The Oxford Libertarian Society, after a brief hiatus, has recently launched its “Hayek Discussion Group”, which seeks to “encourage graduate students and scholars alike to submit abstracts. We are looking for interesting and innovative works which challenge the contemporary thinking about how society should be ordered”. Below is the first submission offered by Justin E Lane, D.Phil. student in the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, followed by some comments.

Topic: “Evolution and governmental policies: How the process of natural selection can serve as a basis for fiscal policy.”

Abstract: Many scientific theories can, and have, been used to inform political thought. I would like to propose that evolution by natural selection can inform the formation of policies in capitalist economies. As the basis for this argument, I would defend that capitalist free markets are the most “well-suited” or “natural” forms of economies as they are operational analogies to natural processes. This knowledge of evolution can be particularly informative in discussions of authority and law, but this discussion will concentrate on its theoretical application to the idea of “the free market” and how, if left alone, it will act in a naturally selective manner not unlike evolutionary processes in the animal kingdoms. I would also like to raise the question, when-or if-, it is appropriate for governmental bodies to ever step in to guide this process in a more controlled selection process. In conclusion, the interplay between fiscal policy –including energy policy and resource allocation- inform national security interests and how a similar foundation can begin to inform these issues as well.

Given that Lane has not had a chance to fully elaborate these thoughts it is appropriate that the initial comments are relatively brief. Unfortunately brevity cannot mask the flaws in this attempt to justify capitalism.

At the foundation of the capitalist economy is the individual human, the being that desires, chooses and acts. He is conscious, thinking, discriminating, preferring, reasoning and the content of all of these aspects in his mind can change from one minute – nay, one second – to the next. Indeed, the processes of production, trade, consumption, saving and investment are all synonymous with progress, that they are entered because the acting individual views the result as a greater or more valuable thing than what existed before.

Natural processes, however, lack all of these features. They are purposeless, occurring and repeating while being empty of any desire or conscious thought behind them. There is no achievement or progress in moving from one stage to the next, and there is no one to say that the latter stages are any “better” than the original. Events may be regular, they may be measurable and they may be predictable or non-random but they are neither valuable nor achieving anything.

Evolution is precisely one of these inherently purposeless processes. It is neither “good” nor “bad” that natural selection occurs; it is merely an unconscious unfolding of events initiated by unmotivated influences. It doesn’t lead to anything “better” or “higher” than what proceeded before – it takes a desiring, choosing, acting human to determine this. Selection in the market economy is therefore entirely unlike natural selection – it is the result of choices motivated by desires, to achieve something that is inherently better than what preceded it.

Any justification, therefore, of a capitalist economy that relies on its alleged process of “natural selection” simply raises the question why should we desire the outcomes of these selections? Why are these outcomes “better” than any other and for whom are they better? In short, the theory presented in this abstract merely restates the very starting point of political discourse – is individual, uncoerced action “better” than action coerced by the state? This is a question that Lane, in his penultimate sentence, appears to introduce as a mere secondary issue when in reality it is the crux of the entirety of political philosophy; indeed, his position is akin to that of an historian who says “Oh I would also like to look at what happened in the past”. As he provides no justifiable answer whatsoever to the all-important issue we are very firmly still at square one.

Lane’s second error lies in the belief that scientific theories may legitimately inform political thought. If it is accepted that theories applicable to unconscious, purposeless matter are also applicable to thinking, desiring, choosing and acting humans then one accepts that other such theories and analogies may, in principle, be valid. Hence, as Lane’s abstract provides us with no reason to accept the contrary, why should they not be tried and tested?

It is the opening of the Pandora’s Box of such positivist methodology that has led to some of the most horrific and overwhelming conquests of the individual by the state. Not only did the Communist experiment in the former USSR take an eye-wateringly drawn out seventy years to be “proven” false at the cost of tens of millions of lives, but we are continuingly plagued by constant testing and tampering by so-called economists who, in their hubristic ignorance of the correct methodology for their science, continually expect the results of their interjections into human behaviour to be qualitatively and quantitatively inline with their hypotheses. And if not then why not just adjust it slightly and try again and again and again until something “works”?

Perhaps Lane is scratching the surface of a natural law justification for private property and free enterprise – that the free market is the only way that an individual can truly flourish according to his nature? May be so, but his way of describing it in the abstract is, at best, confused and, at worst, simply incorrect. If he wishes to proceed with justifying capitalism in the same vein then he should call for a swift denouncement of positivism and any analogising of the market economy to scientific or “natural” processes and turn his attention instead directly to the natural law tradition.

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