don't see the problem. And honestly, a homosexual couple with a child is overwhelmingly likely to have adopted that child, and I submit that child who is adopted by parents in a stable, loving relationship who are committed to raising that child is going to do better than they would have in the situation they were adopted out of, regardless of whether those parents are black or white; straight or gay. There are good parents in each category; there are bad parents in each.

THEM: I allow exceptions in all cases as long as it's accepted that there is a best situation for a child to be reared into a productive member of society. It's the traditional family which has served well in that position for ages, and it that situation I think our government (society) has the right and repsonsibility to endorse and protect. Luckily most of us are okay despite what our parents (in any situation) have done to us. However there are common denominators (family background included) among those on social assistance, and those who are incarcerated. Strong healthy traditional family is not THE answer, but part of the answer. I come from almost exactly the same background as you. My mother, too. Being a father now, I hate to admit or accept my weaknesses as a father, but they are painfully obvious to me. I used to think it was better my father wasn't around because I would be more like him (not what I wanted). Now that I am a father I am not so sure. That's always what we argue from, our own perspective.

ME: At the end of the day, I don't see any reason whatsoever why a homosexual couple who desire to get married ought to be treated any differently than a heterosexual couple who wishes to do so. The sociological evidence is quite clear- there is no appreciable distinction between a child raised by the latter and a child raised by the former. Any time there is resistance to giving homosexuals their right to legal unions it almost always comes from the religious right. They couch their arguments in sociological terms, be we all know what the real deal is: they're inspired by a religious bigotry, and nothing more.

03 November, 2011

Some Thoughts After Watching a Few Episodes of Carl Sagan's Cosmos

This is the Hubble Deep Field photograph. It shows an area of the sky equivalent in size to a tennis ball held 100 meters away... 2.5 minutes of arc. That is a tiny sliver of rather nondescript sky in the constellation Ursa Major, but this photo shows thousands of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, and all at a distance of many thousands of light years away.
If this doesn't absolutely blow you mind, well...
I don't know what will.
When one really begins to ponder the significance of this photo, it is hard to overstate how impressive and grand our idea of our universe becomes. This photo represents 1/500,000 (one part in five hundred thousand) of the total sky as viewed from earth... so multiply all those figures I listed above for the number of galaxies and stars in this photograph alone by a 500,000 and you will approach the number of galaxies and stars in our observable universe... a conservative estimate at that, since this photo was purposely taken in one of the emptiest (in terms of visible light) patches of night sky that they could find.
Look at all of that... all of that matter, all of that energy, all of that space. That is a tiny fraction of the observable universe, and we have every reason to think that the observable universe (from Earth, that is) is itself just a tiny fragment of the universe as a whole.



For further perspective, gaze at this photo, taken by Voyager 1 at a distance of 6 billion kilometers from earth. That tiny, blue pixel in the farthest right ray of sunlight contains everything that we are- literally, our whole world. That tiny speck, easy to overlook and insignificant, represents the entirety of yours and my existence. 
The next time that you begin to entertain delusions of your own grandeur, remember that you are an absurd bag of molecular carbon- a mere chemical reaction, writ however large- resting on a tiny ball of rock and metal which can barely be seen from the extraordinarily close (astronomically speaking) vantage point of only a few billion kilometers. 
Wars have been fought by other bags of carbon over which one of them shall control a tiny fragment of this tiny fragment but for only a tiny fragment of time.
It certainly gives one pause to stop and think, if nothing else...
We live in a philosophically absurd world, and the only sense that we can make out of it comes from observation and experiment... in other words, from science. And yet, a vast number of people hold the idea that somehow their life is special- granted some cosmic meaning by an invisible deity. They hold the idea that our world is somehow special for the same reason. They would do away with science and leave in its stead the clumsy and repressive methods of faith and superstition.
If we are ever to make it off of this pale, blue dot and explore the universe beyond or rather puny horizons, we must first cast off the shackles of religion and superstitious belief. We must embrace the truth- and that means simultaneously embracing the knowledge that we are but an almost infinitesimally small part of this universe, neither necessary for its existence nor special among its many quintillions of molecular collections.
So there you have it... the astronomically large and the infinitesimally small. The entirety of the universe is the former, and we humans and everything we create are the latter. 
There is a kind of grandeur in this view of the universe... a sense of awe, wonder, and beauty that is unparalleled in my life. It astonishes me time and again how people can willingly turn away from this compelling and magnificent view of existence and instead opt for the close-minded, dogmatic views of religious superstitions. I am told all the time that since I am an atheist, my life must be drab and bland. My life, the theists tell me, must not have any wonderment in it at all, since I am a godless disciple of science. 
When I hear things like that, I chuckle softly to myself. For I have in my mind at all times these beautiful and consequential images, courtesy of NASA (and, the latter, Carl Sagan himself). And I know that no religion, no deity, could ever come close to the awe-inspiring and wonderful universe that is reality.

31 October, 2011

A Conversation on Laissez-Faire Economics (In Light of the Recent 'Occupy' Movement)

This is a question that comes up frequently, and the answer I gave is, I think, a decent one. I’m curious what all of you think about this issue, because the economy is probably the biggest issue/problem in our nation today. The ramifications of our economic policies over the next few years will be HUGE, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
A Friend:
Some authors I read suggest that the limitless free market, globalization, etc. is the very root of all those problems you mentioned (power-tripping economic institutions only concerned about the bottom line, blah blah). While other authors blame the government for interfering with the perfect free market. Whatchu think?
Me:
I think the best response to that question is to use the recent economic crisis as a microcosm. What caused the doldrums that we’re in now? The answer, though you wouldn’t think it to watch the news, is so simple that a complete (economic) novice can understand it!
The short answer is that the housing bubble collapsed. We call bubbles bubbles because they’re artificial- in this case, home prices didn’t reflect the actual worth of the properties in question- they were driven up above a sustainable level. This in turn provides an incentive to people to purchase more home than they can afford (either a more expensive home than they would have bought otherwise, or multiple homes) in the expectation that the price of those homes would continue to go up, and that those homes could then be sold for a profit.
Of course, with so many people flooding into the house market to do just that, there was suddenly a plethora of homes for sale, and nobody left to buy them, because prices had risen so high. Think about hour hometown- how many new neighborhoods were built in the last 10 years or so? And how many of those still have dozens of houses for sale? The boom turned to bust.
Now that wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue, but the particular thing about this bubble is that it was almost universally purchased on credit. People took out huge loans, often with no money down and no equity, and for exorbitant interest rates (albeit with a low ‘teaser’ rate at first). Defaults, and bankruptcies, came in droves, decimating the financial sector.
The situation I described above is essentially uncontested- that is, for all intents and purposes, a watered-down version of what really happened. But let’s look a bit more closely at each individual step, and provide some scope to this whole issue. We have to ask ourselves, “what caused the bubble in the first place?” The answer to that is a bit more complex, but is still relatively easy to follow.
President Clinton, in the 1990s, decided that an initiative to allow all Americans the opportunity to buy their own home was a good use of government authority and resources (remember, we had a surplus at the time, thanks to much-maligned ‘Voodoo Economics’ in the 1980s). He put pressure on the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) to loosen their standards for the mortgages they purchased from lenders (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac purchase loans with government money that other institutions make and compile them into securities that are traded publicly- the secondary mortgage market).
This had the effect of giving banks the incentive to loosen their standards as well, since they knew that any loans they made would be purchased from them by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, essentially meaning that the banks could make essentially whatever loans they wanted, to whomever they wanted, and not assume any of the risk when those loans went bad.
One of the worst abusers of this was Nationwide. I’m sure you remember their commercials before this crisis, declaring that they could extend a home loan to anybody, regardless of credit history and income. And every bad loan Nationwide made went straight to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
When Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offered their securities to the market, they were rated at the highest levels- and why wouldn’t they be? Not only are mortgage-backed securities historically very secure (because only people with good credit were historically issued mortgages and therefore paid them back), but they were backed by the Federal Government (who are required to prop up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac no matter how insolvent they are). So businesses who usually have nothing to do with mortgages began investing in mortgage-backed securities.
Because loans were easier and easier to get as time went by, more and more people were competing for the same number of homes, thereby driving home prices skyward at an alarmingly high rate. However, since most of the people purchasing new homes were people who couldn’t afford a new home (but who were still getting loans anyhow, thanks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), payments began to be missed, and (eventually) mortgages went into default. Suddenly, not only was the Federal Government on the hook for billions upon billions of bad loans (through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), everybody who bought mortgage-backed securities found themselves holding worthless pieces of paper.
The bubble popped. House prices dropped radically, meaning that people who bought houses with the intention of selling them for a profit found themselves forced to sell for thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars less than they paid, causing even more financial strain. And the spiral continued.
Who is to blame there? The answer is clear, and I’m sure you’re already seeing it: the Federal Government. If they hadn’t interfered in the mortgage market (something they have no Constitutional authority to do) through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, house prices would have remained stable and at a level that truly reflected their market value. It was the Government’s artificial inflation of house prices that caused the bubble to begin with.
Apply that vis-a-vis the entire economy. It is the Government’s intervention in the banking system through the Federal Reserve that causes inflation (inflation is NOT, despite what we often assume, inevitable- in fact, up until the creation of the Federal Reserve, a dollar one year actually bought MORE the next year). It is the Government’s interference in farming (subsidizing particular politically-favored crops and even paying farmers NOT to farm) that drives food prices up. And so on, and so on.
The Government needs to get out of the economy, and fast, or we’re going to wind up just like the Soviets did.
Do we really want more of the status quo?
A Friend:
“I’m still curious about the first part of my question… What would you say to someone who argued that the free market NEEDS reigning in (by someone, but not necessarily the govt), because by its very nature it values capital above the well-being of its workers, and will slowly but surely stifle personal freedoms in the name of maximum economic efficiency? All things that run contrary to the democratic principles on which our country was founded…”
Me:
“I would say that such a scenario is unlikely at best.
Clearly, a basic regulatory structure must be in place for anything productive to happen (e.g. John Locke’s social contract theory)- in this case, a government which respects individuals and personal liberties and enforces transgressions against them such as theft (including fraud, larceny, et al), injury to one’s person or property (assault, murder, vandalism, et al), and so forth, and that upholds and enforces contracts.
The ramifications of such a simple system are huge. For one, it gives every person the rights of a free agent; it gives every person the right to determine for him or herself where and how to labor, where and how to spend, where and how to live, and so forth.
And, by the way, it isn’t the free market that needs reigning in- the free market is just another way of saying ‘an economic model where the government doesn’t interfere with commerce.’ There is a difference between ‘interfering with’, which is what happens today, and ‘providing a basic framework for’, which is what I described above.
You are correct in saying that it is in the best interests of an entrepreneur to provide a good or service as profitably as possible, but incorrect in saying that in pursuit of this end, a worker’s welfare is necessarily degraded. Historically, the people who were abused by employers were people whom the government treated as, at best, second-class citizens (the lower class, children, woman, etc). In a society which upholds every individual’s liberties equally, it is extremely improbable that any employer would mistreat its workers- they would just leave, and work elsewhere. With a lack of labor, profits would collapse instantly.
Some laborers, however, might accept arduous conditions or harsh employers in exchange for a larger-than-average salary. If so, it is the place of neither the government nor anybody else to interfere with the voluntary agreement of one free agent and another, so long as no other free agent is directly harmed in the process (e.g. two free agents couldn’t collude to defraud a third).
What people stereotypically think of when they imagine an free market is the image of robber-barons (who weren’t really, but I digress) oppressing their workers and cruelly siphoning money from the poor to enrich themselves. But such a scenario simply couldn’t happen in a truly free market. So long as options exist; and they always do; people will do whatever is in their best interest- entrepreneurs, companies, and citizens alike. In doing so, they reach an equilibrium that is impossible to create any other way. The end result, of course, is prosperity.
For a modern example, I could point to Google. Google’s offices are plush and extravagant; they have gyms, spas, parks, and more for their workers. Nobody compels them to do all of this- they do it of their own accord. Why? They want to hire the absolute best programmers, clerks, accountants, etc. that they can, and they know that every incentive they can offer will make them more lucrative. They are competing for skilled workers, and they understand that an expense paid to lure the most skilled will pay off with larger profits in the long run. More and more technology companies are following Google’s lead, putting together packages of their own (salary, fringe benefits, and other compensation) to try to get the most skilled workers that THEY can.
Even unskilled workers benefit to some degree in a free system. Sure, no McDonald’s has a spa for it’s workers. But if you compare what we would consider a horrible job to have (what parent HASN’T warned their child to do their homework lest they grow up to be a ‘burger flipper?’) is leaps and bounds better than what an unskilled, inexperienced worker would have been able to find several hundred years ago. And if you don’t like McDonald’s business practices, you can either accumulate experience and find a better job, accumulate skill and move up the ladder, or shop around to another burger joint that fits you better. Heck, you can even combine all three strategies!
The so-called American Dream- the idea that anybody can, with enough hard work and enough ingenuity, be successful in life- depends on a free market. A free market is the only system that provides that opportunity.
The primary opposition to the free markets seems to be that, while it creates winners, it also creates losers. People don’t get the job they want. Businesses fail for a variety of reasons. The system, in short, is not perfect. But then again, no system is! The alternatives, centralized planned economies and the much-discussed-never-explained ‘third way’ have flaws of their own- the former makes everybody a loser, and the latter allows a government to choose who wins and who loses artificially (this is the system we now have).
If nothing else, a free market has the virtue of being, well, free. And when you’re free, your successes are your own, and your failures are your own.”

My Thoughts Vis-a-vis a James Madison Quote

The following comes from a thread of comments posted to the James Madison quote, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind, and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”
In response to an accusation that I am unforgiving and demanding toward theists:
Me: “If I come off as unforgiving or misunderstanding it is unintentional. I am fervent about my lack of faith and my adherence to rational, skeptical principles simply because, in my experience, it is largely necessary. With the sheer volume and intensity from the anti-atheist forces in America that I must contend with on a regular basis, I have found that a passive or even unassuming stance regarding my ideas tends to lead to them being bowled-over. It is confrontational, perhaps, but it is defense through offense….
I would take offense to your faith- your assumptions based on no evidence- only insofar as you sincerely held those ideas and refused to change them based upon further evidence as appropriate.
I try my best not to insult other people. I sincerely respect quite a few theists of all colors… Christians, Muslims, Jews, Deists, Pagans… but I deride and ridicule their ideas and their beliefs because their ideas and beliefs are, well, ridiculous! I think that a careful reading of my arguments (minus the rants that I post every now and again when I’m peeved) are meticulous about targeting people’s ideas and people’s beliefs, and NOT the person themselves. I’m not a fan of ad hominem attacks, and I do my best to avoid them myself.”
This in response to the claim (that gets trotted out time and again) that science is as much a faith as religion:
Me: “Saying that I have faith in science is tempting (you’re not the first, nor will you be the last), but ultimately wrong. If you are truly skeptical of the scientific method, I encourage you to try to walk out a second-story window. People often forget that the process that explains that/how gravity exists and that process that explains that/how evolution has and does take place are one and the same- the scientific method.
The scientific method is the antithesis of faith. Science is, in a very real sense, faithless. No idea is ever completely proven- almost all ideas are in fact disproved. The body of scientific knowledge consists of ideas not-disproved and in need of completion.
Therefore, science is a continuous practice. Science is a verb, not a noun. Holding any idea as given, granted, or sacred leads to false conclusions. It is skepticism, coupled with the scientific method, that builds knowledge; faith, coupled with dogmatism, that stagnates it.”
And lastly, in response to the accusation that I am, “more anti-theist than atheist.”
Me: “The words anti-theist, atheist, and agnostic all describe three totally different ideas.
Atheist simply means a ‘lack of theistic belief.’ (Note the difference between ‘lack of belief in god’ and ‘belief in lack of god’). I lack theistic belief, therefore I am atheist.
Anti-theist is a term used to describe somebody who is morally opposed to, or against, theistic belief. I fit this description, so I am also anti-theist.
Agnostic means, literally, ‘without knowing.’ It is used incorrectly to designate some supposed halfway-point between theism and atheism, but it is a concept different altogether. One can not know if god exists and think it does (a theist) or can not know and think it does not (an atheist). Since science is cumulative and therefore our current knowledge is incomplete, I am (and everyone else who is intellectually honest is) agnostic.
Yes. I am an anti-theist, agnostic, atheist. But labels divide. I am Robert; my ideas are couched in logic and reason. No faith involved.”