Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 1, 2016

in Adam Smith, Complexity & Emergence, Hayek, Seen and Unseen

… is from page 110 of Matt Ridley’s superb 2015 book, The Evolution of Everything:

[T]oday few people appreciate just how similar the arguments made by Smith and Darwin are.  Generally, Adam Smith is championed by the political right, Charles Darwin more often by the left.  In, say, Texas, where Smith’s emergent, decentralised economics is all the rage, Darwin is frequently reviled for his contradiction of dirigiste creation.  In the average British university, by contrast, you will find fervent believers in the emergent, decentralised properties of genomes and ecosystems who yet demand dirigiste policy to bring order to the economy and society.  But if life needs no intelligent designer, then why should the market need a central planner?  Where Darwin defenestrated God, Smith just as surely defenestrated Leviathan.  Society, he said, is a spontaneously ordered phenomenon.  And Smith faces the same baffled incredulity – How can society work for the good of all without direction? – that Darwin faces.

In what is surely one of the great ironies of creation, natural selection seems to have crafted human minds to see conscious creation wherever order is perceived – and also, therefore, to prompt our minds to assume that a conscious creator (that is, a designer and controller) is at work.  I must believe that this inclination of the human mind serves, or served, to enhance human survival.

But as Hayek argued (especially in The Fatal Conceit), not all evolved human instincts fit ideally with life in this brand-spanking-new global, commercial society of ours (what Hayek called “the extended order” – as in an order of human relationships that extends well beyond the small groups in which the vast majority of our ancestors lived).  Tribalism is always at work, threatening to shred the sinews of the modern economy that has as a centerpiece an immense division of labor that spans the globe and involves the creativity and efforts of literally billions of people, nearly all of whom are complete strangers to each other.  (Note the root word in “strangers.”  We are evolved to be suspicious of that which is strange.)

For reasons that remain largely mysterious to me, the liberal culture that first emerged in western Europe just a few centuries ago somehow channeled human instincts – or overrode our tribal instincts with other of our instincts – to allow peaceful and productive cooperation with an expanding number of strangers.  Trade, deep specialization, production for vast markets, and peace grew.  Raiding, self-sufficient communities that produced mostly for known members of one’s group, and war with outsiders became relatively less prominent.

And then in the 18th century a few pioneering scholars (featuring prominently Adam Smith) – and of course building on insights from earlier scholars – stumbled upon (!) what is surely the single most important insight in all of the social sciences, and what is surely among the most important in all of the sciences – namely, that complex, productive, beautiful, and sustainable orders emerge undesigned and unplanned and undirected.  A corollary of this insight is that these orders are practically impossible to improve with conscious intervention.

Our minds do not naturally grasp this reality.  In fact, our minds rebel against this reality.  But that this reality is our world I am completely convinced.  (Do you doubt it about the economy?  Then tell me who designed and directs the order that will feed today the millions of people who live in, work in, and visit New York City.  Tell me who designed and directs the order that produced the shirt you now wear.  We can debate the necessity or not of state-funded research, state-built infrastructure, and state-created and enforced law.  Yet even on the most generous estimation of the importance of such collectively arranged inputs, the complexity of the order that feeds New York City and that clothes you daily is inconceivably greater than anything that the most magnificent and munificent state can have planned or even foreseen.)

The orders that emerge unplanned in society are no more perfect than are the orders that emerge unplanned in non-sentient nature.  Change is therefore incessant and necessary.  Life and existence is a process.  And while appreciation of the creative power of bottom-up, decentralized ordering methods isn’t natural to us, we humans perhaps never display as much genius and intellectual humility as we do when we grasp the reality and logic of spontaneous orders.


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