Classical liberals tend to be big fans of the argument from evolution. To say that a particular social tradition or market outcome was the result of an evolved process, or an emergent outcome, or a spontaneous order, is to establish a sort of strong presumption in favor of its legitimacy or usefulness. This isn’t meant to be an absolute proof, of course, but it does serve to shift the burden of proof strongly to the advocate of overturning the evolved order.
Yet, some on the political left think there is a contradiction in this approach. Classical liberals and libertarians, they point out, are often extremely skeptical and critical of various political institutions like the FDA or the Labor Department. And yet, they argue, these institutions themselves are part of the evolved political order, emerging over time just as market outcomes or social traditions emerge. Shouldn’t this grant these political institutions the same presumption of legitimacy or usefulness that classical liberals grant in these other cases?
Short answer, no.
But on the off chance you’re interested in a longer answer, let’s shift gears for a second and talk about memes.
I don’t mean memes as the term is usually used today, meaning something like “a picture on the internet with a funny caption.” I mean memes as the idea was originally described by Richard Dawkins – a way to model the spread of ideas as though ideas themselves were alive and used human minds to replicate themselves. If you have a handful of minutes to spare, this video does an excellent job describing how the process works, although rather than using the term “meme” it instead refers to “thought germs.” But the idea is the same.
What does memetic theory have to do with why the argument from evolution doesn’t apply to political institutions the way it applies to market processes or social traditions? Because it highlights a key point James Buchanan made – specifically, Buchanan’s point about how order is defined by the process of its emergence.
This means simply pointing out than an order is emerged or evolved doesn’t have the same implications in all cases. It’s also important to consider the process of evolution which brought that order about in the first place. Different orders evolve under different selection pressures, which is why orders that emerge under a system of public choice will evolve according to a systematically different logic than those evolving under private choice.
In the case of memetic theory, ideas most successfully reproduce themselves (that is, are more likely to be shared and spread) when they are emotionally engaging, and especially when they inspire anger. There is no reason to believe, and excellent reasons to doubt, that an evolutionary pressure that causes the most anger-inducing ideas to spread will also produce the ideas that most accurately reflect reality. The fact that an idea has been highly successful at evolving under mimetic evolutionary pressures, especially in the age of social media, gives a strong presumption in favor of discounting its reliability. And the same is true for the evolutionary logic under which state institutions evolve.
Anthony de Jasay, in his book Social Contract, Free Ride explains why the argument from evolution (Institutional Darwinism, in his terms) follows a similarly unhappy logic when applied to institutions of the state. He argues that the evolutionary pressures of state institutions create a sort of Institutional Gresham’s Law, where ineffectual and inefficient institutions drive out effective and efficient ones:
If institutions were selected for the characteristics favorable to their own survival, as in plain Darwinism, the surviving ones might not well be the ones most conducive to making the host civilization prosper and grow…Their survival and growth, however, are fostered precisely by their inefficiency…For a variety of reasons, we should expect survival-of-the-fittest-to-survive to produce a population of institutions with many monsters and with no bias towards the benign and the instrumentally efficient. When competing for survival, the latter may well be driven out by the former. It is well in line with this expectation that there is no marked tendency in history for societies equipped with benign institutions to “prevail.”…Institutional Darwinism would work in the benign fashion ascribe to it, and “nice” civilizations would spread, if the subject being selected by the environment for its characteristics that best help it to survive were the whole symbiotic set of host society with its complementary institutions. For this to be the case, single parasitic institutions in the set should have to lose more by weakening the host society than they gain by feeding on it. Gresham’s Law would then cease to operate, for “non-nice” institutions would either not survive the adverse feedback they suffer from their own parasitic actions which weakens their host society, or they would change their spots by a process of mutation-cum-selection. There is no evidence whatever to bear out supposition of this sort.
Thomas Sowell gave a real-world example of this process when he was interviewed by Salon magazine years ago. He described how early in his career he was working for the federal government, trying to figure out if high unemployment in Puerto Rico was due to minimum wage laws or hurricanes damaging the local sugar crops. He worked out a way to test the competing ideas and reported it to his superiors. This is how he describes their reaction:
I expected to be congratulated. And I saw these looks of shock on people’s faces. As if, “This idiot has stumbled on something that’s going to blow the whole game!” To me the question was: Is this law making poor people better off or worse off?
That was the not the question the labor department was looking at. About one-third of their budget at that time came from administering the wages and hours laws. They may have chosen to believe that the law was benign, but they certainly weren’t going to engage in any scrutiny of the law.
This is an example of institutional Gresham’s Law at work. Given that so much of the Labor Department’s budget is for the purpose of carrying out wage and hour laws, institutional Darwinism would select in favor of a version of the Labor Department that protected their budget by ignoring harm caused by the laws they administered and select against a version of the Labor Department that did the opposite. Similarly, versions of the TSA or FDA that overhype minor or imaginary risks will be selected over versions operating according to a more realistic assessment of risk requiring a lighter touch and a smaller budget.
To bring it back to that line from James Buchanan again, order is defined by the process of its emergence. The outcomes of economic competition in a free market operate by a different evolutionary logic than the spread of thought germs, or by the evolution of political institutions. You can’t simply import the argument used for social and economic evolution and apply it to state institutions. Well, I suppose you can, but when that move falls totally flat, you’ll at least know why.
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