The Skeptical Liberal: 05/08/2005 - 05/15/2005

The Skeptical Liberal

How can we live together in peace, prosperity, and harmony, while retaining our liberties as autonomous individuals who can, and must, create our own values? -- J.M. Buchanan


First Week at PERC

Arrived Sunday afternoon, settled in and promptly started grading final exams! Had a brief visit to PERC on Monday morning, picked up my bicycle, which had been shipped to Bangtail Bikes and assembled for me, and then graded finals until midnight. Finished grading, but spent the next day recovering from being sick. Final grades were turned in on time Tuesday, but that’s about all that happened! Weather: about what you’d expect in Montana in early May – chilly with bits of rain off and on.

Wednesday was my first real day at PERC. Set up my office space: quiet back corner on the south east side of the building with two wide windows -- great views of Bridger Mountains to the northeast, the other MSU (that’s Montana State Univ.) to the east, and the Hyalite Mountains (Gallatin National Forest) to the south. Spent the rest of the day closing out my semester at MSU. Thursday, I actually got to work on my summer research project: Malthus and Julian Simon. Thought I’d start by reading the first edition of the Essay on Population again: what an amazing essay that is! I started Friday with swimming at 6:15 am, and then spent the rest of the day finishing my blog entry on ID, reading Donald Winch’s Malthus, going to the Montana State Univ. Library for Julian Simon’s books, reading Gordon Bigelow’s article on economics and evangelicalism in Harper’s (look for a blog on that over the weekend!), and reading some of Simon’s work. Weather: Thursday it snowed, and Friday became beautiful!

Friday night will be the first of many PERC social events: a party to say goodbye to some of the research fellows who have been here for the academic year. Saturday morning: I’m heading off early to ride to the mountains and back.


ID: Central Planning in Disguise?

The notion of intelligent design (ID) has been kicking around the back of my mind the past couple of weeks, ever since I learned that a couple of Michigan school teachers were suing for the right to teach ID in their classrooms. My flight from San Francisco to Bozeman (via Seattle) gave me this chance to write out some thoughts.

First, I have long argued that evolution is a theory of change, not a theory of origins. Evolution assumes the presence of something capable of evolving. Theories of origins explain how an original “something” came to be. Much of the evolution-creation debate, therefore, involved “talking past each other”: evolutionists trying to push the chain of change backwards; creationists trying to push the impact of the original “something” forward. Creationist explanations are almost inevitably weaker than evolutionary explanations: either the existing evidence falsifies creationist accounts or the creationist requires a more cumbersome explanatory framework that embodies at central points assumptions available only to those who submit to certain religious faiths. Either the evidence or Occam’s razor usually requires the scientist to shed the creationist verbiage.

The inevitable crumbling artifice of creationist “science,” has made many individuals seeking to reconcile religion and science interested in ID. For the ID theorists, the world we encounter is simply too complex to have evolved by chance. The existence of ordered complexity, rather than chaos, cannot, so the ID theorist argues, be a mistake or a chance event. The world must have been intelligently designed – i.e., planned.

While the notion of an “intelligent designer” or “original planner” makes most evolutionary theorists naturally identify ID as an offshoot of creationism, I am more interested in ID’s similarity to the mid-20th century theory of central economic planning. What I will try to outline here is the difference between ID and central planning, and their common point of failure.

The departure point for the theory of central planning was the observation that the pattern of interaction among individuals in a market economy produced either chaotic outcomes or else less than efficient outcomes. A centralized planning board, it was argued, could see the “right” outcomes for society, and, if given the opportunity to control the capital sector of the economy, could manipulate the allocation of capital in order to achieve the desired optimal outcomes.

Hayek exposed the central problem with central planning: the inability of the centralized board to know the plans of every agent in the economy and plan according. Absent a truly “God’s eye” view of the world (who knows the hearts and plans of every one even before they do), central planning was infeasible, if not impossible. At any moment, six billion people around the world are making decisions based upon their plans. The central planning argument ultimately failed because we realized that competition within market constraints pooled the knowledge of those six billion individuals about things that central planners could never know: things like localized knowledge, knowledge of preferences, etc. The recognition that market interaction may not be “ideally” efficient but that it does spontaneously create an order that responds to individuals evolving wants, needs and resources defeated central planning.

The notion of spontaneous order continually evolving without planning was one of the inspirations for the development of complexity theory. Systems with a rich complex of stable, non-chaotic outcomes can be shown to emerge from the actions of individuals operating within an institutional framework defined by a simple set of rules. Small changes in the rules can lead to outcomes significantly different than before, as the individuals within the system respond to the incentives provided by the new institutional framework. The strong connection between complex systems that evolve in a stable manner and the rules that create them can be seen in the emergence of constitutional political economy alongside the emergence of experimental economics.

What is the connection between our tour of central planning, spontaneous order and complexity theory in economics, and ID? There are two connections, both of which are uncomfortable for ID theorists. First, if the ID argument were that the planner knew what the best outcomes were -- the perfect central planner, so to speak, the only designer who could meet that description would be an omniscient Deity. ID, under that assumption, would reduce to a new, and perhaps even more virulent, form of creationism – one which required the assumption that God predestines “before the foundation of the world” everything I and anyone else does. Intriguingly, that argument would also put the ID theorists on the side of the central planners, against free markets.
The second possible connection would be an argument that the world (universe) is governed by the best set of rules possible to allow the complexity of nature as we experience it to emerge by natural, spontaneous evolution. This argument is not particularly new (Spinoza was possibly the first to make it), nor is it particularly acceptable to religiously motivated ID theorists. After all, it bears a strong similarity to the “watchmaker” God of the Deists and to the theodicy that underlay the classical political economy of Adam Smith and Robert Malthus.
In either case, complexity theory does not give the ID theorist what they want: a scientific basis, independent of religious faith, which would also be acceptable to religious orthodoxy.