I have lately been reading a book of essays and review articles by Richard Dawkins, and mostly I agree with him, about most things. However, in his Foreward to a book called Pyramids of Life, which he here entitles “Ecology of Genes”, he indulges in an aside on the subject of the free market (p. 266 of my Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003 paperback edition):
As Adam Smith understood long ago, an illusion of harmony and real efficiency will emerge in an economy dominated by self-interest at a lower level.
Dawkins is not here making a point about the free market. He is merely seeking to punch home a point about how ecological systems are not designed, but instead merely present the illusion of having been designed, in rather the same way that individual species also appear to be designed, but also are not. In truth, species evolve blindly, with no designing intelligence determining their shape, and ecologies are but aggregates of species. It gets a bit more complicated by the end of the piece, because actually species do somewhat resemble ecologies, in that they too are coexisting aggregates of mutually sustaining genes. I may have explained that slightly wrongly, but in any case, my point here is not what Dawkins says about what he is really writing about and really knows about.
No. I am interested in what Dawkins says in that little dig at the free market (the “economy dominated by self-interest at a lower level”). Illusion of harmony? Adam Smith said a great deal more than that. The free market does not just look harmonious and efficient, Smith said. It is harmonious and efficient. This is no mere illusion. The reason is that the participants in free markets do something that the participants in mere ecologies – or, to use an even more common usage when nature and market are being compared by people who do not like markets, in jungles – do not do. They respect each other’s rights. Animals in the true state of nature that animals really do inhabit, and in pursuit of their self interest, actually destroy one another. They consume one another. If people in markets ate one another, then indeed, in would be quite proper to denounce ‘capitalism’ (i.e. the free market) as the ‘law of the jungle’. But people in markets make no arrangements with one another than all concerned do not consent to, albeit often rather grudgingly and discontentedly. Markets really are very harmonious, and compared to jungles they are utopian idylls of conviviality.
Why does Dawkins indulge in this snide little aside? I have not read this entire book of essays from cover to cover, and I have not caught him out saying anything else that I disagreed with. So why this cheap shot, all of a sudden?
On my Education Blog a while ago, I featured another chunk from this same Dawkins book, and one of my commenters there asked if Dawkins was perhaps some kind of lefty, and what light could I shed on that? I did not really know, and still do not, but this little anti-market jibe certainly suggests that he is some sort of “lefty”.
My interpretation of this is that when it comes to free markets, Dawkins is ignorant rather than wilfully stupid. He hasn’t thought about free markets very much, and merely alludes thoughtlessly to what he takes to be the general view of markets, in order to get across what he is really thinking about. How else explain both his ignorance of the nature of free markets, and his extraordinary diminution of what Smith really said about free markets.
But I know little of Dawkins’ political views or ideological allegiances. Can anyone else answer my commenters question? Is Dawkins some kind of lefty? Or is he politically and ideologically indifferent, and fiercely partisan only about such things as science (for) and religion (against).
Or could it be that, what with the attacks on him from fundamentalist Christians (“right wing”), and from lefties denouncing Dawkins (quite wrongly of course) for his supposed genetic ‘determinism’, that Dawkins just says, of politics, ideology etc.: a plague on both your houses – and turns his back on the whole pack of politicos, and goes out of his way not to acquaint himself with the details of their opinions, having what he regards as better fish to fry? Comments welcome.