In a brief digression from the central topic of my blog (not that, after only one other post, this blog can really be said to have a central topic,) I wish to address a trend among those who subscribe to the Austrian School of economics, a dangerous trend which can only serve to hurt said school in the long run. I am speaking of the tendency to consider Darwinian evolution an example of spontaneous order, an illustration of the viability of free market economies. Many, I think, would consider a denial of emergent order in nature to be a tacit denial of the possibility of spontaneous order in society. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a certain irony in this trend. While attending a conference on Austrian Economics in New York, I was constantly reminded, along with other attendees, of the folly of trying to impose the methods of the natural sciences upon the social sciences. Yet, after describing the emergent order in markets, many of the lecturers rather unthinkingly and casually inducted biological evolution as an example of other spontaneous orders.
I don’t blame them. Most of them, being economists rather than biologists, had probably never studied evolution in any serious detail. But they need to understand that biological evolution does not–and indeed, cannot–serve as an example of spontaneous order. It cannot, first of all, because the theory is false. It was hatched in an age when scientists knew virtually nothing about the true nature of living organisms, before the discovery of information-rich molecules at the very foundation of life. I will not belabor this point because it is not critical to my argument and is bound to draw fierce objection. The more fundamental problem is that biological evolution could not serve as an example of spontaneous order even if it was true.
To illustrate this, we must begin by defining spontaneous order. F. A. Hayek and others before him defined it as order resulting from human action, but not from the execution of human design. I have some questions as to whether or not this definition is accurate, given Hayek’s own exposition of the concept. As this article points out, whether or not an order is spontaneous depends on your level of analysis. The larger order of a market economy might not be the result of a single, top-down plan. But it is just as assuredly not the result of random chance or serendipity. Were it not for the intelligent, deliberate planning of individuals and firms acting in their own self interest, market forces would have nothing to act upon in the first place. It could not punish and weed out bad economic calculation with losses and could not reward good economic calculation with profits. Thus, as many Austrian economists have already recognized, the “spontaneous” order in market economies is actually the unintentional outgrowth of many intentional, top-down economic plans of a lower order.
Biological evolution simply does not resemble this kind of spontaneous order. It postulates that through purely random mutation, species acquire traits which natural selection (read: the free market) can select for or against, leading to gradual (or rapid, evolutionists can’t seem to get this point straight) changes in populations over time. In other words, not only is there no top down plan evident at the ecosystem level, as is also the case in a free market, there is no top down plan at an organism level, which is clearly not true in a free market.
Some evolutionists have already picked up on muddled explanations of spontaneous order and have begun to peddle them. Michael Shermer, of Skeptic Magazine fame, for example, has tried to argue that conservatives should believe in evolution because they believe in the “invisible hand” of free markets. But there is a crucial difference between emergent order in the economy and biological evolution that makes one plausible, even inevitable, and the other miraculous. The difference is specificity.
Economics teaches us that the values of goods and services are subjective. One consequence of this is that there is no particular configuration of capital, no economic order, that can be said to be “ideal,” or even “better” than another. A “better” economy, from the economist’s perspective, is simply one in which what people actually have more closely resembles what they want, whatever that might be. By that definition of “order” almost anything could be thought of as orderly.
By contrast, the configuration of a biological organism requires a staggering degree of specificity to support even the most minimal life functions. While there are millions of configurations that work, there are orders of magnitude more configurations that do not. For any one of these configurations, there is practically zero tolerance for deviation in its genetic blueprint, so much so that many eukaryotes have elaborate error correction systems to repair mutations in their DNA.
It is critical that free market economists clarify these points when talking to general audiences about spontaneous order. We already have trouble enough combating the misconceptions peddled by liberals without inviting a whole separate branch of human inquiry to help spread them. We have enough enemies without alienating our natural allies in the evangelical community. Distancing ourselves from evolutionary theory, on the other hand, is an excellent opportunity to explain why spontaneous order in free markets is so plausible.