The Illusion of "Design" in Human Societies
Marvin Brown writes (8 May) in Business Models, Design Management, Economy, issue 10: CIVILIZING THE ECONOMY: “Designing the future Economy” HERE
“Designing the Future Economy”.
“Good design begins with a process of discovery. Let us look at where this deeply held belief comes from. Although there are several sources, probably none is more influential than the writings of Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith began his economic design with a four-stage conjectural story of human evolution. The first human nation was a nation of hunters, which then evolved into a nation of shepherds and farmers, and later a nation of traders, or what he called a commercial nation. This fourth stage was civilized society for Smith, where governments protected people’s property, and where the “invisible hand” transformed individual self-interest into a benefit for all. I think he thought that if we could design an economy where individuals could follow their self-interest, it would actually bring about a wealthy nation.”
Adam Smith did not design an alternative society, nor did he invent the four ages of mankind. He summarized what he observed as the essentially distinctive features of human history as the age of Hunters, Shepherds, Agriculture, and Commerce (Lectures in Jurisprudence, 1.27: 14, 1762).
Laws, property, moral norms, and governance, evolved over long periods of time in several different forms, none of which were ‘designed’ by an individual genius or a committee of geniuses, or a king, philosopher, or warrior. Some societies thrived for a long time, others did not last a generation, and others gradually changed into something else. Across Europe, Asia, Central America, and pockets elsewhere, the stone detritus of ‘civilisations’, and the swollen earthen mounds of isolated prehistoric settlements, are studied, classified, and analysed by anthropologists, sociologist, economists, and historians, adding to the remnants of written accounts and records that appeared after the ages of writing, painting, and folklore. Human speech became possible after the faculty of speech evolved within biological evolution that brought changes among proto-humans and, later, modern Homo sapiens, in small, scattered groups across varied natural environments.
Marvin Brown can rest assured that Adam Smith never said that “an (not ‘the’) ‘invisible hand’ transformed individual self-interest into a benefit for all”. That is a crass, if now ubiquitous, invention by some modern economists (Paul Samuelson, et al) who invented the notion and the attribution to Adam Smith during the Cold War to bolster their (as it happens true) belief that capitalism was a superior economic system to Soviet communism in creating wealth among masses of people, not just the few. All migration of desperate populations from poverty economies is in one direction only, from the poorest world to the richest, capitalist world. Any march out of Harlem and other slums to poorer non-capitalist countries has so far passed noticed. However, the gentrification of former 'capitalist' slums as populations raise their living standards has been noticed (and dramatised; see The Soprano's). In fact, what is most noticeable in recent capitalist countries is the moving out of aspiring younger generations of former slum dwellers to other richer capitalist suburbs, in part because gentrification in their area is 'too slow', which increases the pressures on those remaining in the old slums, or joining them from other poor, part capitalist societies and assorted tyrannies.
Marvin Brown asks: “Can we design an economy that provides for everyone?” My short answer is: “No, we can’t”. His basic problem is his assumption that societies can be “designed". In the history of human kind, nobody designed any of the varied societies that have been experienced by those who lived within them. You can amuse yourself by ‘designing” an ideology, a religion, or a superstition, which may catch on through a small coterie of followers, like the futile, invented language of Esperanto, once popular in certain political leftwing factions for a few decades in the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries, with unreliable numbers of adherents speaking it ranging from a few thousands to a couple of million, both estimates declining.
However, successfully designing whole societies is way off track and beyond the reach of humans (I exclude the possibility of a small post-nuclear holocaust survivors' society). You can adopt the social norms of another society, usually mangling them in the process. You can even enforce your design by resort to limited political, religious, or mystical tyrannies. But you cannot alter every major aspect of how a society with 7 billion people in it functions without destabilising it into the eventual failed tyranny of the utopian dreams that inspire artificial designs. The very attempt to force changes on societies, whether in pursuit of worthy socio-political goals or for eligibility for an imagined religious afterlife are futile, though attempts to bring them about will prove disastrous.