THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 441, October 28, 2007
"The best idea since sliced bread!"
Credit The Libertarian Enterprise
I read L. Neil Smith's article last week "A Sad Case of Evolution Denial" with interest, having just recently read another article called "Does fundamentalist religion cause the rejection of evolution? or is it the other way around?" where the author hypothesizes that people do not reject evolution because of religion, but rather they reject evolution because it is counter-intuitive to them. He goes on to say that because of the seemingly counter-intuitiveness of the concept most people turn to the only other explanation of which they are familiar. Which happens to be what has been taught to them by their religion. To make his case he uses other examples where people reject similar ideas even though these similar ideas do not threaten their religious beliefs in any way. The author uses various examples such as the general high quality and accuracy of articles in Wikipedia (the on-line encyclopedia which anyone can edit) or the accuracy of "Prediction Markets" (where anyone can put up their own money to bet on future events). While it is demonstrable that both of these systems both work and work phenomenally well, many people upon hearing about the mechanics of them declare that they can't possibly work, or they can't possibly be accurate. And even more telling, even after being shown that they do work and are accurate, many people still declare that they can't possibly be trusted. Not based on any observable or measurable problem, but based simply on knowledge of the underlying mechanism behind the system.
All of this got me thinking about the relationship between all of these systems, how they are related , how well they work, and just what are the mechanisms underlying them. You can easily come up with similar examples, such as the pricing system in a free market for commodities. Most people just do not understand how a market system can come up with a price if no expert sets the price, any more than they can understand how an on-line encyclopedia can come up with a high quality and accurate article on a subject if no expert has control over what is written. The evidence is staring us in the face everyday that these market type systems work and work well, yet most people still don't believe in them or trust them even when confronted with mountains of evidence supporting their utility.
I was thinking about all of this and it struck me that it doesn't stop with evolution, Wikipedia, or commodities, but you can make a more general case that it is nothing less than market theory itself that many (if not most?) people find counter-intuitive and market theory is the underlying mechanism behind all of these examples. It does not threaten anyone's religion in any way to believe that a market can work better than a system that is planned. It is just that many (if not most?) people find it counter-intuitive to believe that seemingly random events by millions (or billions) of individual self-interested actors in a complex modern market can set prices and distribute resources to all of humanity far better and far more efficiently than any expert or any group of experts (e.g. government) ever could. This is the very same mental block that makes one not see that it is possible that countless random mutations of DNA over long periods of time can create the vast array of complex organisms that we share this planet with and that it is this very same process that has created us. Rather many think it is more "intuitive" that all we see (including ourselves) must be the handy work of some enormously powerful, vastly intelligent, supernatural "expert" whom they choose to call "god".
The more I think about it the more it becomes clear to me that the disbelief in evolution is not a root problem at all, but just one very tiny symptom of a much larger, much more important, and much more dangerous problem. Which, of course, is the disbelief or distrust in markets themselves. If you think about what evolution is, what the controlling mechanism behind it is, you realize that evolution is simply the market for genes. And like the markets for other goods, services, information, or knowledge, (such as with oil, corn, organs, health care, drugs, and everything else you can think of) its mechanisms are entirely misunderstood and its efficacy always questioned and doubted by the vast majority of human beings. And that is a problem, more than anything else, which is holding back all of humanity from realizing its full potential .
I do have hope however. For all of our faults, human beings are incredibly intelligent and adaptable creatures. Einstein was able to convince the world that concepts such as physical length, mass and even time are not constant, but can vary with velocity. If humanity can come to terms with something as counter-intuitive as time not being constant, that you age at a different rate depending on your relative velocity at any given moment, then I think there is hope for markets to be understood and accepted. Of course there are many who already understand markets, many economist (especially those in the "Austrian School") for example come to the conclusion that use of market forces is the best way for complex human societies and economies to organize themselves. And for another example, many libertarians already support free markets, because it is the only system compatible with the Non-Aggression Principle and thus the only truly moral way for us to interact with one another. But above and beyond this, I believe that evolution is proof positive that markets are not just an issue of morality, nor just a useful human tool, but a fundamental law of nature as well. Use of market forces is how complex systems are created and organized in nature. If we wish not only to survive, but to thrive, we would do well not to ignore this (or any of natures laws). Our freedom and, over the long term, our very survival as a species depends on us understanding this most basic law of nature, regardless of how "counter-intuitive" we may find it.