Evolution, Creationism, and Free Enterprise

James Murdoch, the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has been getting a lot of press coverage in the UK lately for his recent remarks that the British government has allowed the BBC to become dominant to the point where it’s threatening independent journalism. In doing so, he has invoked the conflict of evolution versus creationism to describe the economic struggle.

We’ve previously discussed the theory of evolution in connection with free-market economics. For example, see: Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection. This too: Economics, Intelligent Design, and Evolution.

It is pleasing, therefore, to see the same ideas being expressed elsewhere. The Adam Smith Institute is a UK think tank that seems to have had some influence on the thinking of Margaret Thatcher. At their website they have this article: Evolution and creationism, which is about James Murdoch’s speech. The speech itself is well-worth reading, for example:

It argued that the most dramatic evolutionary changes can occur through an entirely natural process. Darwin proved that evolution is unmanaged. These views were an enormous challenge to Victorian religious orthodoxy. They remain a provocation to many people today. The number who reject Darwin and cling to the concept of creationism is substantial. And it crops up in some surprising places.

For example, right here in the broadcasting sector in the UK.

The consensus appears to be that creationism — the belief in a managed process with an omniscient authority — is the only way to achieve successful outcomes. There is general agreement that the natural operation of the market is inadequate, and that a better outcome can be achieved through the wisdom and activity of governments and regulators.

We’ll let you click over there to enjoy that on your own. Here are some excerpts from the Adam Smith Institute’s article, with bold added by us:

As in so many things the confusion over beliefs is more extreme in the US than the UK but it still exists here. Creationism itself is more associated with sects on the right, even while such loudly abhor government planning of the economy. But those who are most strident in their insistence that the natural world is simply a result of random chance filtered thought survival of the fittest also seem to be those who insist that the economy is not such.

Exactly! We’ve mentioned this intellectual inconsistency before. See: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Barack Obama. Let’s read on:

All of which is really rather puzzling. It would seem logical that believing that one huge, chaotic and extraordinarily complex system has arisen without planning would lead on to the acceptance that if it can happen once it can happen twice. If humans are simply the result of competition in spreading gametes for 4 billion years, then it should be easier to accept that an economy is a result of similar if subtly different competition.

This has been strikingly obvious to us, but we’re always amazed that so many science types just don’t get it. We continue:

Yet, as above, it just doesn’t quite seem to work out that way. Perhaps it is just that the human brain is uncomfortable with quite so much randomness: if we are planned to be here than we can accept the random nature of the world, while if we are randomly here then there must be planned order in the world?

Never underestimate the ability of the people to entertain two contradictory notions at the same time. Here’s the end:

Or perhaps it’s that those who accept both Darwin (correctly) and planning (incorrectly) are not quite so free of religious desires as they think themselves to be. There still needs to be a caste to protect them from the vagaries of the universe, to intercede against randomness, but they’ll term them planners instead of priests?

Well said! We applaud the Adam Smith Institute for the same reason we applaud Darwin’s theory of evolution — both promote ideas that are supported by the evidence of the real world. Therefore, we shall never tire of pointing out that free enterprise and unguided Darwinian evolution are entirely compatible. Acceptance of one should lead to acceptance the other.

Alas, it doesn’t often work out like that. Life is strange.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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17 responses to “Evolution, Creationism, and Free Enterprise

  1. Murdoch Jr’.s basic analogy — on evolution & markets — is splendid, though not original.

    But he is a wanker, and his argument probably boils down to some pathetic special pleading on behalf of the truly appalling Sky TV, which is mediocre in the extreme.

    For a contrasting view (though one I have as many quarrels with as I do with execrable Murdochs, both Pere & Fils), see James Murdoch’s attack on BBC is specious and out of date by Will Hutton.

    [Curmudgeonly interruption to bring you a repaired link: James Murdoch's attack on BBC is specious and out of date]

    Sad fact is, commercial broadcasting struggles to match output of BBC; whining about “unfairness” in this rather undercuts the otherwise sound analogy Murdoch offers.

  2. Addendum: The BBC “crushes” (Murdoch’s point) commercial enterprise only in the same way that Google can be said to do so, by effectively providing ‘free content.’ Can someone point out how Murdoch’s attack on the BBC differs from a complaint that Google is authoritarian and anti-enterprise, on the grounds it stifles my ability to set up a paid subscription internet search service?

  3. Your link doesn’t work, Great Claw. Actually, I’m not interested in Murdoch’s plight. My continuing point is the similarity of both free enterprise and evolution.

    As for broadcasting in the UK, the last time I was in London (a while ago) you had two channels, and one was filled with programming about cooking, sewing, and beekeeping. The second channel was even less interesting.

  4. Oops, my link doesn’t work because I’m pants at html. Here’s the raw url: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/aug/30/bbc-murdoch-edinburgh-tv-festival

    Curmy wrote:

    My continuing point is the similarity of both free enterprise and evolution.

    Mine too, and I agree with you on this — it’s just that Murdoch and News International in this instance are about the worst possible examples to advocate this point. In fact, they cut against what is otherwise a sound argument.

    Basically, Murdoch here is the dinosaur complaining that the warm-bloodedness those pesky mammals have developed is terribly unfair.

    And Murdoch is effectively calling for external regulation to “reign in” the BBC, because they are too difficult to compete with. That is hardly an argument for free enterprise.

    That second, even less interesting, channel (back when you last experienced British broadcasting) was the commercial one, alas.

  5. Great Claw, I read the article to which you linked, and I even put a corrected link in your original post. I know nothing of Murdoch’s operations, and it may be that his programming couldn’t compete with a junior college’s student-run TV station. There’s no guarantee that the free market will produce anything of quality. But his fundamental point about competing with a tax-supported entity is sound. The principal virtue of a free enterprise economy is that it’s free from state control. The hope is that competition will produce an occasional winner. If not, then that’s the deal.

  6. This is interesting, Curmy; I whole agree with part of what you say, half-agree with another part, and have big questions about another part.

    Probably not worth pursing unless of interest to others (I don’t want to take too much of the comment space here), but briefly:

    There’s no guarantee that the free market will produce anything of quality. But his fundamental point about competing with a tax-supported entity is sound. The principal virtue of a free enterprise economy is that it’s free from state control.

    But the principal virtue of evolution is only whether a thing works or not; there is no ideological ‘ideal’ or principle to which living organisms need adhere beyond survival and reproduction.

    Normally, I oppose tax-supported entities — not on some ideological grounds — but because they don’t work as well as those delivered by private enterprise. But in instances where such entities do deliver benefits superior to private enterprise entities (some aspects of the NHS or the BBC), then ‘evolution’ permits them to flourish, and rightly so. Who cares how the result is achieved?

    The hope is that competition will produce an occasional winner. If not, then that’s the deal.

    But competition always produces a winner, which is great.

    Murdoch is complaining the particular competition his corporation faces isn’t “fair” — but neither is evolution ‘fair’, but how could it be or why should it be?

    Is it about the end-result, or about the means?

  7. Great Claw asks: “Is it about the end-result, or about the means?”

    Good question. The means are always messy, whether in evolution or in free enterprise. There are always losers. And the winners aren’t necessarily optimum, just adequate. I suppose it’s possible that a bunch of bureaucrats could be clever enough to build a better mousetrap. Given unlimited funds, they probably could. But at what cost? We’ll never know what might have been done had the state not conscripted those resources. So my answer is: I don’t like the means used by the state. Their stock in trade is coercion. Their “great” products, if such exist, come at too high a price.

  8. OK, I suspect we are fairly close to generally agreeing about the principle you’ve outlined, but disagree about the applicability of that principle to this particular instance of Murdoch and the BBC (which, as you initially pointed out, is only of marginal interest here in any event).

    With that caveat (I’m addressing the particular instance of Murdoch’s example here), I’d respond as follows:

    I suppose it’s possible that a bunch of bureaucrats could be clever enough to build a better mousetrap. Given unlimited funds, they probably could.

    BBC isn’t run by state bureaucrats. It’s a trust, run by a board of governors very similar to any commercial corporation. The government doesn’t have a Ministry of Truth that runs broadcasting, though the state does administer the collection of the licence fee by which it is partially funded (and which was, orginally, its sole source of funding). Licence fee gives access to all BBC Channels and most commercial channels (ITV, C4 & 5), but not to paid subscription channels like Sky, Discovery, National Geographic &c. Such funding is obviously not “unlimited”, but in fact is cheaper than a subscription to Sky — which one purchases (optionally) as a supplement to the basic services available.

    But at what cost? We’ll never know what might have been done had the state not conscripted those resources.

    In this instance, though, I think we do: commercial only stations, just without a BBC. Which is pretty much what you have in the US?

    So my answer is: I don’t like the means used by the state. Their stock in trade is coercion. Their “great” products, if such exist, come at too high a price.

    The only ‘coercion’, though, is payment of the licence fee, which is a part of the BBC’s funding (the rest of their funding is from their commercial activities, such as selling programmes overseas, merchandise, &c., as for any other commercial broadcaster).

    In the States, you have some television I can watch for ‘free’, but it has commercial messages from private companies advertising goods. Which is fine: I pay for the television when I buy those goods. I’m not compelled to buy those goods, but I am compelled to either watch or go out of my way to ignore the advertisements, and that is not cost-neutral. Either way, the service of broadcasting is paid for, and as the BBC is relatively inexpensive, I don’t follow the “at too high a price” part of your argument.

    Independent commercial broadcasting was set up in the UK in the 1950′s precisely to prevent the BBC from holding a monopoly and to encourage the multiple benefits which arise from competition — and that is indeed been the result. It is ironic for Murdoch to complain when it is precisely the ability of the BBC to compete on quality of output at effective cost.

    Murdoch’s sole complaint seems to resolve to the fact the BBC delivers content on-line for “free” (in fact, paid for by its other revenues, both licence fee and trading activties) — but how, to repeat my previous argument — is this any different from using Google maps, which have pretty much driven off an earlier generation of subscription websites? It’s a different business model, but still very much the free — and indeed, the evolving — market.

    But I am rather boorishly hogging the comments section here, and should shut up. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking piece, at any rate!

  9. What a crock.

    Funny thing is, if we want evolution to produce a species with specific traits helpful to us, we do the selecting.

    And no, it does not take contradictory thinking to accept the results of evolution, which is a semi-random process at best, and still require intervention in something like the economy. It has nothing to do with the ability to accept randomness nor to accept self organization in complex systems, it has to do with evidence that the economy reacts the same as biological systems.

    Claiming that the economy and evolution are essential analogs is not the same as supplying evidence they are.

    “It would seem logical that believing that one huge, chaotic and extraordinarily complex system has arisen without planning would lead on to the acceptance that if it can happen once it can happen twice”

    This is certainly true, but the knowledge that it can happen does not imply that it has happened, nor that it could happen in economics specifically. That has to be shown, independently of evolution.

    This man needs a serious logic check.

  10. comradebillyboy

    Free market capitalism (if this really exists aside from a philosophical construct) is premised on individuals behaving in their perceived self-interest and even in a less than ideal form it is a great machine for creating wealth. IMHO whether capitalism is ‘natural’ rather than ‘designed’ is question of economic philosophy rather than an evidenced based scientific conjecture. Sorry its so wordy. At least its not in all caps.

  11. comradebillyboy

    Oh yea I just remembered the fact that very few here post in all caps is one of the site’s many appealing features.

  12. Your argument doesn’t go far enough. If evolution is the right model for the economy, why not for society as a whole? Fire services, police, hospitals, schools – away with them! They distort the purity of natural selection, and clog society with the unproductive old and ill.

    Declaration of interest: I love the BBC. It still provides most of the best programmes on UK TV and radio.

  13. Agree with b_sharp, comrade, and David; Murdoch is committing the is/ought fallacy, arguing in essense that because nature does work a certain way, (at least part of) human society should work the same way.

    Darwin himself vehemently argued against this. He argued the reverse, in fact: that as moral beings we have an obligation to fashion a social system that is more just, more merciful, more ethical than nature’s system of natural selection. (Though in fairness, he wasn’t talking about economics when he said that, he was talking about how we treat the weak and poor.)

  14. Michael Shermer is also a proponent of how the economy and evolution both represent bottom up self organizing processes. He expresses it best in this video here:

  15. Arrrrgghhhh, I’m struggling to leave this topic alone — mostly, I think, because I was previously very taken with the Evolution/Market analogy, but Murdoch’s use of it here has actually weakened it in my mind.

    I think the basic problem is attempting to derive over-generalised principles from some similar features between the two, then hammering those principles into an ideology to be applied to real cases — instead of what science does, which is to continue the empirical study of real cases, noting similarities and differences as they continue to present themselves.

    Example: Nature doesn’t issue copyright or patent protection to evolutionary innovation, yet free markets require that level of protection (is there really another word for it?) to function: even in the 18th century, James Watts would have been ruined and the Industrial Revolution strangled at birth without at least rudimentary patenting mechanisms available. I don’t see an analogue to this mechanism in nature.

    Also, Evolution doesn’t produce “one size fits all” solutions, but a plethora of different solutions which are selected for a range of niches. But Murdoch is misapplying the Evolution/Market analogy to propose a ‘universal’ principle — to be applied, ironically, in a regularatory manner against a market competitor.

    If one feels compelled to stretch the analogy, one might argue the BBC represents a GM crop; is such ‘design intervention’ some utter moral evil to be shunned? Or simply something appropriate to the particular niche it occupies?

    In any event, it’s disingenuous of Murdoch to describe the BBC as if it were an arm of the State, in the way that IRNA is in Iran or Xinhua in China (and Murdoch Pere has no qualms about trimming his sails in dealing with Xinhua, but that is by-the-by).

    Murdoch’s arguments don’t really differ from Berlusconi’s in attempting to privatise the RAI (which is more or less the Italian equivalent of the BBC) — which is fine from the point of view of a player in the market, but doesn’t convince as a general argument about freedom from ‘coercion.’ Can anyone doubt that Berlusconi owes his political career to his vast ownership of Italian broadcast media, or that his feud with the RAI is about maintaining his personal power base? It’s not wrong that market players seek monopolies — but unconvincing when they claim their pursuit of such is an ideological virtue beyond the expected pursuit of self-interest. The market depends on pursuit of self-interest, but it’s no good crying “unfair” when the market doesn’t happen to favour your particular self-interest — unless one doesn’t mind sounding like a dinosaur bemoaning the advancing glaciers.

    Murdoch’s speech is far more to do with the current market readjustments arising from the internet (online content is an enormous challenge to print journalism) and actually diminishes rather than re-enforce the old Evolution/Market analogy IMHO.

  16. Great Claw says: “Arrrrgghhhh, I’m struggling to leave this topic alone …”

    Me too, but I’ll comment just a little. First, the BBC vs Murdoch may not be a great example for anyone to use to illustrate any general principle, because the BBC may produce a decent product at relatively low cost, and as you’ve pointed out, it’s not strictly a state-owned operation (although the difference is relatively trivial). Also, Murdoch may not be a great competitor in that market. I wasn’t intending to side with him against the BBC. All I wanted to do with my post was give the Adam Smith Institute’s opinion about evolution generally in connection with economics. But this BBC-Murdoch controversy is probably a bad case to use for the textbooks.

    The patent system is a whole separate issue. Essentially, it’s in the same realm as laws that protect property. Those are all social constructs, implemented because they’re demonstrably beneficial. A society could exist without any form of property rights, and its members could survive — but given the option, most of its members would probably migrate to a society that had our rules, because it works better. This is an empirical demonstration.

    When — back in the days of the USSR — there were clear side-by-side comparisons of socialist societies and a market-oriented society, as with East & West Germany, Hong Kong and red China, etc., the flow of refugees was always away from the socialist societies. I suggest that this is more than coincidence. Anyway, that’s the larger point, regardless of Murdoch’s offerings compared to those of the BBC.