Evolution: the Biosphere and the Shopping Mall

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.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

7 responses to “Evolution: the Biosphere and the Shopping Mall

  1. It’s more akin to the way an ecosystem develops rather than a species, but a nice analogy nonetheless.

  2. abandonwoo

    Manichaean political economic foofoo. Pure unfettered capitalism has existed from time to time, of course. In historical terms we refer to those times as precivilization, primitive societies, monarchical totalitarian era’s, Dark Ages feudalism, the American Gilded Age, the present post-Reagan neoliberal radical upward wealth redistribution cycle we presently suffer, just to name a few.

    All of those are little if any better than totally state-controlled economies, which are recent, few, and for those that do not adapt to capitalist-dominated market systems, short-lived. I can’t name any existing solely socialist state. Is there one? The austerity crowd thinks they can arrange a pure free market capitalist system, and that we’ll all be the bettter for it. Caveat emptor, boys. I’ll fight you every inch of the way.

    Most economies are mixtures of capitalist/community entities (we’ll all one day experience the superiority of municipal water & other utilities compared to price and service for privatized same — particularly water, unless one shuffles off the mortal coil in the next decade or three).

    Some functions are best served in the public domain, some in the private. Contemporary conditions require judicious policy guidelines to meet contemporary needs, and constant rudder is necessary; things always change. Bull-headed ideological utopians are True Believers, unable to discern reality from passionate belief committment, stuck in stay-the-course rigidity even as the hull collapses upon the shoals..

  3. Spector567

    I see what you are saying SC. However, your analogy falls apart. Someone created the mall, set the building codes, assigned the parking spaces, zoned the area. Than the mall owner sold to the right stores, and set a market value for the space following the rules and guidelines set out by the tenet act and contracts.

    So in many respects the mall is intelligently designed and continues with macro evolution.

    the completely free market could be compared to evolution. However, it also brings the problems along with it. Especially with high level predators of big corporations. That would include massive die off and boom cycles.

    also lets not forget that 99.999% of all species that evolved are now extinct. There genetic line ended.

  4. Ceteris Paribus

    Well sure it is possible to say the unrestrained free market is efficient.
    As long as one is willing to say that a malignant cancer is also efficient.

    Both seem to rely on a few basic simple presuppositions that :
    1. Infinite exponential growth does not violate any natural laws.
    2. Infrastructure that preceded the new entrepreneur is available at no cost.
    3. Process wastes originating today can be freely dispersed to the society at large, or left for the future to handle.

  5. Cancer is to multicellular organisms what unregulated capitalism is to human society. The question is how to regulate the invisible hands of the greedy out of the cash register.

  6. Ceteris Paribus makes three killer points that free enterprise allegedly assumes:

    1. Infinite exponential growth does not violate any natural laws.

    If growth violates a natural law, then it can’t be a problem.

    2. Infrastructure that preceded the new entrepreneur is available at no cost.

    What would you have the entrepreneur do? Not use the infrastructure?

    3. Process wastes originating today can be freely dispersed to the society at large, or left for the future to handle.

    No doubt a committee of all-wise bureaucrats will know what to do.

  7. Ceteris Paribus

    Curm suggests: “If growth violates a natural law, then it can’t be a problem.”

    That is a cleverly revised version of the original statement. By the revision, any condition which violates laws of nature must necessarily be self extinguishing, and I agree.

    But my statement was to the effect that free market capitalists are required to behave as if the laws of nature do become suspended under their special system. That’s intentional .OO, or at least magical thinking.

    Here’s the problem in a nutshell. A capitalist invests money today with the expectation that the money will be worth more tomorrow. Otherwise there would be no incentive to invest.

    And the same logic applies each new day, with an expectation that every tomorrow there will be more consumers demanding more goods and services. Which, because of the efficiency of the free market, will of course be sold to happy consumers at even lower prices. And even if some finite resources do deplete, the magic of the market will insure better and more efficient replacements are found. But humans have limits to their reasoning ability. Aboriginal tribes invent a religion of cargo cults; capitalists invent a religion of Infinite growth on a finite planet.

    One example of how market capitalism didn’t work out so well is the (former) oil resources in the North Sea. The UK, under their all-wise bureaucrat Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, rapidly privatized the UK’s state owned oil resources. The result is that the people of the UK quickly got more oil for less cost. And substantial profits were made for investors by exporting high quality UK oil to the world market.

    Around 1990 the price of oil had dropped to about $20/barrel [in 2012 dollars] And it turned out that the peak flow of the UK’s North Sea field came about at the same time. The geologists had no more tricks to increase production rate. And even if they had any tricks, there was no economic incentive to invest in them. So now the [former collective owners] citizens of the UK pay world prices for the oil they import.