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Book Review of
Be the Solution:
How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems

by Michael Strong, et al,
John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-45003-1

Peter A. Taylor
September 1st, 2010


Those who do things in a noble spirit of self-sacrifice are to be avoided at all costs.

-- N. Alexander

David Henderson wrote in a book review,

Notice: A U.S. government organization known as the Federal Trade Commission, whose purpose often seems to be to restrain trade and certainly to reduce freedom, has decided that I have to tell you that the publisher of the book I'm quoting above gave me a zero-price copy.

Similarly, Michael Strong gave me an autographed copy of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, the book that I review here. This was in response to a link in an Arnold Kling post at EconLib to a recent essay of mine, The Market for Sanctimony, or why we need Yet Another Space Alien Cult (YASAC), my "midrash" on a joke religion my son and I were proposing. I occasionally get a nice email from someone who liked one of my essays, but I have never had anyone send me a book before. This is quite an ego stroke for me, so I had to review the book.

I'm going to write this newspaper-fashion, with the big picture first and the details buried. The book has 17 chapters (plus forward and preface) written by 10 authors (principally Michael Strong and John Mackey), in very different styles and covering different subject matter, so otherwise it would be very easy to get lost in the details. Furthermore, this is a serious book, and it says very little directly about "religion," so I have to struggle a bit to stay on topic.

The topic is religion. In my "midrash," I described the New Left (more generally, Progressivism or "secular romanticism") as a de facto religion, and issued a call for a better religion with which to oppose it. Mr. Strong explained in his initial email that his book was in some sense an attempt to supply this need, with an organization called Freedom Lights Our World (FLOW).

One way of looking at this is in terms of the movie, "The Last Remake of Beau Geste." Strong's FLOW is an attempt to provide the good twin (Michael York) to my not-so-good twin, YASAC (Marty Feldman).

Let me try that again.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, "A Spoonful of Honey will catch more Flies than a Gallon of Vinegar" (Poor Richard's Almanack, 1748). This was one of my mother's favorite sayings (all of which seem to have originated with Benjamin Franklin). And I do think it is sage advice. I am trying to get the New Left (including many of my Unitarian Universalist co-religionists) to be less evil and stupid. Failing that, I would like to be able to take advantage of their evilness and stupidity somehow for my own narrow, selfish benefit, but let me set that aside for a moment and focus on my trying to reform them. I should be using honey, according to Franklin, but YASAC is pure vinegar. Strong is trying to catch these flies with honey. Surely this is a good move, and I should applaud it.

But I don't think the honey and vinegar analogy is very good, either.

I'll try a third analogy, one that I touched upon in my midrash: religion is like alcohol. Strong and I both see the political Left (Progressivism, the New Left, Unitarian Universalist "political correctness," or Mencius Moldbug's "Universalism") as dysfunctional. I see the problem as analogous to alcoholism, and I'm trying to figure out how to do an intervention. YASAC is what resulted from my pulling my hair out trying to deal with the paradoxes in religious psychology. What Strong seems to be trying to do is much less confrontational, more like coaching an athlete who has developed some bad habits.

I was involved in a similar controversy with an Objectivist (Ayn Rand follower) co-worker. My co-worker tends to credit Bad Philosophy (socialism) with honestly deducing false conclusions from false premises. I regard Bad Philosophy as more often involving dishonest application of abductive logic, starting from a self-flattering conclusion and working backwards to find premises that justify it. Self-deception is a huge problem in my view. That's what makes YASAC so dark and paradoxical.

So what makes a good religion, and how does FLOW stack up? It's an awkward question. Good for whom? And "good" in the sense of beneficial, or "good" in the sense of attractive to its members? In my view, the most important feature in a beneficial religion would be that it discourages self-deception. I want my neighbors to join beneficial religions--I want them to not self-deceive at my expense. But will a beneficial religion be attractive to them? Self-deception is evolutionarily adaptive because the costs are often external and the benefits are often internal. A religion I might want for myself might allow me to cheat a little now and then, although I would have to hide this feature from everyone, including myself. Maybe what my neighbors want is an attractive "evil" religion, one that allows them to cheat a lot at my expense. Maybe that's what I secretly want, too, and I am self-deceiving with my pious references to Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson.

FLOW doesn't really appeal to me for my own use. It doesn't offer the "good religion" anti-self deception prophylaxis of Yudkowsky's black belt rationality dojo, and it doesn't give me the heady rush of sanctimony that I would want from an attractive "evil religion."

But perhaps I might want to encourage my neighbors to embrace FLOW. Who might find it attractive? And are they going to be attracted to it because it functions as a "good" religion or an "evil" religion for them? One target might be people who can be swayed by reason, who aren't really looking for a "religion" at all. Be the Solution does target these areligious types, and several of the chapters do so exceedingly well (see below). But that's not my focus here. A second target would be soft-core Progressives who realize they are in trouble and are looking for a way out of their predicament. I am reminded of the scene from La Cage aux Folles where the conservative parents are trying to sneak out of the nightclub without being recognized by the papparazzi. But that's a bad analogy. We are not trying to help people who are already committed to being our allies (the future in-laws) to save face, we are trying to persuade our enemies to abandon the field. FLOW seems to be following the advice of Scipio:

Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.
A third demographic are the Progressive dead-enders, people who are either too dumb to know they're in trouble, or who are in too deep to back out. These guys are mine. These are the objects of ridicule for the Noble Rubber Chicken of YASAC. You can think of FLOW and YASAC as trying to play a game of "good cop, bad cop." Strong seems to be concerned that Progressives don't have an attractive place to retreat to. I'm concerned that they aren't in enough pain to want to retreat.

I'm interested in this "golden bridge." Is this an "evil" religion? I think it is, slightly, in the way that methadone is slightly evil; but methadone is less evil than heroin, and FLOW is less evil than Progressivism. The deal that FLOW offers is that ex-Progressives have to embrace moderate libertarian policy prescriptions (ie. Austrian economics), but they don't have to eat crow. They don't have to admit that the stuff they were wrong about was the important stuff. They still get to maintain a sense of moral superiority, and they still get to use "selfish" conservatives as scapegoats.

There are two little cheats here, or maybe one and a half. One cheat is to take advantage of the ambiguity of the word, "selfish," as the Objectivists do, but in the opposite direction. Strong writes (p. xxi), "Insofar as those on the right advocate selfishness or religious or ethnic tribalism, we are adamantly opposed to them." I have no quarrel with him regarding tribalism, but this reference to selfishness looks like a dig at Objectivism. I think this is unfair. In my view, the essense of Objectivism is that Socialist do-gooders have been so utterly perverse and incompetant, and their schemes so counter-productive, that everyone, including the objects of their charity, would be better off if the Socialists would simply mind their own business. I think the Objectivists go too far with this--they over-generalize their point--but in my opinion, the point is well taken. So I count that as one cheat.

The second cheat, or half-cheat, involves judging people by their stated intentions rather than by the consequences of their behavior. I was uncomfortable reading chapter 4 (John Mackey). Mackey is obsessed with claims of altruistic motives. I would be a lot firmer in opposing this if I had not recently read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I am used to arguing against act-utilitarianism (judging each act independently by its anticipated consequences) in favor of rule-utilitarianism (classifying actions and judging the classes statistically). I don't think we can predict the future well enough to judge individual acts independently. Smith occasionally goes further than this and judges behavior at least partly by an impartial spectator's approbation of the sentiment that (ostensibly) motivates it. My reaction is partly that I don't trust what people tell me about their motives (or even what I tell myself about my own motives), and partly that the difference between judging actions by their motives vs. consequences has to do with short term vs. long term. Screw up once and I believe you made an honest mistake. Repeat an error many times and I don't believe you. Like Smith, I respect a man for having the virtues of prudence and ordinary "commutative" justice, even if those are the only virtues he displays. But Mackey sets store, and invites our opponents to continue to set store, by claims of altruistic motives, or what Smith described as "the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building" (TMS, pt. 2, sec. 2, ch. 3, para. 4). I don't sympathize with Mackey's view here, but it is probably a necessary evil if we are to build the "golden bridge."

There are also some minor applications of whitewash wishful thinking in this book, as on p. 24, where Strong claims President Obama as "nodding respectfully toward Milton Friedman."

[Update, 9-5-2010: Mr. Strong offers the following links in his defense: The New York Times and The Economist. Alas, as a recreational ice hockey defenseman, I, too, know what it's like to be taken in by a fast-skating forward's head fake.]

Ideally, the religion I would like to found and propagate would be a "good" religion along the lines of Eliezer Yudkowsky's black belt rationality dojo. This would truly be "useful to us, and worthy of God" (Origen, c. 185-254). But this would be very, very hard to do.

My second choice would be the sort of "good religion" I described in my review of Guenter Lewy's Why America Needs Religion.

Human intelligence is like the human eye. There are blind spots. Religion, when it's working correctly, orients the mind's eye so that the blind spot points in a direction that doesn't matter very much. Atheism doesn't cure blindness, it merely allows the blind spot to be oriented in whatever direction is currently fashionable.
The human ego is large and opaque. A good religion encourages you to place your ego somewhere where it isn't blocking your view of anything important.

My third choice would be to resign myself to living in a society full of evil religions, but to have lots of them, and keep them individually small, so that we can play them off against one another (keep the Herfindahl index low, the sum of squares of market shares). This was working fairly well in the US until Progressivism escaped from the 1st Amendment jail by going political and disguising itself as "science" rather than "religion." (See How Dawkins got pwned.) The scientific disguise allowed Progressivism to co-opt the state's educational aparatus in order to propagate itself, and the politicization got Progressivism entrained in the logic of political coalition-forming processes that have driven the Herfindahl index from ~0.05 (for American Protestant denominations) to above 0.50. To fix this problem, we would at the very least need to either broaden our definition of "religion" so that Progressivism is recognized as such, or establish a principle of separation of education and state. Probably both. But we would have to defeat Progressivism first in order to do this, so as a strategy, this is kind of self-contradictory.

The second method seems to be the way to go.

I am left wondering whether FLOW is "evil" enough. Is it an attractive "golden bridge" for Progressives to retreat across? And is it attractive enough to be a destination in itself rather than merely a bridge to somewhere else?

Is there some way to make it more "evil?" I think Arnold Kling was on to something in his review of Be the Solution with his description of it as having an "Ayn Rand meets Steven Covey" vibe. Can we build something similar to Objectivism, but capable of forming alliances and accepting half a loaf?

As it stands, my sense is that FLOW isn't "evil" enough to be attractive for very many Progressives as a destination in itself, and not very many Progressives are in enough emotional distress to want to use it as a escape route. This situation needs to change. We need more rubber chickens, but we also need more golden bridges.

They say, best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad.

-- William Shakespeare
Measure for Measure, Act v. Sc. 1.

There are a couple of chapters in Be the Solution that deserve special attention. My two favorites were Strong's ch. 8 on environmentalism and ch. 12 on education. I am going to try to get my son to read ch. 8. Environmentalism is one of the major themes taught in RE (Religious Education) in a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church (the UU equivalent of Sunday school), but it is taught at the level of Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, which is to say, not merely emotionalized and dumbed down beyond all recognition, but flat out wrong. Ch. 8 was polite, persuasive, and readable, yet intellectually rigorous. I was very pleased to see the reference to Garrett Hardin. This chapter should be required reading in UU seminaries.

[Update, 9-15-2010: My son agrees that UU RE environmentalism is "Loraxic," and that the material in ch. 8 was new to him and made better sense.]

By the way, another point that came up in my review of Why America Needs Religion is that, if we set the issue of self-deception aside for a moment, part of a minister's job is to channel parishioners' competitive urges into useful ends. These urges can't be eliminated, but they can be channeled. So instead of me competing with my peers to drive the flashiest car, we compete to do the most to contribute to charity, such as perhaps helping rebuild houses in New Orleans. I don't want environmentalism to be a "religion" in the sense of people being irrational about it, but I support it being a "religion" in the sense of encouraging people to treat it as a respectable charitable cause (in so far as these senses are distinct).

The other big winner was ch. 12, on education. I loved the thought experiment about Bizarro World, where the US public education system and the housing market were switched. The image of getting busted for truancy for not living in public housing was genius.

There was also a very interesting sidebar (pp. 66-70) on do-gooders hating free-riders. There is some good thinking here on evolutionary psychology. This goes nicely with an EconTalk podcast with Mike Munger on cultural norms.

Ch. 13, by John Mackey and Dr. Don Beck, was noteworthy for me because that was what made me realize how widely my view of human nature diverged from the view promoted by FLOW. Do bad things happen (their view) because of honest mistakes and shallowness, or (my view) because of self-deception and fraud?

I disliked ch. 5 (Muhammad Yunus). This statement on p. 115 strikes me as nothing less than bizarre: "We have remained so mesmerized by the success of the free market that we never dared to express any doubt about it." Huh? Who is this "we?" This is a caricature of economists that Bryan Caplan spends much of The Myth of the Rational Voter demolishing. Caplan thinks that there are only one or two weirdos from the Ludwig von Mises Institute for whom this caricature is accurate, and that economists generally spend so much time cataloging exceptions to the rule of efficient markets that the rule is lost for most students.

But my main reaction to Yunus' chapter was that the success story of microlending that he tells (Grameen Bank) can't possible be that simple. There was a loan market that was grossly underserved. Why was it underserved? What changed? Was it simply that the war of independence ended and that he had good timing? I can't believe that Yunus and a handful of loan sharks were the only people in Bangladesh who thought of entering the retail loan business. Something is missing from this story. I had the same reaction in quite a few other places in the book: it can't be that simple.

I don't have a lot to say about the rest of the book. Strong warns on p. xxi that "sections of the book ... may seem to be so much inspirational fluff." This was indeed how much of the book appeared to me.

Finally, I loved the Alan McConnell quotation on p. 61:

If it can't be abused, it isn't freedom.

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