How important are laws ?

The Pope Benedict XVI was recently stopped from speaking in a university whose professors took offence against his comments before becoming the Pope that the punishment that the Church gave Galileo for proposing the heliocentric theory was ‘just and rational’. According to him, from Einstein’s time we have known that there is no absolute reference system, but only relative reference frames, and therefore we can conclude that Galileo’s model simplified calculations but added nothing to our knowledge of the universe. Since the political and social implications of his revolutionary idea were ‘worse’, he kind of deserved to be punished. Apart from the stark lack of acknowledgement of the fact that they lack any moral right to carry out such a punishment (I don’t recall Jesus instructing the Church to maintain political and social stability), one interesting thing that comes out of this is the role laws play in our life.

It can hardly be called an exaggeration that Galileo was at the forefront of the Renaissance, which completely changed the political, cultural and scientific geographies of the world, and in proposing the heliocentric model, was trying to find a way to understand the universe better. But as the Pope reminds us, laws don’t only serve scientific purposes, but political and social purposes as well. One can look at this as saying that laws are not outside the social life, but contribute their bit in shaping social life as well. The heliocentric model, or rather, the attitude behind its formulation which is now famous as the scientific method of observation, experimentation and hypothesis formulation revolutionized the world.

Similarly, when the quantum theory was first put forward, Einstein’s famous ‘God does not play dice’ was not a disagreement at the level of physics, but what changes it would imply for our view of the world. Come to think of it, it would seem that most ‘laws’, whoever puts them down, science or religion, definitely help in shaping our behavior and attitude towards the external world. This point, however, seems to be lost on people like Milton Friedman (who is a Nobel Laureate in Economics), whose statement was used in the Microeconomics textbook that I use to defend the laws of utility theory. The argument goes something like this: Just like the pool player does not know the laws of physics, but still knows ‘somehow’ that hitting the ball in a certain place will make it go a certain way, models of economics are made ‘as if’ the individual were trying to maximize profit. If it fits reality , good, else too bad. To put it more simply, balls on a pool table cannot hear the laws of physics, but they follow it anyway, don’t they ? So, when Adam Smith discovered the ‘Invisible Hand’, and wrote an enormously influential treatise to propagate his ideas, people reading the treatise ‘realised’ that yes, this is very close to what they are doing. If you think that there is something missing from the pool table example to the other one, that is probably because there is. My contention is that the very act of putting forward such a law will cause changes in human behavior either to conform to or subvert the law. If you tell someone that instead of bothering about other things, if you simply look at profit maximization, you will become very rich, they will actually start following it. Other things – peace of mind, health, happiness, environment and other insignificant parameters. Seems like a case of chicken-and-egg, and it is my view that the egg came first.

Would the Renaissance have happened without thinkers shouting out the powers of science with their newly found discoveries ? who knows. If the world was populated by pool tables, maybe not. Would people start acting as though they were trying to maximize the utility of their limited income after someone points it out that this is what they are trying to do? most likely. One can compare this situation with the stock market. Stocks fall in value because there is a rumor that their value will fall, the rumor does not circulate after the price starts falling. This is probably because people can interact, process information and act based on certain facts. The fundamental difference that I see here is pool tables cannot modify their behavior, since it is based on certain rules which have never been found to have exceptions, whereas people can, and therefore, there must be something wrong in the hypothesis that has been put forward.  Human action is more normative in character than mechanistic, i.e, we not only follow physical laws, but also have certain things called ‘values’ and ‘feelings’ which also influence behavior.

Therefore, assigning blame for our actions onto ‘laws’ which make it inevitable for us to follow certain behavioral patterns is pure escapism and removes the element of personal responsibility from the equation. Now, the previous statement can be used as a good law which tells us what we ‘really’ are doing :D


3 thoughts on “How important are laws ?”

  1. Adam Smith did not “discover the ‘Invisible Hand’”. He used a fairly common metaphor (used by Shakespeare and Defoe, and many others) near the end of Wealth Of Nations to represent an instance to do with risk aversion, which had nothing to do with markets (which dominates the first chapters of his book). Its general attribution to all economic behaviour is an invention of 20th century economists, most of whom have not read Wealth Of Nations.

  2. Even if one admits that what you say is right, which it probably is, the point that I try to make here was more about postulating laws which influence human behavior. It was not meant to mock nor parody.

    My copy of the ‘Wealth’ reads “… invisible hand to promote and end which was no part of his intention.” Whatever may be the context in which this statement was made, Smith is still telling us that without our knowledge, we work for the public good. Call it risk aversion, call it anything else, he is trying to make a model which according to him fits reality well, and my contention was that this observation is not removed or detached from the process which generates this behavior, rather, it actively participates in it.

    I definitely have more respect for Smith that I do for ,say, a Marshall. I am not claiming that Smith had mystical visions of intangible forces, but rather that his model of the economy went some way in promoting itself.

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