Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Not By Design

John Allen Paulos (professor of mathematics at Temple University) takes on the Intelligent Design argument in today’s The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philly.com), 28 September in an article, “ID Proponents like designer-less market".

He writes
:

“The natural question, discussed first by Adam Smith and later by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper among others, is: Who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet? The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store.

So far, so good. What is more than a bit odd, however, is that some of the most ardent opponents of Darwinian evolution - for example, many fundamentalist Christians - are among the most ardent supporters of the free market. They accept the market's complexity without qualm, yet insist the complexity of biological phenomena requires a designer.

They would reject the idea that there is or should be central planning in the economy. They would point out that simple economic exchanges, which are beneficial to people, become entrenched and then gradually modified as they become part of larger systems of exchange, while those that are not beneficial die out. Yet some of these same people refuse to believe natural selection and "blind processes" can lead to biological order arising spontaneously.

There are, of course, quite significant differences and disanalogies between biological systems and economic ones (one being that biology is a much more substantive science than economics), but these shouldn't blind us to their similarities nor mask the obvious analogies.
These analogies prompt two final questions. What would you think of someone who studied economic entities and their interactions in a modern free-market economy and insisted that they were, despite a perfectly reasonable and empirically supported Smithian account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed economic lawgiver? You might deem such a person a conspiracy theorist.”

Comment:

Professor Paulos makes a good case and points out a devastating contradiction in the ID advocates case: they insist on ID for the proteins that create a blood clot but would not wish to tolerate a society in which the State centrally planned (by design) the economy in which they live, if only because they would rightly deny that human agencies could intelligently design how markets work, let alone how they developed historically.

Adam Smith actually made this point several time in his life’s work. He had, what we may justly call, an evolutionary view of how societies developed, from Gatherer-Hunters, through Shepherding and Agriculture and then through to Commerce (“at last”). This was called his Four Stage model of human societal evolution, which I discuss in “Adam Smith’s Lost legacy”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, Chapters 18-20).

He actually applied the same evolutionary model to the “Origins of Language”, first published as an essay in 1761 and later as an appendix in the fourth edition of “Moral Sentiments”. It is not difficult to show that languages evolve and are not printed in the mind, complete with nouns, verbs, adjectives and syntax by some agency called ID. The sheer proliferation of languages and their changes over time (tracked in all literate societies), their divergences (English and American; even the English of Chaucer’s day compared to Elizabethan English and ‘modern’ English) and their ‘borrowings’, show linguistic evolution before our eyes, or more correctly our ears.

Smith also applied the same model to “Moral Sentiments” – the evolution of social harmony by the adoption of appropriate behaviours (i.e., ‘appropriate’ to the group, not necessarily to some standard of prescriptive virtues) – and showed that nobody designed this, though many influenced it until it accreted into a set of norms acceptable to that group of humans. I also discuss this evolutionary moral process in “Adam Smith’s Lost legacy”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, Chapters 9 -14).

“Wealth of Nations” completed Smith’s evolutionary model in the growth of the economy, from the simple division of labour through to more and more complex, unplanned, undesigned, and uncontrolled deeper divisions of labour that we have come to know in the 21st century. There is nothing mysterious about the market mechanism, nothing ‘miraculous’ and nothing extraordinary. We have a good idea of how it evolved and how it works. There are, of course, no invisible hands! Humans operate it, but no one of them designed it; and nor did any invisible designer (what a throw back that is paganism for anybody, especially a Christian, to believe that!).

We do know that when allowed to operate, without design, it produces results unmatched by any alternatives.

4 Comments:

Blogger BSF said...

The criticism also cuts the other way, though. If you ask most evolutionists, especially scientists, they'll tend to reject the idea that the market can produce any sort of an efficient, let alone optimal, outcome. Ask them about gas prices, and they'll more often than not say that there is gouging by oil companies and insist that the government has to step in, keep prices down, and ensure that the market is orderly. They reject intelligent design as an explanation for the function of the natural world but insist that markets cannot be allowed to function unregulated. I posted a short note on this a few weeks ago at http://canadianeconoview.blogspot.com and was surprised by the number of hits I got as a result of it.
I can't actually say that I'm terribly impressed by the performance of either side in the ID debate.

4:26 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I like your point (by the way I bookmarked 'canadianeconoview'to review for a while) and would say that no Smithian economist would react to a sudden rise in prices due to panic about emergencies and rwal emergencies when the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity suppliable for some reason.

Anybody who does is bereft of understanding how markets work - they work to restore the appropriate relationship in the fastest way compared to the alternatives.

This is 'unfair' but so its the rationing of 'price caps' that leave some with gas at the old price and none for those left out and their disruptive influence continues longer.

My point (and that of Paulos) is that anybody who supports ID who contradicts their premise and defends market allocation, and anybody who supports evolution who contradicts their premise and demands price curbs, are both seriously wrong and contradictory.

As an evolutionist and a Smithian economist I am consistent in regards both.

Those evolutionists who reject markets - the least worse way to allocate resources so far discovered - commit the same mistake as the ID people, who demand ID as an 'explanation' and reject interference in markets.

On that basis I am not surpirsed that you are unimpressed with both sides of that debate. I agree with you in your scepticism.

8:03 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I like your point (by the way I bookmarked 'canadianeconoview' to review it) and would say that no Smithian economist would react to a sudden rise in prices due to panic about emergencies and real emergencies when the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity suppliable for some reason.

Anybody who does, is bereft of understanding how markets work - they work to restore the appropriate relationship in the fastest way compared to the alternatives.

This may sometimes be unfair in practice, but so is the rationing by 'price caps' that leave some with gas at the old price and those left out with none, and the disruptive influence continues longer.

My point (and that of Paulos) is that anybody who supports ID who contradicts their premise and defends market allocation, and anybody who supports evolution who contradicts their premise and demands price curbs, are both seriously wrong and contradictory.

As an evolutionist and a Smithian economist I am consistent in regards both.

Those evolutionists who reject markets - the least worse way to allocate resources so far discovered - commit the same mistake as the ID people, who demand ID as an 'explanation' and reject interference in markets.

On that basis I am not surprised that you are unimpressed with both sides of that debate. I agree with you in your scepticism.

8:07 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I like your point (by the way I bookmarked 'canadianeconoview' to review it) and would say that no Smithian economist would react to a sudden rise in prices due to panic about emergencies and real emergencies when the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity suppliable for some reason.

Anybody who does, is bereft of understanding how markets work - they work to restore the appropriate relationship in the fastest way compared to the alternatives.

This may sometimes be unfair in practice, but so is the rationing by 'price caps' that leave some with gas at the old price and those left out with none, and the disruptive influence continues longer.

My point (and that of Paulos) is that anybody who supports ID who contradicts their premise and defends market allocation, and anybody who supports evolution who contradicts their premise and demands price curbs, are both seriously wrong and contradictory.

As an evolutionist and a Smithian economist I am consistent in regards both.

Those evolutionists who reject markets - the least worse way to allocate resources so far discovered - commit the same mistake as the ID people, who demand ID as an 'explanation' and reject interference in markets.

On that basis I am not surprised that you are unimpressed with both sides of that debate. I agree with you in your scepticism.

8:09 pm  

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