Saturday, May 05, 2007

Is Darwin to blame for communism?

Recently there was a debate on whether conservatives could embrace Darwin. In this debate, held at the American Enterprise Institute, George Gilder, now associated with the Discovery Institute, claimed that communism was “inspired by Darwinism.”

Mr. Gilder makes a very odd claim on several levels. We could start with the fact that the Communist Manifesto, by Freidrich Engles and Karl Marx was published in February of 1848. It has been considered the founding document of modern communism and Gilder would certainly be aware of this. On the other hand, the founding document of evolutionary thinking was Charles Darwin’s work, On the Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. I have heard many absurd claims made on behalf of Marx, usually by Marxists, but this is the first time I’ve seen one that implies he was psychic. No other explanation exists to justify the claim that Marxism was inspired by a book written several years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto.

It is possible, of course, that some people have formulated an economic theory based on Darwinian perspectives. For instance one major attempt to incorporate evolutionary thinking into social theory was from the advocate of laissez faire, Herbert Spencer. He was an advocate of private property, limited government, and individual liberty.

There is also the question regarding the origin of Darwin’s theory itself. Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent Darwinist, wrote that Darwin’s theory was not formulated by reading biology. Gould wrote:
I was particularly struck by the absence of deciding influence from his own field of biology. The immediate precipitators were a social scientist, an economist, and a statistician. If genius has any common denominator, I would propose breadth of interest and the ability to construct fruitful analogies between fields. In fact, I believe that the theory of natural selection should be viewed as an extended analogy--whether conscious or unconscious on Darwin's part I do not know--to the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith.
Gould stated that “the theory of natural selection is a creative transfer to biology of Adam Smith’s basic argument for a rational economy: the balance and order of nature does not arise from a higher, external (divine) control, or from the existence of laws operating directly upon the whole, but from struggle among individuals for their own benefits.”

An understanding of some of the main concepts of the Scottish Enlightenment, of which Smith was a key figure, makes the reasons for this connection clear. Central to the ideas of these early thinkers of modern classical liberalism was a concept known as spontaneous order. Before Adam Smith wrote his famous The Wealth of Nations, his fellow Scot, Adam Ferguson wrote An Essay on Civil Society, in which he used the theory of spontaneous order to explain the evolution of human society. “ He wrote: “Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”

Norman Barry describes the theory of “spontaneous order” this way:
What is important about the theory of spontaneous order is that the institutions and practices it investigates reveal well-structured social patterns, which appear to be a product of some omniscient designing mind yet which are in reality the spontaneous co-ordinated outcomes of the actions of, possibly, millions of individuals who had no intention of effecting such overall aggregate orders. The explanations of such social patterns have been, from Adam Smith onwards, commonly known as 'invisible hand' explanations since they refer to that process by which "man is led to promote an end which was no part of his intention." It is a major contention of the theory of spontaneous order that the aggregate structures it investigates are the outcomes of the actions of individuals. In this sense spontaneous order is firmly within the tradition of methodological individualism.
Laissez-faire advocate Herbert Spencer, who was never the “social Darwinist” that some Left-wing historians invented, described the spontaneous order of markets in one of his essays. He was lamenting the inability of socialists to see how order can arise naturally and their need for a central planner to direct economic progress.
The houses they live in, their furniture, clothes, fuel, food—all are brought into existence by the spontaneous efforts of citizens supplying one another’s wants. ...The roads, the railways, the trains, the telegraphs are products of combined exertions prompted by desires for profit and maintenance. The villages and towns they pass exhibit the accretions due to private actions. The districts devoted to one or other manufacture have been so devoted by men who were simply seeking incomes to live upon. The enormous distributing organization with its vast warehouses and retail shops lining the streets, carrying everywhere innumerable kinds of commodities has arisen without the planning of any one.
A classic book defending the natural order of economic freedom is Michael Rothschild’s Bionomics. Rothschild, in some ways, completes the circle. The spontaneous order of markets helped Darwin formulate his theory of a spontaneous natural order. And Rothschild then uses insights from this natural order to explain the processes of the economic spontaneous order.
Putting aside the details of genetic variation and natural selection, is it really possible that an unconscious, spontaneous phenomenon could have brought forth a natural world of such awesome diversity, beauty, and balance? We can see it. But it still boggles the mind. Oddly enough, the same sense of incredulity underlies the widespread mistrust of free markets. Anyone who thinks carefully about capitalism must ask, How could such a vast and complex system emerge without the benefit of some grand design? Somewhere, somebody must be in charge. How else could, simple, self-interested components coalesce into an immensely complicated, well-coordinated economy? The notion that no one is in control — that economic order spontaneously emerges from the chaotic interaction of millions of individuals and firms — is quite simply, hard to swallow.
The great advocate of classical liberalism, F.A. Hayek, found himself fighting the same ideas Darwin had to fight: the inability to conceive of a complex order evolving without the guiding hand of a master planner. In his essay Principles of a Liberal Social Order he wrote:
Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.
Hayek says the socialist was incapable of seeing a complex economic order without “deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence”. And George Gilder is unable to see a complex natural order with the deliberate organization of “intelligent design”. So while Gilder may wish to pin communism on evolutionary thinking the reality is that his theory has some disturbing similarities to those who advocate central economic planning.

In addition Gilder has a problem in that communist theory has often been associated, not with Darwinian thinking at all, but with religion. The first great modern communist revolution was not the overthrow of the Czar by the Bolsheviks. It was the Taiping Rebellion led by Hong Xiuquan, an advocate of a rather unorthodox Christian theory. Hong, converted by a Baptist missionary, almost succeeded in taking over all of China. His Heavenly Kingdom instituted ruthless rule.

Hong created a theocratic kingdom where civil service exams no longer required examination on the text of Confucius but instead used the Bible. He abolished the concept of private property and instead argued that all land belonged to, and was distributed, by the state. He declared a society where “class” was abolished and women were equal but combined this with a moral campaign that would please the Moral Majoritarians.

Michael Billington, in The American Almanac, wrote: “The Taiping were much admired by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, and, indeed, they closely resembled the communists in many ways. While successfully appealing to the disgust in the population over the moral decay and corruption which accompanied the opium epidemic, and British-led economic looting, those who joined were forced to submit to a total "communization'' of their possessions, their families, and themselves.”

Hong established his communist society, with some 20 million deaths, without any Darwinian influence. He found his influence in religion. Before Hong we have the communist dictatorship in Münster lead, by a Christian Anabaptist sect. As one Anabaptist web site notes: “Following the ‘conversion’ of the Mayor, Münster became -- with startling speed -- a stronghold of communist millenarians.” This was in 1534, long before Darwin was alive, and long before anyone was formulating any theory of evolution.

The millenarians of Münster confiscated all the wealth of the rich and established a common storehouse. Goods would be doled out by church deacons on the basis of need. Communal dinning-halls were established as all food for collectivized and rationed. The community abolished money, private homes were declared communal property. Labor was conscripted. And like communist regimes everywhere, those who resisted this rule were executed.

As I said not only was George Gilder wrong when he attributed communism to Darwinism. He was wrong on several levels.

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