Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Freiburg Workshop (2): Naomi Beck's Critique of Hayek's Evolutionary Liberalism

One of the benefits for me of the Freiburg Workshop on "Liberalism and the Evolutionary Agenda" was that it helped me to think through my ambivalence about Friedrich Hayek's evolutionary liberalism.  I am persuaded by Hayek's claim that Darwinian science supports the fundamental idea of classical liberalism that social order--including morals, markets, and laws--can arise as a largely spontaneous  or unintended order from the interactions of individuals acting to satisfy their individual desires.  But I am not persuaded by Hayek's account of exactly how cultural evolution produces the modern liberal order. 

My conclusion is that we need to see how Darwinian science corrects the mistakes in Hayek's account while confirming Hayek's insight about how liberal thought can be rooted in an evolutionary science of spontaneous order.  Naomi Beck was one of the participants in the workshop, and I saw her critique of Hayek's evolutionary liberalism as reinforcing this conclusion.

At least half or more of the participants were proponents of Hayekian classical liberalism who were interested in the possibility of grounding liberalism in evolutionary science, although they were unsure as to whether Hayek was correct in the details of his evolutionary theory of liberalism.  A few of the participants--including Beck--were opponents of Hayek and of liberalism in general.  This was similar to the situation at the Mont Pelerin Society conference in the Galapagos Islands last summer, where much of the discussion turned on the assessment of Hayek's evolutionary liberalism.

Beck coauthored a paper with Ulrich Witt--"Liberalism and the Teleological Turn in the Theory of Cultural Evolution"--in which they criticized Hayek for his teleological view of cultural evolution as aiming towards the modern liberal order. 

Beck and Witt presented Hayek's theory of cultural group selection as a new form of Social Darwinism, similar to that of Herbert Spencer.  Like Spencer, Hayek saw cultural evolution as progressive in favoring the emergence of a liberal social order.  But Spencer saw this as a process of individual selection in which the struggle for existence would favor the survival of the fittest individual, but only as long as governmental intervention was minimized.  By contrast, Hayek saw this progressive cultural evolution as a process of group selection in which groups adopting a free market order would be more economically efficient than other groups, and this greater efficiency would produce increasing population and wealth, so that the explosive growth in population and wealth over the past 300 years in the Western liberal capitalist regimes appears to be the final stage of history. 

The fulfillment of this end has come from the cultural evolution of institutional traditions and norms that support the extended order of free markets.  This cultural evolution constitutes, as Hayek says, the "layer between instinct and reason," because it is neither rooted in natural instinct nor produced by rational design. 

On the one hand, the cultural evolution of the free market order requires the repression of those instincts for communal solidarity in small groups that evolved among our hunter-gatherer ancestors who had no experience in trading with strangers outside their small foraging tribe.  For this reason, socialist central planning to achieve a just and equal distribution of wealth has a popular appeal to most people, because it satisfies their naturally instinctive desires for the social solidarity of life in small groups. 

On the other hand, the cultural evolution of the free market order has emerged as a spontaneous order that was not rationally designed by any single mind or group of minds deliberately planning it all out.  For that reason, socialism is attractive because it appears to introduce rational planning to achieve social justice in contrast to the unplanned and unfair anarchy of the market.

To counter the appeal of socialist central planning, Hayek's defense of market liberalism required that he argue that while rational planning to achieve social justice is "instinctually gratifying," since it is "based on primordial emotions" of solidarity, any attempt to do this would destroy the extended order of free markets that makes it possible to sustain the great population and prosperity of modern civilization.  Destroying this extended market order would bring the death of billions of people and the impoverishment of those who survived.

Beck and Witt criticize this Hayekian theory of cultural evolution in two ways.  First, they suggest that in developing his theory of cultural evolution, Hayek unjustifiably ignored Darwin's theory of human evolution as including cultural evolution.  While Hayek sometimes praised Darwin and claimed that Darwinian science supported economic liberalism, he also dismissed "Darwinian selection" as "genetic," and thus too slow to explain the quick cultural evolution of the modern liberal order.  This ignores the fact that Darwin's Descent of Man includes an account of cultural evolution through group selection (or what Darwin called "community selection"). 

Instead of looking to Darwin, Hayek looked to the zoologists Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and Vero C. Wynne-Edwards as sources for his idea of group selection.  But while Carr-Saunders and Wynne-Edwards saw group selection as favoring those groups that showed reproductive restraint to limit population growth, Hayek saw group selection as favoring those groups that showed growth in their population.

Beck and Witt's second criticism of Hayek is that his teleological conception of evolution is implausible and contrary to Darwinian science.  Modern science generally has been critical of any teleological conception of the universe, and Darwinian science in particular has been skeptical of teleological views of the history of life as directed to some final end as guided by some cosmic design.

It is true, Beck and Witt say, that if one considers the common human motivation for a better life and how that motivation has been satisfied by the massive economic growth produced by the free market order over the last 300 years, then one might see social evolution as teleological.  But this economic growth is historically quite recent.  For thousands of years, prior to 1700, there was no such growth.  Moreover, this recent explosion in economic growth arose from historical contingencies--changes in technological and institutional factors--and thus there was no historical necessity to make this modern pattern of economic growth inevitable.

Viktor Vanberg was the commentator on Beck and Witt's paper.  He suggested that we need to distinguish between two kinds of teleology.  Teleology as movement toward a predetermined end-state is hard to justify in explaining human cultural evolution.  But teleology as a general tendency might be plausibly seen in human cultural evolution.  The human desire "to better one's condition" (in Adam Smith's phrase) could create a human tendency favoring economic growth as the technological and institutional factors required for growth appear in history, although this is not a predetermined necessity.

In my comments at the workshop, I agreed with Vanberg that some kind of teleology in cultural evolution is defensible.  Liberals like John Locke and Adam Smith speak about modern commercial society as if it were the ultimate fulfillment of human desires, which suggests a teleological conception of history.  This is scientifically defensible.  Because while Darwinian science has refuted any cosmic teleology of history, that science does support an immanent teleology of life.

When Asa Gray wrote that Darwin had restored teleology to natural science, Darwin wrote to him to say that he agreed with this observation (June 5, 1874).  Although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do serve goals.  Darwin's biology does not deny--rather, it reaffirms--the immanent teleology displayed in the striving of living beings to fulfill their species-specific ends.

If human beings have evolved to have at least twenty natural desires, as I have argued, and if the modern liberal society satisfies those natural desires more fully than any other social order, then we can say that the liberal social order is the fulfillment of human striving, even though the modern emergence of that social order depended on lots of historical contingencies.

Moreover, one can make a plausible argument for seeing a deep historical tendency towards an ever-expanding pattern of non-zero sum cooperation that has been extended in modern market orders.  Beck and Witt indicate that the informal institutions of a market society must channel human competitive behavior to avoid "negative-sum games" (p. 11).  In game theory, a zero-sum game is one in which one person's gain is another person's loss, so that the total losses subtracted from the total gains will sum to zero.  By contrast, a non-zero sum game is where the gains and losses do not sum to zero, and it can be a game in which both players benefit from cooperation.  Trading behavior is a positive-sum game in which each of the traders benefits from the trade.  In his book  Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000), Robert Wright makes a good argument that the entire history of life on Earth is a evolutionary history of ever-expanding cooperation through non-zero-sum games, in which organisms discover ways to cooperate for mutual benefit.  From this point of view, the modern liberal market society is the most recent stage in a history in which both biological evolution and cultural evolution have been directed towards ever greater complexity in developing the potential for non-zero sum cooperation.  Hayek embraced this point when he indicated that the evolution of the extended order of human cooperation from antiquity to the present has been an evolutionary progression in ever wider and more complex positive-sum games producing net gains for the players (The Fatal Conceit, 154).

As Wright indicates, this teleological logic of the evolution of cooperation was recognized by Darwin in The Descent of Man when he wrote: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races" (2004, 147).

But as Beck and Witt indicate, Hayek chose not to adopt Darwin's reasoning.  In fact, as Beck has suggested in some of her writings and in a lecture at the University of Chicago that is available online, there is little evidence that Hayek had even read Darwin.  Beck argues that Darwin's theory of the evolution of social order--including morality--through group selection and other mechanisms is far superior to Hayek's theory. 

Darwin's theory is internally consistent.  Rather than seeing a conflict between instincts, culture, and reason, Darwin saw three levels of evolution that were compatible with one another: we are inclined by our biologically evolved instincts for cultural learning of social norms, and we can use our uniquely human reason to make deliberate choices within the constraints of our natural instincts and our cultural traditions.  Moreover, this Darwinian theory of human evolution has been rigorously developed and confirmed by recent research in evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and evolutionary anthropology.  For example, Beck cites the work of Ernst Fehr on the emergence of social norms, Martin Nowak on the evolution of cooperation, and Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson on the coevolution of genes and culture.  On all of these points, Hayek's theory falls short because he refused to learn from Darwinian science.

I agree with Beck about all of this.  But it seems strange to me that she never considers the possibility that if one turns to the theory of human evolution developed in Darwinian science, as she suggests we should do, we might find that this theory supports classical liberalism, as I have argued.

At the Mont Pelerin Society meeting last summer, some of the most prominent scholars of Darwinian science--including Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Robert Boyd, and Robin Dunbar--suggested ways in which classical liberalism might be seen as the fulfillment of the human evolution of cooperation.  More particularly, as I argued at this meeting, modern Darwinian science confirms that Adam Smith was right about almost everything, because he understood how morals, markets, and laws can all be explained as largely spontaneous orders.  I criticized Hayek on many points, including all of the points made by Beck in her criticism of Hayek.  But then I showed how a careful study of Darwin and Darwinian science could support classical liberalism.

Implicit in Beck's writing is an ideological bias against liberal thought, and so I assume that she would disagree with me.  But if so, she would have to explain exactly why the liberal idea of how social order evolves as a largely spontaneous order is wrong, and she would have to explain her alternative theory of social order.

I disagree with Beck's answer to a question from Robert Richards at her University of Chicago lecture.  Richards asked whether Hayek had taken account of the "demographic transition"--the tendency of wealthier groups of people in developed societies to have low birth rates.  Beck answered that Hayek was unaware of this, and that he just assumed that perpetual growth in population was always good and that growing wealth would always bring population growth.  Beck's answer is not accurate.  In The Fatal Conceit (125, 128), Hayek explicitly cites Esther Boserup's writing on the demographic transition, and he indicates that annual growth rates are declining in the most developed regions, which might lead to a general leveling off of population growth with economic growth.

Here are some of Beck's writings:

"Enrico Ferri's Socialism: A Marxist Interpretation of Herbert Spencer's Organic Analogy," Journal of the History of Biology 2005 (38): 301-25.

"The Origin and Political Thought: From Liberalism to Marxism," in Michael Ruse and Robert J. Richards, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the "Origin of Species" (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 295-313

"Herbert Spencer," in Michael Ruse and J. Trevis, eds., Evolution: The First Four Billion Years (Harvard University Press, 2009), 862-65

"Social Darwinism," in Michael Ruse, ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 195-201.

"Be Fruitful and Multiply: Growth, Reason, and Cultural Group Selection in Hayek and Darwin," Biological Theory 2012, 6 (4): 413-23.

Some of my points here have been elaborated in previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here, here, and here.

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