Some of our readers get upset whenever we discuss free markets and free enterprise; but that’s okay, we’re tolerant. Hey — someone has to say these things, and a slow news day like today is the ideal time. For examples of our prior posts on this topic, see Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Barack Obama, and also Someone Else Understands Darwin & Economics.
So that you’ll know what you’re getting into before you read too far, here’s a quote from Ronald Bailey that we included in one of those earlier posts:
Intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what socialism is to free-market economics.
Now that you know where we’re going, we’ll discuss the same topic, this time in the context of something with which you’re all familiar. Consider the modern shopping mall — or shopping center as it’s also known. It’s a wonderland of merchandise, to which customers voluntary go and where they voluntarily spend their money, purchasing goods that they decide they want, at prices they willingly choose to pay. And it’s all done without coercion.
Okay, that’s very nice, but such a finely-tuned, beautifully functioning thing must have had an intelligent designer, right?
Actually, no. As with any successful organism — no one designed it. Oh sure, a developer built the place — so in that sense our analogy isn’t perfect, but analogies are never perfect. However, developers sometimes build bad malls, or they build them in poorly-chosen locations. Those are swiftly bulldozed away, which is analogous to organisms with unsuccessful mutations or that can’t cope with their environment.
Malls have been built at least as far back as Trajan’s Market in 100 AD. But they’ve evolved considerably since then. Trajan wouldn’t recognize the enclosed, air-conditioned, suburban mall you visit today.
Aside from the mall itself, who planned the assembly of all the individual stores, with all the wares they display? No mall developer could possibly design all that. Even if he started out with a few chain stores in mind as tenants, the roster of retailers currently at the mall is probably quite different from the original tenants, many of whom may have gone out of business and were replaced by new retailers. Not only do the stores gradually change over time, but the goods being sold are probably different from those that were originally on display. In the space of a decade or two, virtually everything is different.
Our point, dear reader, is this: The mall you see today — even if it’s been there for decades — is nothing like the mall in that same location that your mother visited to buy your baby carriage. It’s a whole new organism, as it were, and it wasn’t planned. It’s the result of the work of hundreds of ever-changing store managers over several years, each seeking to improve his performance.
The more astute among you can see the analogy to species scurrying around in their environments, each trying to get food and mates, doing his best to get along. The result can be a flourishing ecosystem that may appear to be marvelously designed — but it wasn’t. The similarity of this economic natural selection and Adam Smith’s invisible hand to Darwin’s theory is so obvious that it’s difficult to miss. We’ve discussed that before too — see Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection. Looking that one over, we’ll have to quote ourselves again:
It has often been remarked that the theory of evolution, according to which life on earth evolves without the guidance of a designer, is remarkably similar to the way a free-enterprise economy develops, with each enterprise doing its best to prosper, yet without the “benefit” of a centralized planner.
We don’t want to spend too much time repeating what we’ve said so often before, so we won’t go on much longer — only enough to annoy some of you. But we want to remind you of this — the next time you visit the mall, take a look — a good look. The structure has been evolving for at least 2,000 years, and the component parts (the stores) have been evolving far longer than that. The overall result, which no one designed, works without a central planning authority. If there were such, then going there would be like shopping in Moscow in the days of the old Soviet Union — where nothing you wanted was ever available.
Free markets work — not perfectly, but far better than any un-free alternative. And please, don’t bother to rant about freakish outliers like Bernard Madoff. He was a crook, and we favor laws against such things; but that’s not the same thing as centralized planning. Those who think the state should control the economy have more in common with the proponents of intelligent design than they realize. Things that work well, albeit not perfectly, may seem to have been designed, but it ain’t necessarily so.
Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.