Can Government Be an Intelligent Designer?

From time to time we write about how evolution and free enterprise are in conflict with intelligent design and socialism. It always enrages some of you, but a Curmudgeon expects that. For example, see Obamacare and Intelligent Design, which links to several earlier posts.

Well, dear reader, it’s a weekend and we need some entertainment, so today we’re doing it again. We found a great article by Gary M. Galles, a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. It’s titled The myth of intelligent (government) design, and it appears in Marianas Variety, a newspaper published in Saipan, the largest island of the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the United States in the western Pacific Ocean. They have a comments feature. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

A FEW years back, intelligent design was a red-hot controversy. It has cooled since, but it doesn’t take much to stir the embers. When British astronaut Tim Peak repeated his openness to an intelligently designed universe this year, he was attacked with rejuvenated enthusiasm. One Guardian story responded by quoting, among others, evolutionary biologist Matan Shelomi about problems with our eyes: “Who designed these faulty things? The answer can’t be a God, because a God so incompetent in designing vision sensors isn’t worth worshipping.”

That’s standard stuff criticizing intelligent design. Now the professor turns to politics and economics: He says:

What I find striking about such an “imperfection as proof against believing in something” standard is seldom applied to government, which affects us, and often assails us, every day. That is, why don’t we use that criterion in evaluating whether government is intelligently-enough designed to believe it will solve our human problems?

A centerpiece of calumny against intelligent design as science is that it is neither proven nor provable. However, is it proven or provable that government — whose only superior ability is in coercing others — advances Americans’ life, liberty, or happiness by its ubiquitous intrusion in our lives? Our founders certainly did not believe so. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution imply nothing of the sort. And our experience since has certainly been far from perfection. As a result, is there any reason to believe that government overriding ever more of our choices will give us better results?

After that he tells us:

Can we conclude that government policies and programs work so well, with each intricate part fitting together so seamlessly, that we should credit their designers with sufficient intelligence to trust still more decisions to them? And if not, why should we believe in demanding that government “do something” about every perceived problem, old or new, real or imaginary?

Why would we think that moving decisions to government will result in more intelligent arrangements? There is no way a government plan can replicate the market system’s integration and productive use of the vastly different and overlapping knowledge of each of its participants, coordinated without government central planners. Consequently, moving decisions to government throws away reams of valuable, detailed information that millions of individuals know, leading to less intelligent results.

This is pure gold! We’re not going to excerpt much more because we want you to click over there to read the whole thing. But we can’t leave out the final paragraph:

When you spend your own money, you don’t delegate crucial decisions to designers with extensive records of failure. They are not intelligent enough in the relevant ways to let them decide for you. But saying we need the government to do more — on no better evidence, as so many candidates in the midterm elections did — is no more sensible. Intelligent government design is not established, and the “faulty things” that American public servants create cannot possibly justify our faith in them.

Okay, dear reader, after you’re read it all, consider this: If you’re so certain that intelligent design is ghastly science — which it is — then why in the world do you want government to be the intelligent designer of our lives?

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28 responses to “Can Government Be an Intelligent Designer?

  1. Nothing useful can be said at such a high level of generality. There are some things that only government can do with any level of efficiency, such as providing shared infrastructure of many kinds, some things that the unregulated market does badly, because of accumulations of power, and some policies that are best enforced by government tweaking of the free market. For an example of the last of his, the market does not in and of itself price in externalities, such as the harm done by greenhouse gas emissions, but government (not the current US government, however) can use the market to take effective action by imposing a tax on such emissions. In the absence of such a tax, the free market system cannot work to the general good because the pricing system is incomplete.

    But you may be surprised to learn that I would thoroughly agree with you that use of the market is better than the use of regulations. It seems to me more rational to ensure that fossil fuels are priced correctly (including externalities), than to require that vehicles achieve however many miles per gallon.

  2. Michael Fugate

    Last time I looked the US Constitution also was “intelligently” designed. And the “wisdom” of the founding fathers viewed anyone who wasn’t a white male of property as a non-person.

    If individuals treated everyone else with honestly and respect – maybe we wouldn’t need government regulation, but a long as the powerful exploit the powerless, then we then we do. I would trust governments over corporations any day to respect my interests.

  3. Paul Braterman says: “There are some things that only government can do with any level of efficiency, such as providing shared infrastructure of many kinds …”

    Agreed. The Constitution provides a pretty good list.

  4. Are you so sure that there is relevance of evolutionary biology to social science?

  5. This is a specious bit of fluff. Government is just a substitute for “us collectively” and is designed to handle tasks we cannot do alone. We should not ask government to do things we can do ourselves but the government is organized to act in certain ways: disaster relief, delivering the mail, enforcing the law. In the absence of government action, we must organize and administer and fund our own effort in addition to doing what we want done and most of us have other things to do: school, jobs, etc.

  6. Michael Fugate says: “I would trust governments over corporations any day to respect my interests.”

    If you lived in North Korea or Venezuela, you might think differently about government.

  7. Our Curmudgeon wisely reminds us

    If you lived in North Korea or Venezuela, you might think differently about government.

    An excellent point–but one which also underlines the vacuity of the article that is the subject of his post. It simply isn’t meaningful to talk in such a general level about ‘government’ when human history is bursting with widely disparate forms of such. It’s a tortured analogy the article attempts to make.

    If you want to try something more concrete, how about: compare and contrast the United States, with a written constitution, and the United Kingdom, with an unwritten one 🙂

  8. @SC, I remain surprised at your constitutionolatry. Not that I advocate using unconstituional means to change things (that does, after all, tend to end badly), but because it is unreasonable to expect a document drawn up by 18th cenury slaveowners at the beginning of representative democracy, needing to make the concessions that they did to special interest, to continue to be appropriate.

    A judge in Texas has just declared Obamacare unconstitutional! The matter will eventually find its way to a rigged SCOTUS. The US would long ago have had a sensible sysem like every other advanced country if it were not for the entrenched power of corporations over government, now enhanced by how increasingly easy it is to buy senators and how difficult for senators to survive without being bought. The upshot is that the US has appalling health statistics for its poor, and an insurance-based health system that costs twice as much as othe countries for less good results. And if that judge in Texas gets his way, it will be *impossible* to improve things. That is what your constitution has done for you.

    And the biggest reason I have for distrusting the governments of the US and UK, the two countries of which I am a citizen, is that they are so deeply beholden to corporations. The US insurance and fossil fuels industry, and the UK financial sector, spring to mind

  9. “From time to time we write about how evolution and free enterprise are in conflict with intelligent design and socialism.”
    Except of course the last time, very recently, when you wrote about the Apollo8 project – then you were suddenly OK with a program intelligently designed by government, cooperating with companies.
    Plus you are deliberately vague about the contrast free enterprise vs. socialism, ill-defining them in the same way as creacrappers define their terms. How did you put it again? Free enterprise is no lawlessness – something the branch of socialism called social democracy has been advocating for more than 100 years. Laws are designed by people, who are intelligent, biologically speaking.
    So you’re off to a poor start (and again I’m ignoring, to avoid your head exploding, your misunderstanding that anarchy means lawlessness – it doesn’t).

    “It always enrages some of you, but a Curmudgeon expects that.”
    Your version of Expelled, because like creacrappers you can’t understand that your silly dogmas, which you often enough don’t abide to yourself, are hopelessly outdated and hence become funny.

    “is it proven or provable that government advances Americans’ life”
    No, because “advances” is subjective and not measurable. As I’ve pointed out before and you carefully keep on avoiding to consider the USA scores poor on almost all social indices compared to European countries and Japan. But would that mean “advance”? You could say “the more teen pregnancies the better” and then the USA suddenly is on top. But I suspect the only advance that matters to you is the one on your bank account.

    “When you spend your own money, you don’t delegate crucial decisions to designers with extensive records of failure.”
    BWAHAHAHAHA!
    Yeah, Apollo8 was an excellent example of such a failure.

  10. I’ve used up my fair share of space here, but can’t resist: ““When you spend your own money, you don’t delegate crucial decisions to designers with extensive records of failure.”
    1929, 2007

  11. @SC: “If you’re so certain that intelligent design is ghastly science — which it is — then why in the world do you want government to be the intelligent designer of our lives?”
    BWAHAHAHAHA! Excellent false dilemma – worse than “evolution fails, hence creacrap is true”, because it also contains a category error. Like Klinkleclapper and co you fail to recognize that humans can design all kind of things (ask TomS), while Grand Old Designers can’t. Of course IDiocy is not ghastly science. It’s not science at all. It’s apologetics, ie seeking cheap excuses for a god. The role of government in a nation-state is politics. Even Klinkleclapper is not stupid enough to mix up science with politics like you do.

    “The Constitution provides a pretty good list.”
    As an ignorant Dutchie I’d like to know: is the Apollo8 program in the Constitution? No? Then you agree that government can do some more things well than the Constitution says.

    @MichaelF “I would trust governments over corporations any day to respect my interests.”
    I don’t trust either to respect my interests any day. That’s the big difference between our dear SC and me – he slavishly has faith in Free Enterprises, like his internet provider. No fall out, no matter how long it lasts, can shake that faith, even when it becomes clear that semi-governmental companies have less fall outs that last shorter. Here evidence means as little to him as to creacrappers. Such is the strength of his worship of the Invisible Hand. At the other hand I distrust government about as much as he does. Apparently this flies way above his head – for him it’s either government or Free Enterprises. Otherwise I can’t explain why he keeps on asking silly questions like the one I just quoted.

  12. A centerpiece of calumny against intelligent design as science is that it is neither proven nor provable.
    Is that a calumny? Or is there something substatial to “intelligent design”?
    Is this writer a believer in ID? Not that it makes any difference.
    Is government a product of intelligent design?
    Is the US Consitution to be treated like the Bible is treated by the Fundamentalists. When it suits one’s prposes, it is to be intepreted “literally”? Or is the essayist’s concern about the intelligent design of the economy?

    I knw that no “evolutionist” is opposed to applying human intelligence to the world of life. Maize, bananas, chickens, roses, cattle, vaccines, etc. are all the products of human goal-directed intervention in the world of life.
    Scientists have learned that there are not lessons to be learned about values from the world of life. We no longer think of the courage of the lion. Or the city mouse and the country mouse telling us about the superior virtue of country living. (Need I remind you of Jefferson’s thought about that?)

    Intelligentn Design as a explanation for the variety of life is a bunch of nonsense. It doesn’t magically become meaningful when used as a metaphor for exonomy, or whatever the essayist is trying to say.

  13. So what we need (for now neglecting my anarchistic preferences, which would include the people controlling both governments and big companies – a bit impractical at the moment) is finding the right balance between the powers of government (including the sections executive authority, legislature, judiciary and bureaucracy), social movements (in The Netherlands called the midfield, eg trade unions, lobbyists and humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders) and companies (big Dutch ones are Philips, Shell and partly Unilever). Our dear SC being a decent man actually is a parttime socialist (the way he defines socialism) as he is totally OK with intelligently designed laws on child labour and slavery, for instance. He just wants to shift that balance more towards companies (due to his faith in The Invisible Hand), blissfully blind for the ways they can *bleep bleep* him up as badly as government.
    But I’m grateful for our dear SC giving me the opportunity to provide an excellent quote:

    Freedom without socialism results in injustice.
    Socialism without freedom results in oppression.

    Our dear SC prefers injustice to oppression. I reject both. I don’t accept false dilemmas.

  14. Michael Fugate

    I thought we were talking about the US – isn’t that what the economist is discussing?

    A libertarian world would be a nightmare – if you trust corporations to look after your health and well-being then be my guest. Just be prepared to die early from tainted food or medicine or from faulty merchandise. Maybe in 1800 you could be more trusting, but the chemicals and electronics of today – good luck checking before you buy. Of course, you could always trust Facebook to provide an unbiased answer to your questions.

  15. Under capitalism, man oppresses man.
    Under communism, it is the other way around.

  16. Of course, government (in democratic countries) is supposed to be accountable to the people, who vote it into power (and have the option of voting it out of power).

    Oh, wait a minute, I forgot: in the premier democracy on this planet, the highest elected official is chosen by 538 unelected and anonymous individuals chosen by state legislatures by any means those legislatures see fit, under cover of a popular vote which can be overridden at will by those individuals. Theoretically, a state could pick electors out of the phone book, or make its electorships hereditary.

    This makes sense? Well, it did to the Framers: the number of people empowered to vote for any elected officials was quite small: all white, all male and all rich. To be fair, in a nation whose first president was six weeks late for his own inauguration because the weather made the roads between Virginia and New York (where the ceremony took place) impassable to horse-drawn carriages would have found a national popular But needless election–even in a nation of three million people occupying a strip of land along the eastern coast of North America–hard to pull off: how long to you imagine it would have taken to count the votes? But needless to say, those conditions no longer apply.

    As for relying on “free enterprise” instead, there ain’t no such animal–certainly not in the United States. What we have is private enterprise, which isn’t the same thing: businesses can collude and monopolies and oligopolies are possible, with or without government assistance, all at the expense of the theoretical free market, as even Adam Smith acknowledged.

  17. Michael Fugate

    Yes Eric, the compromises made to accommodate the states which supported slavery made the US Constitution the great document it isn’t. Like the slavery of the OT made it a book that modern fundamentalists worship. Old white conservatives use the “sexual revolution” as their dog whistle for opposing civil rights – which the 60s was really about.

  18. @Eric Lipps
    As far as “socialism”, there ain’t no such animal in the United States.

  19. Michael Fugate, you tell us that anarchy doesn’t mean lawlessness. Would you oblige me by saying what it does mean, please?

  20. Michael Fugate

    Huh?

  21. @DaveL: that was not MichaelF who wrote it, it was me.
    Lawlessness means “no laws”.
    Anarchy means that people assemblies formulate the laws. Anarchism has been tried four times in history: the Commune of Paris, the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (immediately after the Bolshevik coup d’etat), Catalonia at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and right now in Rojava, Northern-Syria. None of those examples was lawless. The most famous contemporary anarchist is the American Noam Chomsky. Our dear SC writes never about him, perhaps because Chomsky makes clear that SC’s understanding of freedom is very limited – namely as a privilege for himself. For instance he’s totally OK with armed forces limiting the freedom of crossing borders, like here:

    https://www.thelocal.fr/20180623/french-teen-held-in-detention-for-two-weeks-after-accidentally-jogging-across-us-canada-border

    That’s the fundamental and fatal flaw in our dear SC’s thinking – to protect his precious freedom he needs to limit it and even kill it off. It’s the American tradition of protecting villages against communists by destroying them (yup, Vietnam).

  22. Apologies for the misattribution.

    FrankB, it’s funny, but I always thought that people (people’s?) assemblies formulating laws was called “democracy”, and that if the assembly was composed of freely elected representatives of the people under at least a wide franchise, it was called “representative democracy”. It would appear that what you call “anarchy” I would call “direct” or possibly “Athenian democracy”. Completely unworkable for states of more than a few thousand citizens, of course, but democracies are not lawless, agreed.

    But I was also told that “anarchy” actually does not assume any sort of assembly doing anything whatsoever. That it actually means “no rulers”. Not people or their representatives ruling. No rulers. Which does mean “no law”, for by what right do you enforce your rules on me? And “no law” does mean lawlessness.

  23. See.the Wikipedia articles Anarchy and Anarchism.

  24. What I find striking about such an “imperfection as proof against believing in something” standard is seldom applied to government, which affects us, and often assails us, every day.

    No way is THAT a sentence.

  25. I don’t understand why SC found this article worth attention.

  26. Michael Fugate

    The author is part of FEE a libertarian think-tank. The founder was Leonard Read. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Read
    Are you rich because you are good or are you good because you are rich?

  27. @Michael Fugate
    I can understand that that argument would appeal to the rich, the 0.01% who are truly rich. Well, OK, the 1% who think that they have a chance (more than the 1/100 chance that reality says). But the 10%? Not a chance. But even allowing that, 10% is not enough to win an election.

  28. Michael Fugate

    But the prosperity gospel sells – give me your money and god will make you me rich – how often has that worked?