Fisking Sam Harris

I’ve never paid much attention to Sam Harris before, beyond knowing that he’s identified as a “new atheist,” and he’s developed some kind of argument for a science of morality that doesn’t exactly seem to be winning over lots of philosophers. But let’s stipulate that Sam Harris is smarter than me. That is, I’m willing to assume that his Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA required more intelligence than did my Ph.D. in Political Science from Oregon. And yet, there’s this funny little thing called “studying” that he seems not to grasp. He appears to be one of those people who, knowing how intelligent he is, assumes that the thoughts he thinks must, ipso facto, also be intelligent. And thus he trods out into a discipline about which he knows not even the first principles, is rebuked for his lack of knowledge, and then challenges those who have made it their life study.

His post post criticizing income disparities was the subject of some criticism, and he added the following addendum.

If you are an economist and believe that you have detected any erroneous assumptions above, please write to me here. If your comments are significant, I will be happy to publish our exchange on this website.

Isn’t that delicious. “If you experts “believe” I’ve made an error, point it out to me; If I consider it to be significant, I’ll publish it.” It never seems to enter his head that the experts might not simply “believe,” but actually know when he’s made an error, or that he might not be qualified to recognize a significant error in a field he’s never studied. Educated people aren’t supposed to forget the value of actual study and research, but all too often they do.

Well, I’m not technically an economist, but I have put quite a bit of time into studying the subject, so I’ll take a whack at his assumptions. (And for another perspective, see Sandefur’s commentary.)

Happily, not all billionaires are content to hoard their money in silence.

First assumption, many billionaires “hoard” their money. Apparently his introduction to economic thought came from reading Silas Marner, and he thinks billionaires are like Scrooge McDuck.

Conservatives also believe that people become rich by creating value for others. Once rich, they cannot help but create more value by investing their wealth and spawning new jobs in the process. We should not punish our best and brightest for their success, and stealing their money is a form of punishment.

Of course, this is just an economic cartoon. We don’t have perfectly efficient markets, and many wealthy people don’t create much in the way of value for others. In fact, as our recent financial crisis has shown, it is possible for a few people to become extraordinarily rich by wrecking the global economy.

Amazing, Harris has discovered a new principle unknown by economists…markets aren’t perfectly efficient. I can’t help but imagine he had a certain feeling of smugness as he demonstrated his keen insight into the economic world. Of course this assumption is right, but also of course the efficiency of markets have precious little to do with whether people become rich by creating value for others. In fact it’s the inefficiencies in markets that create opportunities to get wealthy by creating value for others through improving the efficiency of a market. And just how does he imagine wealthy people avoid creating value for other people, unless really does believe they are following the Scrooge McDuck approach? Wealthy people pretty much have just two options of what to do with their money: invest it or spend it. If they invest it, someone else is willing to pay to borrow it; which means it creates value (if borrowing wasn’t of greater value than not borrowing, the borrower wouldn’t borrow). If they spend it, someone trades merchandise or services for it, which creates value (they value the money more than the merchandise or service). In fact it’s pretty damned hard, I think, for a wealthy person to not create value for others with their wealth. Really, this stuff isn’t that hard–anyone who can get a Ph.D. in neuroscience could pick up basic economics pretty easily, I would think.

But even in the ideal case, where obvious value has been created, how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep? A trillion dollars? Ten trillion?

I have to interrupt his thought here to ask, does he really mean to use the word “can,” instead of “should”? Obviously they can be allowed to keep all their wealth. Not that I would necessarily vote for that in a referendum.

Granted, there will be some limit to how fully wealth can concentrate in any society, for the richest possible person must still spend money on something, thereby spreading wealth to others. But there is nothing to prevent the ultra rich from cooking all their meals at home, using vegetables grown in their own gardens, and investing the majority of their assets in China.

And…so? Does Harris really imagine that if Bill Gates took to spending his time gardening and cooking that there’d be any noticeable economic harm? Sure some waiters might have fewer tips, but if that’s what Bill Gates preferred to do, his utility would increase’ he’d be better off. Oh, and his billions would still keep revolving through the economy via whatever investments he’s made. (Has Harris ever though about his own retirement account?) And so what if Gates invests it all in China? (Does Harris’s science of morality have a formula for how much each Chinese person counts compared to each American?) Harris seems to assume a fixed economic pie, so that investment elsewhere impoverishes America. Has he ever thought about how much a richer China could buy from the U.S.?

Then, in his addendum, responding to his critics, he says;

Specifically, I would be interested to know if any economist has an economic argument against the following ideas:

Now, seriously, that’s like a creationist asking “I would be interested to know if any biologist has a scientific argument against the following ideas.” It’s the old, “I haven’t studied the topic, but I’m pretty sure I know more than the experts” approach. So let’s see if there are any economic arguments against the two ideas he presents.

Future breakthroughs in technology (e.g. robotics, nanotech) could eliminate millions of jobs very quickly, creating a serious problem of unemployment.

This idea is not stated clearly. Does Harris mean that we’d have a serious short-term unemployment problem if millions of jobs were eliminated “very quickly”? I don’t think any economist would argue that. But he doesn’t seem to be talking about that, because in a subsequent post, he says, “In a world without work everyone would be free—but, in our current system, some would be free to starve.”

No, and no. Let’s take the latter part first. Contra Harris, our current system, whatever its imperfections, actually manages to keep most jobless people from starving. So he’s just factually wrong there. He also assumes a wildly dramatic economic change will not be associated with any policy changes. I’d like to see some historical examples of that. But consider just how disconnected the idea is here. In a world without work he assumes that most people would not starve–but how would they be buying food, if they had no work and no income? Clearly, in this hypothetical world, the distribution of food is not based on ability to pay. So why would some starve? And how odd is it to worry about a world where we have all we want without having to work for it? I’m much more concerned about the opposite world, where we all have plenty of work but no goods and services to show for it. Harris is imagining a world where the central economic condition–scarcity–has been resolved, and he’s distressed?

Now to the first part, he assumes a jobless world, where all the work is done by machines. This is just a variant on the “lump of labor fallacy.” Essentially what Harris is talking about is increased productivity, but there are no historical examples of increasing productivity resulting in their being fewer jobs available. I hope I’m not going too far out on a limb when I suggest that if the very first idea you propose already has the name of “X fallacy,” you just might be in a position of not knowing your ass from your elbow. There’s much less reason to assume that massive technological advances will solve the problem of scarcity than that they’ll just further expand our wants. At least that’s been the path of economic history to date.

The federal government should levy a one-time wealth tax (perhaps 10 percent for estates above $10 million, rising to 50 percent for estates above $1 billion) and use these assets to fund an infrastructure bank. Contrary to many readers’ assumptions, I am not recommending that the federal government confiscate productive capital from the rich to subsidize the shiftlessness of people who do not want to work.

Interestingly, Harris seems to think people are only criticizing him because he wants to raise taxes on the wealthy. Not so; I’m in favor of returning tax rates to the level of the 1990s. That may not be as high as he would want, but that’s just quibbling about the stopping point when we both agree taxes should be raised. But I do think economists might be able to point out problems with this idea. First, he seems to suggest that he’s not talkinga about taking productive capital from the wealthy. It depends on the reading here–he could be admitting that it’s productive capital, but that he’s not suggesting using it to subsidize lazy people, or he could be claiming that the capital taken isn’t productive. The latter reading is more generous, but he did talk about billionaires hoarding their wealth, so he does seem to be making the basic error of claiming that up to 50% of some billionaires’ wealth is locked in non-productive capital.

But even with the more generous reading of his idea, he seems to be assuming no negative reaction from the billionaires. It’s almost as though he thinks incentives don’t matter. Perhaps he does, though, and that’s why he’s emphasizing that it’s only a “one-time” tax. But as any decent economist will tell you, governments have a devil of a time demonstrating credible commitment (watch through to the 4:15 mark, and you’ll understand the concept). The current Congress can cross it’s heart and hope to die, but they cannot bind the next Congress,* so why would any billionaire who’s just had 50% of his wealth taxed believe it will never happen again? And if we mistakenly encourage them to move all their wealth off-shore, we’ve just sacrificed the long-term for short-term gain.

Overall, not so good. If he gave those answers at the end of my political economy class he’d fail the final exam. Really his questions are not much better than a creationist asking, “But what about the second law of thermodynamics; have you ever thought about that? And what about the missing link?” They’re the questions of someone who’s lacking a grasp of the most basic concepts of the field he’s dabbling in. Whatever Sam Harris may be good at (and I’m not sure it’s philosophy, either), he really ought to stick to it.

* Interestingly, economists seem to be clearer on this than political scientists. Or that could be an artefact of the economists I read and the political scientists I talk to.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
This entry was posted in Economical Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Fisking Sam Harris

  1. Matty says:

    I’ve never rated Harris very highly, End of Faith has some interesting points but is marred by a tendency to tell religious people what they believe. He comes close to suggesting that his reading of the Koran is better evidence for what Muslims are like than the behaviour of actual Muslims. And lets not even go near his views on torture.

  2. Several points in response to this fisking:

    1. I’m not seeing any significant difference between what Harris writes out of ignorance and Krugman’s pandering to the ignorance of the masses.

    2. I’m especially interested in what Harris has to say, since I’m planning on moving into neuroscience/neurology. But, I find his simplistic caricatures perplexing since both economics and neurology share a complex-systems approach to reality. His argument that billionaires are bad for society and should be heavily taxed is like arguing that particularly active neurons with lots of connections are bad for the brain and should be removed. And, I agree with you that marginal tax rates for the upper class should go back to at least 90s levels. (But, then again, I think we should have an annual consumption tax to replace the income tax altogether.)

    3. One thing I don’t understand about certain species of liberal is that they fail to see how money = power. Concentrations of power are far more lopsided than concentrations of wealth in this country. I’m sorry, but Nancy Pelosi is much more capable of setting the wheels of tyranny in motion than Bill Gates is.

  3. Scott Hanley says:

    One thing I don’t understand about certain species of liberal is that they fail to see how money = power. Concentrations of power are far more lopsided than concentrations of wealth in this country. I’m sorry, but Nancy Pelosi is much more capable of setting the wheels of tyranny in motion than Bill Gates is.

    Was that some sort of typo? Recognizing that money = power (disapprovingly) is almost the signal feature of liberals, of any species. For example, it took liberals 80 years to get even a conservative version of universal health care passed, even though the ‘liberal’ party often controlled Congress and the White House. The wealthiest classes, on the other hand, can obtain enormous tax cuts and — controlling only a single house of Congress — exempt themselves from helping to pay down the deficit that resulted. That’s how you identify where power lies.

  4. Scott, let me rephrase: a certain species of liberal fails to recognize that immense concentrations or wealth and immense concentrations of governmental power both pose threats to liberty. Their solutions to private industry run amok is often to create new regulatory agencies with even more power than the wealthy individuals they were designed to regulate. This is turn creates a revolving door that enhances via the legal system whatever power the corporate or wealthy individuals had in the first place.

    I’m someone who opposes any and all concentrations of power no matter their source or nature. You yourself just wrote how the wealthiest classes were able to reduce their tax rates by controlling the government. This all goes back to the central liberal-libertarian disagreement on how to correct for the financial crisis and similar events: liberals might argue that the banks need more regulation; libertarians would argue that it was regulation itself that allowed the banks to cause problems in the first place (I position I definitely hold)

    Here, I’m specifically addressing Sam Harris’s type of authoritarian liberalism: objective morality, pro-torture, anti-Muslim authoritarianism and ironically holding the belief that billionaires swimming in their piles of gold like Scrooge McDuck pose a threat to society.

  5. Scott Hanley says:

    I’m at a loss to figure out how you resist power without creating a countervailing power. It might be nice to disperse power, but how do you do that without exerting some power over the concentrated power?

    I don’t see that our regulatory regime has done that much to enhance the power of wealth than what wealth can do by itself. Is there an unregulated society that has a more dynamic turnover of wealth than we have had? Despite regulation, IBM doesn’t dominate business machinery, Wal Mart outcompeted the big department stores, and the Japanese sell a lot of cars in the American auto market, for example. You don’t hear that much about the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts anymore.

    Frankly, the 20th Century looks like a pretty nice compromise to me. Reduced concentrations of wealth didn’t seem to eliminate the incentive to innovate and pursue wealth; entrepreneurs can get wealthy and working people still want to work. I’ve never understood the hysteria over governmental power because, even when I lived in a national park where everything was federally regulated, no one has ever exerted power over me the way my employer has.

    Oh, and I might also add that bubbles and panics have been a feature of modern finance as long as there’s been modern finance, regulation or not.

  6. James Hanley says:

    I don’t see that our regulatory regime has done that much to enhance the power of wealth than what wealth can do by itself.

    Maybe it’s because, compared to many countries, our regulatory regime is–despite my complaints–comparatively light?

  7. ppnl says:

    Maybe it’s because, compared to many countries, our regulatory regime is–despite my complaints–comparatively light?

    Exactly so. Not only that but many of the complaints about government regulation can be seen as attempts at regulatory capture. The truth is corporations needs regulations the way a fish needs water. When done right regulations are what defines the rights, responsibilities and liabilities that a corporation takes on. It defines the environment that they operate in.

    The problem of course is that regulations can be abused to try to achieve all kinds of social or political goals. But the simple fact is there is no way to write laws that clearly state which kind of regulations should be allowed and which should not be allowed. Like it or not in the end it is a value judgment that cannot be reduced to some small set of operating principles.

  8. Scott, I’m not sure what to do at this point besides have a one-time super-coercive massive correction and break up the corpse and then decentralize. I’d like to avoid doing that, but I’m not sure there are any viable alternatives.

    Kevin Carson wrote a pretty comprehensive piece on this subject recently that could have been written in response to Harris:

  9. James K says:

    Nice work James, I’m not sure what it is about economics that makes people think they can do it without engaging with the literature, but there it is.

    Actually your response reminds me a lot of this.

  10. ppnl says:

    Scott, I’m not sure what to do at this point besides have a one-time super-coercive massive correction and break up the corpse and then decentralize.

    Yeah, Russia had a dysfunctional system once so they had a “one time super-coercive massive correction” to set themselves along the “One True Path”. It was also intended to be decentralized. Well the super-coercive part lasted about 75 years and the decentralization was never more than a distant dream. It turns out that once they they committed to super-coercion they had little choice but to centralize ever more in order to enforce their policies and hold on to power. So it didn’t work out so well for them.

    Anyone who attempts to solve a societies problems with super-coercive methods are at great risk of sharing a room with Stalin in the deepest darkest most distant part of hell.

  11. ppnl, I give you Dave Schuler:

    Relevant quote:

    “I disagreed with the way the major banks were dealt with in 2008 and 2009. I thought it was costly, created moral hazard, and, worst of all, didn’t address the underlying problems of the banks. My preference was to do something analogous to what the Swedes did with their banks in the early 1990s and to what we did with S&Ls following the S&L crisis here in the late 1980s.

    To refresh your memories as a result of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance nearly 750 S&Ls and roughly 1,600 banks failed between roughly 1985 and 1991. Volumes have been written about the crisis, its aftermath, and its implications and I’m going to explore it much farther here. I only want to make two points about it:

    (1) The facts of it should dispel any claims of our having any particular aversion to nationalizing banks. (2) The scale of it should call into doubt any ideas that dealing with one very, very large bank or even several very, very large banks is impractical. If dissolving Citibank is more complex than dissolving 750 S&Ls, I cannot take arguments about increased returns to scale seriously.”

  12. Dr X says:

    I’ve been so unimpressed with what I’ve read from Harris that I haven’t been motivated to invest a great deal of time in following him as a thinker. It could be that I’m missing something, but I always have a sense that he’s missing something. Perhaps what’s missing is a sense of healthy intellectual humility. He’s plenty skeptical of others, but he seems lacking in self-skepticism.

    Maybe if I read more of his work I would change my mind about him, but it’s difficult to read more of someone when I never come away feeling that I’ve learned anything.

  13. Michael Heath says:

    James Hanley:

    [Sam Harris has] developed some kind of argument for a science of morality that doesn’t exactly seem to be winning over lots of philosophers.


    When it come to his unabashed support for objective morality, he’s in the mainstream.
    See this survey:

    . . . 931 responses from target faculty [99 leading PhD-granting programs], 72.8% are atheists, and only 14.6% theists. (That correlates nicely, one suspects, with the 13.7% who are libertarians about free will!) On the other hand, when the survey includes another 900 or so philosophers who weren’t among the target faculty, the percentage of atheists drops slightly to 69.7% and the number of theists increases to 16.3%. With 829 graduate students responding, a full 20.8% are theists, while 63.5% are atheists. (And, perhaps unsurprisingly, among graduate students, 19.3% are libertarians about free will!)

    Perhaps more notable given journalistic portrayals of the humanities as hotbeds of moral relativism and skepticism is that 56.3% of target faculty are moral realists, while only 27.7% are anti-realists–and among those who work in normative ethics, nearly two-thirds (62.5%) are moral realists! (The rest hold some mix of opinions, which you can see by choosing the fine-grained results on the survey page.) Journalists take note: more than half of philosophers at PhD-granting programs believe there are objective moral truths!

  14. James Hanley says:


    There are several problems here. First, that survey doesn’t just refer to philosophers, and in parts of what you cite it is impossible to sort out the philosophers from the other academics cited. Second, it doesn’t ask questions about whether anyone is being won over by Harris, so it’s hard to conceive of it as a rebuttal to my comment. Third, while Harris is certainly a moral realist, moral realism itself is not the same thing Harris’s view that science can give us answers to moral problems, so it’s quite easy to be a moral realist and not agree with Harris.

    Some philosophers claim he is committing the “is/ought” fallacy, and others like reasoned thinking, but not the alleged scientism of Harris’s work. To the extent he is in the mainstream, he’s not impressing people, but just making them think he’s recapitulating Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Sure, Harris has a B.A. in philosophy, so he’s not entirely clueless about the field, but his graduate work and research have been in neuroscience, and it’s just not that easy to jump back into your left-behind undergrad field at a level high enough to impress the people who’ve been devoting a whole lot more time to it. One of my colleagues referred to him, gently, as an “amateur.”

    You want a cite? Try to find the long list of philosophers who are praising him. It’s not there, I think because they’re mostly ignoring him. (Frankly, though, most of what you’ll find in trying to dredge this up is the rather boring commentary and debate over his atheism, with precious little addressing his philosophy itself.)

Comments are closed.