There's Never Just One Cause


Some years ago I did some intensive research into the origins of the industrial revolution. At the time I was working my way out of the Rand meme, so the starting point of my investigation was her assertion that the cause of the industrial revolution was the philosophy of Aristotle. My conclusion was that Rand was wrong, and that there were multiple causes involved. I presented the fruits of my research in a paper published by the UK Libertarian Alliance, entitled Ayn Rand and the Ascent of Man.

A deeper conclusion I drew is that there's never just one cause for any complex phenomenon. For instance, my skepticism about the popular account of global warming (now "climate change") is that saying human activity is the only cause has to be an over-simplification - the climate of Earth is an immensely complex system that we have only begun to understand.

As another example, consider the mortgage crisis of 2008-2009 (and associated stock market crash and economic recession); depending on the ideological axe being ground, various observers blamed President Bush, President Clinton, Alan Greenspan, investment banks, mortgage originators, the rating agencies, the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Community Reinvestment Act, poor people who couldn't afford the houses they were buying, etc. Yet in any widespread madness such as the mortgage frenzy of the mid-2000s you can be sure that there were many factors, not just one.

Given that President Trump was inaugurated today, I might as well point out that it's sheer folly to claim he was elected solely because of rampant racism, sexism, and bigotry. Many people who voted for Obama the second time around switched their votes to Trump or refused to vote, third-party voting totals increased, Hillary was a horrendous candidate, lots of folks are members of political parties and vote by rote for whatever candidate is offered up, etc. I'm no fan of Trump (having voted for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson), but saying that there was just one cause for Trump's election within a populace of 300+ million people is silly.

By the way, this kind of thinking shows up in libertarian circles, too: I've definitely heard people of a libertarian persuasion essentially say that everything bad in the world is caused by government, and that if only we could minimize government or get rid of it entirely, everything would be wonderful. I have news for you: there are many causes of the ills we find in human societies (economic, cultural, ethical, etc.), and overweening governments are only one of them.

Although I'm not generally a skeptic, I am definitely skeptical about causal monism.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal