Friday, June 08, 2012

Larry Arnhart Reviews Matt Ridley

Larry Arnhart continues on the his.excellent Blog his take on Darwinian social evolution HERE 

"Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (HarperCollins, 2010) is a brilliant exposition of the evolutionary history of human society as arising from the spontaneous order of exchange and specialization.  This makes it an essential contribution to the tradition of evolutionary liberalism that stretches from David Hume and Adam Smith to Charles Darwin and Friedrich Hayek. 
Ridley's lecture summarized the main Hayekian idea of his book--that all human accomplishments arise not from individual intelligence, but from the social networking of our minds into a collective brain.  Moreover, he argued, "that the key feature of trade is that it enables us to work for each other, not just for ourselves; that attempts at self-sufficiency are the true form of selfishness, as well as the quick road to poverty; and that authoritarian, top-down rule is not the source of order or progress."
And yet, Ridley's version of evolutionary liberalism suffers from one fundamental flaw--an almost anarchistic scorn for government.  Unlike Hume, Smith, Darwin, and Hayek, Ridley fails to see that although governmental power is dangerous when it is unlimited and undivided, the spontaneous order of human civilization can arise only within a framework of general rules deliberately designed and enforced by government. 
Ridley says: "Politically, I still see myself as a liberal, even a radical one, whose distrust of putting people in charge of other people is born of knowledge that government has been the means by which people have committed unspeakable horrors again and again and again: under Sargon, Rameses, Nero, Attila, Genghis, Tamerlane, Akbar, Charles V, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Kim Jong Il, and Muammar Gaddafi.  Not one of them used the market to repress and murder their people; their tool was government."
… his mistake is in leaving his readers with the implied conclusion … that we would be better off with no government at all. 
Adam Smith would not agree with this.  In The Wealth of Nations, Smith defended the "simple system of natural liberty," in which "every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men" (IV.ix.51).  Consequently, a government securing natural liberty would be released from any duty to supervise the industry of private people to serve some conception of the public interest, which would falsely assume a knowledge in the central planners that they could never have.  And yet, in this system of natural liberty, government still has three important duties: the military defense of society against foreign threats, the administration of justice to protect each individual of the society against unjust injuries from other individuals, and the establishment and maintenance of certain public works and institutions that could not be well provided by private individuals.  Thus, in a society of natural liberty, the power of government is limited but still essential.
Could there be a human society without any government at all?  In The Wealth of Nations, Smith sees the history of society as moving through four stages--the age of hunters, the age of shepherds, the age of agriculture, and the age of commerce.  Government first arises in the second stage, when disputes over property make government necessary; but when human beings live by foraging--hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants--there is no need for government, since disputes can be settled by informal social authority (V.i.a.1-2, V.i.b.1-12).  But in at least one passage of The Wealth of Nations, Smith suggests that even among hunters, there is a need for "chiefs" to act as judges in peace and leaders in war (V.i.f.51).
The reason for this confusion is that while foragers can live in "stateless societies," … because there is no formal structure of authority that would constitute a "state," there is, nonetheless, some informal and episodic social ranking in which some individuals act as leaders in arbitrating disputes or fighting in war.  In any case, any civilized society clearly requires government.
Similarly, Darwin thought that the primitive foragers he saw at Tierra del Fuego had no structure of leadership, and yet he believed that any animals who live in groups need leaders to resolve disputes or to organize fighting with other groups.  And certainly in the more civilized human societies, there will be a political ranking in which ambitious individuals will compete for dominance (Voyage of the Beagle, chap. 10; Descent of Man, Penguin ed., 2004, 124, 127, 130, 133, 142, 157-58, 629-30, 683).
Like Smith and Darwin, Hayek saw that no large human society … could exist without government.  Only in very small primitive groups was it conceivable to have society without government.  Any civilized human society requires governmental organizations to provide central direction for common purposes.  Even in the most free societies--those that liberals like Hayek wanted to promote--there would always be some need for governmental coercion to manage military defense, to enforce general rules of justice, and to provide the economic and social security of a welfare state (The Constitution of Liberty, 133-61, 253-394; Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1: Rules and Order, 13-14, 32, 46-54). 
And while general rules of law can evolve spontaneously ("grown law"), Hayek thought, these rules will often need to be corrected by the deliberate decisions of judges and legislators ("made law") (Rules and Order, 51, 88, 100).  …
In contrast to Smith, Darwin, and Hayek, Ridley tells a story of human civilization in which government is denigrated as unproductive exploitation.  "Merchants and craftsmen make prosperity; chiefs, priests, and thieves fritter it away" (161).  "Merchants make wealth; chiefs nationalize it" (160). 
He admits that markets cannot function well without institutions and rules that might come from government …  "I see these rules and institutions as evolutionary phenomena, too, emerging bottom-up in society rather than being imposed top-down by fortuitously Solomonic rulers" (118).  He cites the examples of medieval merchant law and British common law.  But he says nothing about Hayek's point that spontaneously evolved rules often need correction by the deliberate decisions of judges and legislators.
I agree with much of Larry Arnhart’s criticism of some of Matt Ridley’s ideas, but I also have reservations about some of Larry’s presentation of the “stateless” versus market-states extremes. States evolved both bottom up and top down; both are susceptible to future changes.  Evolution has never produced a finished form, and it is unlikely that it ever will, evidenced by forms lasting or millions of years.  Notions of a perfect, or near perfect, state-market society is utterly utopian, as I regularly comment on Lost Legacy. When people offer schemes to reform the world’s economies and institute social changes, including something like the "simple system of natural liberty," in which "every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men" (IV.ix.51) I recognise this, at best, as an aspiration.  The “simple system of natural liberty” has never existed in the entire history of man.  It was, and remains still, a philosophical abstraction, desirable though it may be regarded by (too) few of us as an aspiration.  Smith expressed something close to the futility of insisting on the historical fact of the “exact regimen of perfect liberty and perfect justice”, which, never emerged, evidenced by the observation, “there is not in the world a nation which could ever have prospered”.   Fortunately, past, present, and future “political bodies” tended to include “ample provision for remedying many of the bad effects of the folly and injustice of man” (WN IV.ix.28: 674).
Past forms of political bodies varied both in form and in time.  The “Four Ages of Man”, as Adam Smith wrote and taught were about society’s means of subsistence, and they took many variant forms, as historians, anthropologists, economists, have shown (and others besides Smith tentatively suggested).  But the First Age of hunting and gathering, existed for the longest portion of the 200,000 years of human existence and was once universal across the species (“All the world was America” wrote Locke). Some societies evolved into shepherding wild animals, and, unintentionally as a consequence, some societies domesticated them (2nd Age of Man); others also discovered farming worked (3rd Age of man); both in varied forms slowly spreading in parts of the world, and they practiced varied state-forms, as well as varying literate civilizations like Greece, Rome, China, India, Babylonia and Egypt during their first days in the Sun, marking their arrival and passage to the stone detritus by what they left behind.  The emergence of commerce (“at last”) marked for Smith the beginning of the modern world of the 4th Age.
Government is neither the problem, nor its absence the solution, to the continuing fluctuations in human behaviours as moulded by increasing knowledge, improving technologies, and changing cultural norms. “The deliberate decisions of judges and legislators ("made law") (Hayek, Rules and Order, 51, 88, 100)” are in constant flux. State constitutions are subject to constant change by elaboration, amendment and innovation.  That is blind, unintentional social evolution at its messy work.  Utopians look for tidy social arrangements.  They are always disappointed. 


Blogger airth10 said...

I just came across a book entitled "Mao's Invisible Hand: The Political Foundation of Adaptive Governance in China". I thought it appropriate to this post since this post talks about evolution and somebody despising government. I am also wondering how different Mao's invisible hand was from Smith's.

Governance in China has certainly adapted well to capitalism and the free market, though it is not entirely free yet. The governance in China has evolved in response to reality, the reality that if one hopes to achieve and maintain a sustainable society one has to abandon communist economic ideology for one of free markets. Communism stifles the spirit and the incentive to produce and innovate, whereas the free market unleashes and motivates that spirit - the pursuit of self-interest.

Could China have made this about-face in its economic thinking without there having been a strong governance in place first? I think not. One could also take the view that the domineering government of Mao's China is what organized and prepared it for the eventuality of capitalism.

Matt Ridley is a dreamer, like all utopians, thinking that humans can manage without central governing bodies. For instance, if we didn't have centralized governments how could societies have dealt with communicable infectious diseases like AIDS and SARS so that we could all carry on doing business as usual?

5:43 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Be aware of sanctioning all 'self-interested' actions. The actions of cruel and oppressive Kings and their Lords and vassals, of self interested tradesmen conspiring to raise prices, of legislators and those who influenced them setting up tariff protections and prohibitions, of monopolists generally, and trade unions that stop non-members from working, of crooks and confidence tricksters, and yes, of communists functionaries, are self-interested. Smith made clear of the difference between them and their ilk and those who act in their self interest by mediating with the self-interest of others to arrive at mutually acceptable trades, bargains, and exchanges.

It is too easy to slip from Adam Smith's ideas about self-interest into utterly alien ideas of self interest, as is common in modern media accounts of self interest. Not all self-interested actions lead to public benefit.

10:43 am  

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