The Folly of Economic Creationism

We found the perfect thing to stimulate you for the weekend, dear reader. It’s in the New York Post — the seventh-most-widely circulated newspaper in the United States, founded by Alexander Hamilton: Good ideas evolve, so how come liberals believe in ‘creationist’ government? The newspaper doesn’t have a comments feature — at least not for that article.

We love their headline! Your humble Curmudgeon has previously written a time or two about this subject, and whenever we do it seems to infuriate our readers. See Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection, where we said:

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.

And in one of our favorite posts, Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Barack Obama, we said:

We suggest that Silicon Valley emerged in the complete absence of any stimulus package. Indeed, it probably emerged because there was no such package. Silicon Valley’s nurturing environment was a mix of entrepreneurial activity, venture capital financing, and an unregulated market. What we now know as Silicon Valley emerged without centralized planning — there was no “intelligent designer.”

Darwin’s undirected mechanism of natural selection is strikingly analogous to the free enterprise economy described by Adam Smith, who wrote:

[E]very individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. … [H]e intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

But you already know what your Curmudgeon thinks. Let’s see what the New York Post says about this subject. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

We know where humanity came from: It evolved incrementally, from the bottom up, amid much trial and error, not via the top-down efforts of an all-wise creator who anticipated every contingency and meticulously planned out every last detail. So why do we assume government, business and the economy operate this way?

We are in the throes of Curmudgeonly ecstasy — finally, someone in the press (Kyle Smith is the New York Post‘s film critic) is asking the right question! He quotes a lot from a book by Matt Ridley, who is “a longtime editor for The Economist.” Ridley’s book is The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (Amazon listing). Smith tells us:

Far from searching for gods to explain every development, we should instead turn our attention to the smallest factors, many of them invisible. “When we find human culture being well adapted to solve human problems,” Ridley writes, “we tend to assume that this is because some clever person designed it with that end in mind. So we tend to give too much credit to whichever clever person is standing nearby at the right moment.”

Then there’s a long discussion of George Washington’s victory at Yorktown, and how it was really an outbreak of malaria among the British troops that forced Cornwallis to surrender to Washington. We never heard of that, and it’s not important for our purposes here. Let’s read on:

The Internet is a similar story; Al Gore and Barack Obama brag that the government created it. The truth is that it wasn’t until government got out of the way that what was once the Arpanet, a Pentagon creation, evolved into the Internet. “If you really want to see the Arpanet as the origin of the Internet,” Ridley asks, “please explain why the government sat on it for 30 years and did almost nothing with it until it was effectively privatized in the 1990s, with explosive results.”

Until 1989, the government actually prohibited Arpanet from being used for private or commercial ends. Ridley quotes a handbook distributed to MIT users of the Arpanet that read, in the 1980s, “sending electronic messages over the Arpanet for commercial profit or political purposes is both antisocial and illegal.”

That’s accurate history. Then he gives an example we like even better:

Consider the divergence of South Korea and Ghana, two countries that had about the same per capita income as recently as 1950. One chose trade, the other picked aid. Aid creates lots of fun jobs for central planners who use people like chess pieces and figure out how to distribute the wealth from the top, whereas trade simply allows for wealth to rise up from the bottom. Aid, it turns out, is simply an unsustainable solution to poverty, and today South Korea has about 10 times the per-capita income of Ghana. South Korea has become one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world since it embraced free trade in the 1950s.

Nicely said. We’ve written about even more persuasive examples in a post which drove all of you crazy: Creationism or Socialism: Which is Dumber? After discussing Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where he sailed down the Ohio River and described the differences between Ohio and Kentucky which were due solely to slavery, we said:

There are “Petri dish” examples which can be profitably studied regarding side-by-side societies in which the sole difference is socialism. The one which today is most striking is North and South Korea. What would Tocqueville make of a journey between them along the 38th Parallel? Several other examples have existed and are still worth studying: East and West Germany being a good one. Do today’s “social scientists” ever undertake such studies?

That’s enough of the Curmudgeon’s writing. Let’s continue with the New York Post article. This is where it gets good:

Fans of state intervention in the economy — call them government creationists — insist on giving as much power as possible to an all-wise, all-powerful daddy figure whom they elect to, for instance, “fix” climate change or health care with a top-down agenda restricting innovation and imposing ever-more regulations. Their enemy is experimentation, incremental change — evolution.

“Government creationists” — what a great phrase! Here’s the end of the article:

Their intelligent designs turn out to be incredibly stupid in practice, and for their failures the central planners expect to be rewarded with more and more power. As British politician Douglas Carswell says in “The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy,” planners “consistently underrate the importance of spontaneous, organic arrangements and fail to recognize that the best plan is often not to have one.”

So there you are. That may have ruined your weekend, but it was great for us. Now, if it’ll make you feel better, go ahead and argue for government creationism. Your Curmudgeon is amazingly tolerant.

See also: George Will Discusses “Secular Creationists”.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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24 responses to “The Folly of Economic Creationism

  1. There is practically no government in Dominican Republic, and you can buy 7 y/o girls anywhere.

    Evolution works blindly, hitting the walls until it finds an opening, we have fully functional computers upon every shoulder, why would we not use that potential to think about what door to open?

    Should we not have public schools? Public roads? Bridges, etc? NASA?

    We need not less or not more regulation, we need the right regulation, without it, corporations would dump toxic chemicals all day long just as they buy anyone they can at the lowest price and wouldn’t hesitate to have slaves.

    Does the government not need to help people who are already working full time, but get paid so little that we are in essence subsidizing the corporations? Why do we need companies like those?

    Should we plan our next mission to Mars without top down planing?

  2. I’ll grant quite a bit of merit in Kyle Smith’s article, but he goes off the rails here:

    Consider the divergence of South Korea and Ghana, two countries that had about the same per capita income as recently as 1950

    Apples and oranges comparison, which does not at all advance Smith’s points. Ghana was still a British colonial possession in 1950 and did not achieve independence until 1957.

    And the British did not exactly leave all their chattel property behind…

  3. SC (in the 17th paragraph):
    “…and described the differences between Ohio and Kentucky which were due solely to slavery, we said.”

    I’m in proofreading mode. Please change the period after “said” to a colon. Thank you.

  4. retiredsciguy says: “I’m in proofreading mode.”

    Thanks. It’s fixed.

  5. Ok, I’ve no finished reading the post.

    Excellent article. To those who say we need government regulation and use extreme examples to support their case — of course we need laws to curb the baser instincts of human beings. We are animals, after all, and there are those among us who would kill our fellow citizens at the slightest provocation (ref. the Waffle House waitress in Biloxi, Miss. who was shot in the head for asking a patron not to smoke).

    But there is a big difference between laws that protect our safety and public health and those laws that attempt to design an economy.

    Comparing the “design the economy” laws to Intelligent Design and creationism is apt.

  6. Charles Deetz ;)

    While there is a decent push-back to ‘government control’ in this piece, it doesn’t really address reality. Most government control is pragmatic, not a top-down ‘government knows better’ conspiracy. And this pragmatism doesn’t necessarily detract from the power of a mostly-free economy.

    Yes, government created the internet and kept it under wraps for a while, but it did create it and unleash it in a fair and free format. Otherwise we’d be having this discussion in an America-Online chat room.

    And for a comparison between two economies, much has been made of the recent history of Wisconsin and Minnesota where Minn. has flourished under liberal policies including raising taxes by $2B.

  7. “East and West Germany being a good one.”
    Yeah, I like it too, because West Germany never was shy (whether a left wing SPDer or a right wing CDUer was chancellor) to implement some design on its economy. That explains why German health care for instance is both better and cheaper than in the good old USA.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Healthcare_in_Germany

    But to certain curmudgeons Adam Smith’ Invisible Hand plays the same role as Ol’ Hambo’s Creator – it magically provides the best thinkable results. Then facts don’t matter anymore, especially when they are inconvenient.

  8. The government of a totalitarian state like (the former) East Germany or North Korea or even a merely authoritarian one like Ghana answers to no one. A democratic government answers, at least in part, to the people. That makes all the difference.

    Where evolution vs. creation is concerned, the creationists’ Designer answers to no one either. On the other hand, natural section answers (so to speak) to environmental factors.

    Creationists don’t worry about the big D not being accountable, since He is supposedly both all-wise and benevolent. We shall pass over in silence the bloody record of the Old Testament; “scientific” creationists, after all, like to claim (and I’m sure legal considerations have nothing to do with it, heh, heh) that their Designer isn’t necessarily the Christian God. Honest.

  9. Ceteris Paribus

    I will admit to standing in complete awe of anyone, including Adam Smith, who might be sage enough to now discern that fine thin line which is postulated still to exist between the “wealth of nations” and the wealth of the merely, uh, “wealthy entrepreneurs”.

    The economic divergence between Ghana and South Korea in 1950 is painfully simple to explain. In the four years that the “police action” between North and South Korea was fought, South Korea received a massive infusion of foreign capital, infrastructure, and education, all paid for by US taxpayers. Not to mention the cost of nearly 40,000 US troops. Sorry Ghana, maybe some time the US can have the war in your back yard.

    Silicon Valley? A lot of that new high-tech development happened around the putative US government need to beat those ungodly Russians to the moon. And after that part of the space race was over, was it not US funding that also paid for the need to put up a space station to show our peaceful intentions?

    Here’s the joke:
    Q: “Why does the US government need to fund a fleet of Space Shuttles?”
    A:“Because we need an International Space Station.”

    Q:“Why does the US need to fund an International Space Station?”
    A:“So the Space Shuttles will have some place to go to.”

  10. Eric Lipps says: “A democratic government answers, at least in part, to the people. … Creationists don’t worry about the big D not being accountable, since He is supposedly both all-wise and benevolent.”

    And so are the politicians and their bureaucrats. Benevolent, all of them.

  11. @Eric and who is paying the benevolent politicians?

  12. Their intelligent designs turn out to be incredibly stupid in practice, and for their failures the central planners expect to be rewarded with more and more power.

    You win some, you lose some.

    The recent shows on PBS regarding the Dust Bowl showed firstly the government giving free reign and free land to farmers to dig up the midwest, ultimately ending up in a major drought that blew millions and millions of rich top soil away was a disaster. This was compounded by the refusal of Herbert Hoover to take any action to help preserve both the farmers and the soil, and so many people ended up poor and living in their shanty villages, or Hoovervilles. Subsequently, FDR did take appropriate action helping farmers and introducing better farming practices that ultimately restored the arability of the land.

    In regards to who invented what, I’ve always thought the writer James Burke’s books, e.g., Connections, etc., is an excellent example of being in the right place at the right time, using discoveries and inventions in a manner not originally intended, and so on.

  13. On fuirther reflection and re-reading, I have to say I think the article is using a foolish analogy that actually backfires:

    We know where humanity came from: It evolved incrementally, from the bottom up, amid much trial and error, not via the top-down efforts of an all-wise creator who anticipated every contingency and meticulously planned out every last detail.

    Indeed, a fine account of our origins, and of the world in which the first humans found themselves. But that is not the world we now inhabit, for we have re-shaped that world by means of artificial selection, transforming thereby wild grasses into productive grains, wolves into our canine companions, and (to correct another false analogy, this one by Ray Comfort), the inedible wild banana into a staple fruit.

    After all, it was considering artificial selection that provided Darwin with the insight to discover natural selection, and that makes enormous sense in biology. But to apply it to the sphere of political economy is awfully dubious. One could argue that unregulated markets produce the raw inputs of the system (the wild grasses in nature), but it then requires regulators (the plant breeders) to apply planned rules to cultivate improved outputs, and to do so by means of feedback loops, “not via the top-down efforts of an all-wise creator who anticipated every contingency and meticulously planned out every last detail.”

    In other words, one could more accurately use the same analogy from the article of biological evolution to liken strict market regulation to beneficient horticulture, e,g. the Invisible Hand of the market would leave us all as rummaging around for roots and grubs while the Guiding Hand of Intelligent Horticulture readily feeds us far better, and allows us to sustain a much larger population, &c &c,

    Please note that I am actually in broad agreement with the political point Kyle Smith is attempting to make, but I think his analogy from biology is actually rather silly in much the same way that the Discoveroids’ Mt Rushmore analogy is silly.

  14. As we are only lightly anchored to evolution in this post, I think this article from Doctorow on Boingboing will be interesting:
    http://boingboing.net/2015/11/29/pre-mutated-products-where-di.html
    “But hoverboards are different: they are knockoffs without an original. The copies of the “original” hoverboard (if anyone can ever agree on what that was) created the market, and they were already varied and mutated. There was never a moment at which all the bus-shelters and billboards touted an ideal, original hoverboard that the bottom-feeders started to nibble away at. The pre-mutated hoverboards arrived without a name (they still don’t have a name — I’m calling them hoverboards, but there are lots of other things that their riders call them).”

  15. Our Curmudgeon promised “the perfect thing to stimulate you for the weekend.” Well, it’s not quite that (particularly when compared to Olivia), though I’ll own it has been thought provoking. But my own response has moved from initial warmth to growing unease, as follows:

    Consider this same analogy from the article, but with a few simple substitutions (indicated in bold):

    Fans of the Constitution — call them Originalist Constitutional Creationists — insist on giving as much power as possible to an all-wise, all-powerful historical document which they select to, for instance, “ignore” climate change or health care with a top-down agenda restricting innovation and imposing ever-more inertial resistance. Their enemy is experimentation, incremental change — evolution , which is most notably practised by left-leaning activist Judges.

    It really is the same analogy, but this time stripped of the feel-good ‘confirmation bias.’

    And I’ve already noted previously that attempting to set Ghana and South Korea side by side as experimental ‘Petri dishes’ is demonstrably crazy; the alleged 1950 match of per capita income, even if that were the case (and it’s a dubious claim), is very, very far from sufficient to assert there were matching initial conditions between the cases. One would need to compare a large raft of other parameters (infrastructure, availability of education, natural resources, demographics, investment by foreign capital, &c. &c.) if one were to make a serious empirical case in support of an ideological argument.

    IOW: setting aside sympathy for the case the article attempts to make, I really think one must judge this article is a fail: a worthy cause ill-served by a poor argument. It’s easily turned on its head, and the initial appeal of the analogy melts away as swiftly as the Discoveroids’ endless regurgitation of the component-assembling Watchmaker.

  16. Megalonyx says: “IOW: setting aside sympathy for the case the article attempts to make, I really think one must judge this article is a fail: a worthy cause ill-served by a poor argument.”

    Agreed. I’ve done a better job, right here at this humble blog. What got me excited was that the idea, although poorly developed, appeared in a large American newspaper.

  17. Socialism in a nutshell: Power corrupts, gee lets hand all power to the government, nothing could possibly go wrong, doubleplussgood!

  18. Our Curmudgeon reveals

    What got me excited was that the idea, although poorly developed, appeared in a large American newspaper.

    Understood. In the rest of the developed world, Creationism is a fringe religious irrelevance and does not claim–as in the USA–to be co-extensive with political conservatism.

    And the basic analogy between free markets and biological evolution is a sound and useful refutation of the Discoveroids’ tedious telelogical fallacy that complexity can only arise from pre-formed ‘design’ by a foresighted and ‘intelligent’ agent.

    An even better (IMHO) refutation of the Discoveroids’ claim is the example of natural human language. Unless one supposes (and not even all Creationists are this crazy) that the Grand Ole Designer wrote a fully-formed dictionary and created the myriad rules of grammar at the time he/she/it created Adam, then language is a compelling illustration of complexity evolving without a designer pursuing a pre-defined goal.

    Indeed, even artificial selection belies the Discoveroids’ view on the necessity of design–unless one supposes that the stone age humans who first began the domestication of timber wolves already had Poodles, Great Danes, and Chihuahuas as their conscious intent! And if that were really so, who’s to say that we don’t in fact inhabit a Privileged Poodle Planet…

  19. @megalonyx
    IMHO the example drawn from natural languages is one of the strongest.
    I recall that Darwin mentioned that.
    There have been studies in the changes in languages using the exact same software which was developed for studying DNA.
    We can see that what can be called “mistakes” in language have led to the structure of a new language. Changes in Old Latin became the grammar of Classical Latin of Cicero, and so on to the French which is codified in the French Academy. Or Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit.
    Some people worry that if we don’t police our language, it will deteriorate to meaningless mumbles, but that hasn’t happened for the many thousands of language development without direction. These examples show how that does not happen.

  20. Warren Johnson

    Our curmudgeon says:

    “We suggest that Silicon Valley emerged in the complete absence of any stimulus package.”

    I argue otherwise. Consider the discovery of silicon (really “semiconductors”). It was mostly done at Bell Labs (the research arm of the government mandated telephone monopoly) during the massive government stimulus created by WWII. Semiconductors became interesting to the economy when the transistor was invented at Bell around 1947. (I suspect with a lot of government encouragement, because the cold war was starting, and signals intelligence was going to play a big role.)

    Of course you are partly right; reasonably free markets are essential for major economic progress. But I claim that it is historical fact that good government also plays an essential role. Otherwise the Somalian experiment in no government would be producing a fountain of wealth.

  21. This is a very sensible parallel, actually. In reality, all of life changes the same way – reproductive selection, the economy, arts, culture, everything. It all evolves through natural selection.

    I’ll definitely be checking out the NY Post article in full.

  22. Just to clarify one point brought up by another commenter (there seems to be no ‘reply’ function here?), there is no such thing as artificial selection. ‘Artificial’ designates something humans uniquely do. So every conscious human activity is artificial. “Artificial” selection is therefore redundant and therefore meaningless.

    Attempting to disguise reality by distinguishing “artificial” selection from “natural” selection is a sneaky way of claiming that human reasoning and decisionmaking is somehow unnatural (which is precisely wrong – https://tiffany267.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/brilliant-from-infancy). This is an important point because cowards and bullies (creationists and govt creationists) seek to exploit us by claiming that human choice (a state of liberty) is sinful or problematic and therefore we must be governed to exist safely and prosperously. This is exactly where the corruption of power comes from, this simple philosophical point.

  23. I hold to the perhaps radical notion that maybe, just maybe, the answer is neither government nor free enterprise, but some combination of the two that’s never perfectly balanced because the economy is never perfectly balanced.

  24. So what you and the New York Post (an ally no one in their right mind would cite) are promoting is Social Darwinism, a dogma that (even though the term had yet to be invented) Darwin himself specifically rejected as disgustingly cruel. It seems that, whenever your own redneck ideology is threatened, all loyalty to science and enlightenment philosophy disappears.