Monday, January 24, 2011

Evolution and economics

Allen Small compares evolution and economics. (Allen at least denies Creationism and Intelligent Design; congratulations, Allen: that's two fewer stupid ideas, a 100% increase.) But Allen makes the same mistake that Christian deniers of evolution make. Evolution is not a normative judgment; it is a scientific theory. In other words, evolution is neither good nor bad; it is true. Whether you like it or not — and I really don't like evolution — evolution has happened, is happening now, and will continue to happen. So saying that Austrian economics is good because it somehow promotes evolution is nonsensical.

Governments, police and all the apparatus of "states" have themselves evolved. We have let evolution take its course — what choice do we have? — the modern world is what has resulted. The federal government of the United States, the Federal Reserve Bank, the European Union, are are products of social, political and economic evolution. It's nonsensical for Allen to object to our current system by endorsing the basis of its actual origin.

I really dislike evolution. The whole process is wasteful, inefficient, entails massive suffering. Evolution is morally abhorrent. I don't believe evolution happens because I like it; quite the contrary: I believe it in spite of my preferences. I believe evolution happens because the scientific evidence is crystal-clear. If I could wave my magic wand and make biological evolution just go away, even without a good alternative, I would do so. (Greg Egan makes a strong moral case against evolution in his story, Crystal Nights, available online.) Saying that some process is good because it mimics evolution is in my eyes saying that some process is good because it mimics cancer or the plague (both of which have, of course, evolved).

The only reason I can accept evolution calmly is that it's a feature of an unthinking, uncaring universe. But humans in society are not unthinking, we are not — with the possible exception of Allen and those like him — uncaring. We must accept evolution because its true, and we must take into account when making decisions that we have and will evolve, but just that it is true doesn't make it good. We cannot decide that the unfit will survive, but we can — through medical science, for example — change what "unfit" actually means.

Political economy, like medical ethics and environmental science, lives at the intersection of normativity and truth, and we have to be very careful at that intersection. People are tempted to let their preferences about what is good influence their beliefs about what is true. And any serious, scientifically minded student of economics sees those on both the left and right routinely succumbing to that temptation. Allen is no exception. He has a vision of what he wants, and he lets his notions about what he wants influence what he believes is true. He wants a dog-eat-dog, every man for himself society, so he cons himself into believing that such a society will — despite all the evidence to the contrary — deliver social benefits it cannot possibly deliver.

There are ineluctable truths of economics, truths that we must take into account when making our decisions. But those truths are true no matter what decisions we make; we cannot decide to make them more or less true. One of those truths is that political economies will evolve (by mechanisms similar in spirit but very different in detail from biological evolution), no matter what decisions we make. We cannot decide to not let our political economies evolve. So again, saying that Austrian economics is somehow "better" because its more "evolutionary" is nonsensical. Allen might as well be saying that we should remove guard rails on balconies because letting people fall to their deaths is more in line with the law of gravity. Putting up or taking down guard rails does not affect the law of gravity in any sense.

The normative component of political economy is a matter of what we want. I call myself a communist — and I have explained at length the kind communist I call myself — because that's what I want. Libertarians are no different, except that they talk about what they want in the language of truth. But it's about what they want. Allen can't coherently want more evolution; we have evolution whether we want it or not. Allen is probably deluding himself (he's not a particularly intelligent guy), but given social evolution as a truth, if he were coherent he would want to make specific kinds of decisions in the world.

And what decisions would he make? No collective action, except to protect his own personal privilege, or the privilege he imagines he would have were he freed from social obligations to his fellow human beings. (One really ironic feature of Libertarianism is that some of its most vocal adherents, the lower levels of the professional-managerial middle class, would be second in line to get really fucked over by the people whose power and privilege a Libertarian system would really protect. But religions have been preying on the stupid and credulous for centuries, and gaining vocal support from those they oppress.) I reject that desire: I want us to act collectively for our mutual well-being. If Allen and those like him get all butthurt that they have to pay some taxes to live in a moderately prosperous, safe and smoothly-functioning society — a society that evolved — well, I can live with that.

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