Thursday, July 22, 2010

Economics: Creationist, Intelligent Design, or Scientific?

I was raised a Baptist in rural Kentucky. So it should not surprise anyone that I was a creationist when I entered college. Of course, considering that I majored in recombinant gene technology, it should also not surprise anyone that I encountered a bit of cognitive dissonance. The first solution was to become a believer in intelligent design – though I didn’t know at the time there was in fact such a movement afoot. But then, by the time I graduated, the understanding I had of living things as evolving complex systems had made me a full-fledged Darwinian.

All of this means that I understand the world views of each of these positions. The creationist sees order in the universe and believes there must be an orderer who keeps constant control over everything. The intelligent designist is willing to admit to some chaos in the universe which can contribute to some order, but they still insist that there must be some higher intelligence to intervene periodically to fix things and to make more complex elements in the overall system. The evolutionist – particularly the cosmic evolutionist – believes order emerges naturally, self-organizing out of the interaction of less complex elements. Chaos gives rise to order naturally, and simple elements can give rise to complexity. These are the three main ways to understand the natural order. The first is religious; the second purports to be scientific, but in the end is really faith-based and, therefore, religious; the last is purely scientific and requires nothing external for order to arise.

The latter view is the one I had almost completely embraced by the time I took the Intro. to Philosophy class that changed my life. It was taught by Ronald Nash, a Christian free market philosopher who taught his book Poverty and Wealth and, thus, introduced me to free market economics. That the economy should be a free market was immediately obvious to me, as it was clear that a free market, like an ecosystem or an organism, was an evolving complex system requiring no one to give it order. Nature gave rise to ever more species over time through evolution; the free market gave rise to ever more goods over time through a similar process. All of this was perfectly clear to me. I was a Hayekian before I’d read a word of Hayek.

It has since become clear to me that these three world views – creationism, intelligent design, and cosmic creationism – are equally applicable to understanding why people hold different theories of economic organization.

Economic creationism is socialism. The socialist looks at the free market and sees nothing but chaos. Naturally, order is to be preferred to chaos and, since order requires an orderer in this world view, the economic planning of socialism is what is required. That, at least, was the position of the socialists prior to the socialist calculation debate that was definitely answered by Mises and Hayek. The socialist is now left in the same position as many theists who, unable to believe in the divine creative orderer, now believe in the divine creative moralist – meaning, they believe that creationism is still a necessary belief in order to have a moral society. Another reaction to science having pulled the rug out from under creationism is to seek order in the workings of some secretive group or other. This is why so many arguments from the Left sound like conspiracy theories (rich oppressing the poor, men oppressing women, the West oppressing everyone else, the capitalists oppressing the workers) – because they are. As such, as we will see, they are disconnected from reality.

Those who find they cannot help but believe in reality, yet insist upon holding on to their faith often become intelligent deisgnists. The economic interventionist argues that, of course the free market works better than outright socialism, but there are market failures and moral issues which require intervention in the economy. If it weren’t for government regulations, welfare, and subsidies, the market would fall into chaos. There is no fundamental difference between this belief and that of intelligent design. One is applied to the economy, and thus the control is assigned to people; the other is applied to living things, and thus must be controlled by a higher power. That is all. Both agree, though, that the designer must be smarter, wiser, and more ethical than the rest of us. On this those who believe in biological intelligent design have a stronger case than do those who believe in economic intelligent design, the interventionists. They also don’t need to have nearly as much faith.

This then leaves us with the theory that the economy is a self-organizing , evolving, complex system. This is the view of the economy supported by the Austrian school of economics, and given the name of spontaneous order by Hayek. In this theory, no one is in charge, and no one needs to be in charge. Lower order interacting elements give rise to higher order patterns of order. New things emerge naturally and, literally, as quickly as physically possible in such a system. Natural selective forces choose what survives and what does not. Creation can happen even more quickly in an economic spontaneous order than a biological one because the brain acts faster than does biological evolution, and because we can retain past bad inventions and use them in the future if they prove useful later. When something is lost in the ecosystem, it is lost forever and cannot be retrieved. One can have a series of failures and learn from each one (consider Edison’s track record with the light bulb). A spontaneous order economy is thus the most powerful wealth-creating system possible.

For someone who understands evolution and self-organizing complex systems, the truth of biological evolution is overwhelming. So why, then, do we still have people who believe in creationism or intelligent design? There are many answers to this. Some find it simpler to understand. Others believe any order requires an orderer, and haven’t learned what is necessary to learn otherwise. Still others believe it is the only way to ensure a moral universe (something which is rapidly being answered by the work of such people as Marc Hauser and other evolutionary psychologists). But in the end, no matter what the reason, it all boils down to choosing faith over reality.

When someone expresses a belief in cosmic creationism, many who believe in biological evolution express shock that anyone would believe such a thing. Battles are fought in schools and courts over the teaching of such beliefs. And yet, many – if not most – of the believers in biological evolution are economic intelligent designists, or even economic creationists. Though this belief arguably has a more widespread and more negative effect on peoples’ lives and well-being than the belief in cosmic creationism, there are not only few if any battles fought in our schools and courts over it, it is in fact accepted by a majority of people. And really, ignorance is no excuse. Far more people believe in evolution than understand it; but with the free market economy, the only people who truly believe in it are those who understand it. Worse, this is true not just in the general populace, but among academics in the field itself. This should be a scandal. It would be as though 90% of biologists were intelligent designists of various levels of faith, with another 5% or so being creationists. No doubt biology would have advanced in the 20th century about as much as economics has had that fact been the case.

The medieval world view was creationist through and through. God gave order to the universe, to life, and to the mind or soul of man, as well as to the economy, culture, and political structures – though these last three were typically through His representatives on earth (from the religious to the royal hierarchies). But then the arts broke free in the Renaissance – Shakespeare’s plays show characters ordering the play rather than the play ordering the characters, as happened with Medieval plays. The economy, whose new order was recognized by Adam Smith, eventually followed. Then governments, with the emergence of representative democracies. Finally, it was recognized as existing in the living world by Darwin, and then in the physical world (whose increasing disorder was recognized before its increasing order was). Ironically, as nature was increasingly recognized as being a spontaneous order, Medievalist notions of economy, culture, and politics returned – only this time, replacing God with Man. As a result, the Inquisition of the Communists was far worse than that of the Medieval Catholic Church.

If the universe is a self-organizing, evolving system and every complex system in the universe, from living cells to brains to ecosystems, economies, and cultures, are self-organizing, evolving systems, then classical liberalism is the world view most accurate to how the world really works. Indeed, the classical liberal position is the same as belief in the world as a spontaneous order. The classical liberal accepts the fundamental nature of reality, seeking to understand it so we can learn how to best adapt to it. As the collapse of Communism and the current decline of the socialist and welfare economies of the West show, one can only ignore reality for so long. We must fight against those who believe in political and economic creationism and intelligent design for the same reason their cosmological and biological siblings must be fought against: so that truth may be known and the lives of people around the world improved.
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