TCS Daily

The Left's Intelligent Design Problem

By Max Borders - January 4, 2006 12:00 AM

Scion of America's greatest Keynesian, James K. Galbraith recently penned one of the most astonishing near misses in recent memory. In the December/January edition of Mother Jones Galbraith accuses free-market economists starting with Adam Smith of being Intelligent Design (ID) hucksters.

"Economists... have been Intelligent Designers since the beginning," Galbraith writes. "Adam Smith was a deist; he believed in a world governed by a benevolent system of natural law... Smith's Creator did not interfere. He simply wrote the laws and left them for events to demonstrate and man to discover."

Galbraith's analogy is badly forced. But it is forced ultimately to synthesize two of the left's favorite bromides: that free-market economists are crazy, and that creationists are ignorant rubes.

Galbraith (deliberately?) misunderstands the bulk of the arguments for ID. After all, if "Smith's Creator did not interfere," his analogy with ID does not hold. ID depends on the idea of a Designer's interference in the process of forming complex life-forms. By contrast, there's Darwin, whose process is seemingly blind and purposeless.

Indeed, if ever there were a view of economics that builds in the blind, purposeless processes of trial-and-error, specialization, and complexity (the hallmarks of the Darwinian algorithm) it is Smith's invisible-hand economics -- the Austrian variants of which are the most strikingly evolutionary in character. It is therefore odd that Galbraith calls his article "Smith v. Darwin."

Indeed, it is the economics of the left, so affectionately espoused by Galbraith and his compatriots, that is secular Intelligent Design par excellence.

Consider quotes like this from the New York Times' Paul Krugman: "What's interesting about [the Bush Administration] is that there's no sign that anybody's actually thinking about 'well, how do we run this economy?'"

The very idea of "running" an economy is predicated upon the notion that economies can be run and fine-tuned, much like a machine. But what Krugman and folks like Galbraith fail to understand is that the economy isn't a machine at all, but an ecosystem. And ecosystems aren't designed, they evolve.

Recall the last time you were in a room with both liberals and conservatives. If the liberal heard the conservative start to talk about Intelligent Design, you might have seen him shake his head rather smugly. Why? Because he will have read his Kaufmann, his Dawkins, and of course, his Darwin. He'll let the creationist say his piece, and then he'll reply along these lines:

As long as the basic regularities of nature are in place, Darwinism and complexity theory predict that the myriad forms of life and details of the world will emerge from the simplest substructures -- i.e. atoms, amino acids, DNA and so on. The world doesn't need a designer. The complexity of the world is a spontaneously generated order. The laws of nature yield emergent complexity through autocatalytic processes.

But does our smug Darwinist extend this self-same rationale beyond life's origins?

He ought to; because like our diverse ecosystems, a complex, well-ordered society arises from the existence of certain kinds of basic rules, norms, and institutions (societal DNA, if you will).

The critic may try in ad hoc fashion to reply that such institutions are "designed." But this rejoinder misses the point. Once you start to argue about the development of institutions, it's rather like arguing about how the laws of nature came to be. And these are rather separate discussions, ones that push the question of a Designer back to a point before evolutionary processes are set in motion. In any case, proper institutional rules obviate the need for central planners and technocrats to control the economy. And like any other ecosystem, the economy will always resist being bent to a designer's will.

People on the political left, while characterizing conservatives as being flat-earthers, do believe in a form of Intelligent Design. For like their conservative counterparts who believe that nothing as complex as nature could possibly have emerged without being designed, Beltway bureaucrats and DNC Keynesians believe nothing as complex as an economy can exist without being shaped in their image.

What both fail to realize is that neither needs a planner. Markets (individual actors in cooperation) do a better job of self-regulation than any government official can do from on high. Ecosystems (complex flora and fauna interacting in complex ways) regulate themselves better than the most determined ecologist ever could.

In fact, the intersession of bureaucrats in the economy almost always make things worse -- as harmful unintended consequences follow from their actions. Because unlike the Intelligent Designer favored by Creationists, bureaucrats are neither omniscient, nor omnipotent.

A further, delicious irony in all of these quibbles about the relative merits of Intelligent Design comes in the fact that conservative proponents of ID may have borrowed their tactics directly from the left. According to philosopher Stanley Fish, writing in Harper's:

"[The 'teach the controversy' battle cry] is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design -- away from the question, 'Why should it be taught in a biology class?' -- and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we're right, the other guys are wrong, and there are the scientific reasons why, Intelligent Design polemicists say that every idea should at least get a hearing; that unpopular or minority views should always be represented; that questions of right and wrong should be left open; that what currently counts as knowledge should always be suspect, because it will typically reflect the interests and preferences of those in power. These ideas have been appropriated wholesale from the rhetoric of multiculturalism -- "

Of course, no self-respecting liberal will admit that his conceptual latticework is analogous to ID any more than he'll admit that a minority view like ID should be protected from "hegemonic control by those in power" in the interests of "diversity." I'll leave it to the leftist intellectual to further plumb the depths of postmodernism and explain away the hypocrisy.

In the meantime, I'd like to know why, by the left's own rationale, we should be teaching socialist economics - the economics of Intelligent Design -- in our public universities.

Max Borders is Managing Editor of He is also founder of The Wingbeat Project.


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