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A surprising aside by Richard Dawkins about the free market

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.

24 comments to A surprising aside by Richard Dawkins about the free market

  • I don’t know about Dawkins specifically, but the Oxbridge scientific world he inhabits (and which I once inhabited as a grad student) is full of people who are some sort of lefties. They are generally not very sophisticated about it, generally, as their abiding passions are well, science. However, for whatever reason they typically loathed Margaret Thatcher, but a soft of limp leftist politics is normal. (Slowly they are waking up to the fact that the leftist government regulation of universities that they accepted and indeed in many cases encouraged is doing a fine job of wrecking the university system and making their lives hell. Perhaps there will be a big political shift at some point. If so, it’s a way off though).

  • toolkien

    In my mind there is nothing designed about the market system above and beyond the foundation of the entire civil system, honoring others rights in property. This understanding of these rights are brought into the act of trading, but other than that there is nothing designed about it, and that is precisely what we want. A design of some sort, pointed toward some end, would likely have to come from some form of socialism. I also see that there is not exactly anything convivial about capitalism many times. Many people trade grudgingly and that is precisely why there are so many fronts who would like the have the State involve itself on their behalf. Socialism wouldn’t be rising (at least here in the US) if people didn’t want it.

    Also, from the angle of conviviality, there is competition, and competition breeds bad blood and hard feelings. There is nothing wrong with that. It is merely another manifestation of the reality that we do not ‘get along’ and that there is much more disharmony than there is harmony in human affairs. Allowing for disharmony, without a cookie cutter, we’ll make it better for everyone sort of socialism is precisely what needs to be avoided. Capitalism doesn’t need to be touted as being the best for anything other than allowing individuals to make their own choices based on their own value judgements regardless if those judgements lead them to ruin or are disharmonious with the value judgements of the majority.

  • Granted, individual competitors in a market do not aim at literally eating, or killing other individuals. But the market itself, and most of the creatures that inhabit it, are every bit as cruel and harsh as animals. Businesses get killed, lose or gain market share – i.e. territory – replace older species and generally strive to grab each other’s meal. A free-market is literally cut-throat. Survival of the fittest and all that.

    Many have been led to believe that all this Darwinism – which itself has become a dirty word – is bad because it implies constant churning, job losses etc. Hence the relative seductiveness of all the regulatory dams, parking lots, walls, canals and other roads the state builds all over the place.

    What they don’t realize is that in a free market, it is also easier to find a new job. After all, why would the prospect of losing one’s job be such a concern, if we knew there is another one around the corner ?

    In the free market ecosystem, individuals are more like genes. The creatures we create and animate are born, evolve, succeed or disappear. A bit of stretch at this stage, but I can’t resist it because it implies the Left’s economic agenda is mostly large scale genetic engineering.

  • Dawkins’s Devil’s Chaplain is a great read, but the man himself is certainly very much a leftie. Since 9/11, he has written a series of hysterical political columns, last November describing Bush as a “hick” and an “advert for Drunks for Jesus”. There is an obvious parallel with Paul Krugman, who is also extremely readable in his chosen field, and ridiculous in his political commentary.

    To Dawkins’ credit, he’s not entirely a slave of the left by any means. He has been vigorous in opposition to radical feminism, postmodernism and other challenges to reason and the scientific method.

  • Orson Olson

    Let me echo Peter Cuthbertson’s comments and others above, since I – too – have noticed Dawkin’s snappy asides against the market.

    I once read an interview in The Sceptic (USA), in which Dawkin’s simply accepted the necessity of the welfare state and the ignorance (or moral terpitude) of its opponents. As someone said above, soft lefty sentiments, indeed.

    –Orson Olson
    Colorado, USA

  • Andy Wood

    You’re not the first person to make this observation about Richard Dawkins.

    Have a read of this piece from Reason magazine.

  • d

    The point is not whether Dawkins is right or wrong in his political views but that he has made an error careless logic (no doubt due to he political prejudices). This is a scientific hanging offence and he should be told of it with clarity. Scientists are often blinded as to where their normal logical rigour breaks down in areas which are beyond their normal field of considered thinking, and this is a good example.

    We should dub him Dawkins the blind economist.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Dawkins came up to Glasgow to deliver a lecture, it must have been more than ten years ago. He was developing his theory of “memes” and was ver interesting. He was suffering from a bad cold so it was good of him to do his stuff. After the lecture he stood about, available informally to answer questions. I had recently encountered Hayek’s theory of “spontaneous order” and asked him if he had any interest in Hayek. It took him a moment to remember or recall if he had heard the name. “Oh – the economist: no.” It was not a situation propitious for an interchange, and who was I to suggest anything to an authority on evolution who was not at his physical best? Yet is not Hayek’s “spontaneous order” merely Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” writ/wrought large? As for the leftish stance, I fear that Evolution as a process – such a messy business – promotes the reaction in biologists that humans “could do better”, thanks to their enormous brainpower. And so to planning, socialism or worse,

  • Sylvian Galineau says that

    A free-market is literally cut-throat.

    Perhaps you mean metaphorically cut-throat. Even so it is a very poor metaphor for the peacefulness of the free market.

  • Wild Pegasus

    A free-market is literally cut-throat.

    I think you need to learn the definition of “literally”.

    – Josh

  • Ken

    It seems you’re running up against a depressingly common, and in some ways, frightening phenomenon.

    People who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about economics simply assume that the free market is, “like fire, a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” They take as a matter of course, without much further thought, that proper regulations and “good government” keep the system from degenerating into Great Depressions and prevent the big guys from screwing the small guys, in much the same way that they take as a matter of course without much further thought that the Earth orbits around the Sun. Or, more to the point, the same way that previous generations take as a matter of course without much further thought that the Sun, and all of the planets, orbit around the Earth.

  • Tom Robinson

    The most plausible theory I’ve encountered about Richard Dawkin’s anti-war stance and leftie leanings can be found over at Setting the World to Rights. They did a superb fisking of an uncharacteristically shrill open letter he wrote to George Bush. To one that has read Dawkin’s wonderful books, the tone of the letter is uncharacteristically shrill. (It was one of many published in the Guardian to mark the President’s state visit to UK.)

    The explanation involves what is already well known about Dawkins: that he is vehemently opposed to all superstition and religion. However, in rejecting them, he has also mistakenly rejected objective morality. Kolya Wolf has argued that this knowledge has been transmitted through history by monotheism, which first arose amongst the Jews.

    The number of atheists in the West who hold to realism in morality is very small indeed. But the number will have to grow eventually. Reasoning about morality is essential in understanding where rights come from, and thus also the ideological infrastructure that underpins capitalism.

    I might add my opinion that Dawkins leftiness has been brought to the fore in connection with his role as Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Science doesn’t require this kind of outreach, which is an extension of our authoritarian educational system. The finest ambassadors for Science can be found on the shelves of Waterstones and Borders, priced around £8.99

  • Cydonia

    Dawkins’ Guardian letter was undoubtedly a very poor effort. For one thing, we can hardly blame the United States Government for “dragging us down too”. Nobody forced the British Government to participate in Iraq.

    However, whilst I do not suggest that Dawkins opposed the war on libertarian grounds, there is nothing in Dawkins’ letter that was specifically leftist.

  • Tom Robinson

    I reject what you describe as “realism” in morality, for the exact same reasons that Dawkins does, that it is just another parochial superstition.

    The world is full of people who imagine that their own socially inherited beliefs about what is right and wrong are “objective”. All are deluding themselves. That is what Dawkins and I both think.

    But I, unlike Dawkins, am nevertheless an enthusiastic believer in libertarianism and free markets, which I associate precisely with moral subjectivism, just as I associate it with aesthetic and other sorts of subjectivism. Dawkins, just like lots of others, could have become the same sort of enthusiast for free markets that I am, without agreeing with you about objective morality.

    So why hasn’t he?

    Could part of it be that so many American right wing Christians are often (a) militantly anti-Dawkins about God and (especially – which Dawkins especially despises – as do I) about Darwinism, and also (b) pro free market? Do these people make Dawkins lump all these opinions together – in his mind I mean – into one great bundle of superstitious nonsense? And, having committed himself to the claim that these people are wrong about everything, is he reluctant now to retreat on any front? Could that be part of the story?

  • Andy Wood

    Dawkins, just like lots of others, could have become the same sort of enthusiast for free markets that I am, without agreeing with you about objective morality.

    So why hasn’t he?

    My conjecture is that he just hasn’t got round to it because he doesn’t know much economics.

    The logical structure of evolutionary biology and economics are quite similar, with ‘reproductive success’ playing the role in biology that ‘utility’ plays in economics.

    However, in most situations studied by biologists, there are no equivalents (or poor equivalents) of property, contract, reputation, money or price. Therefore, biologists will tend to be used to situations where market failure is the rule rather than the exception. For biologists who have never studied economics, a natural assumption may be that human institutions are riddled with market failure just like the rest of nature.

    If you could convince Dawkins that he should study some economics, you might see him change his mind.

    You might be interested in reading Matt Ridley’s books. He’s another biologist who writes about evolution (I think, though I’m not sure, that he was one of Dawkins’s students), but he also understands economics. For example, in The Origins of Virtue, which is about Darwinian explanations of our moral intuitions, he discusses Ricardo’s Principle of Comparative Advantage. Matt Ridley is also quite libertarian and in favour of free markets.

  • In “The Selfish Gene” Dawkins mentioned having voted Labour in 1974, before he had any prominence or had published his first book. I understand he also joined anti-Vietnam protests when he lectured in the United States. So his leftism runs deeper than that.

  • Peter Cuthbertson,

    Voting Labour in 1974 is scarcely evidence of ‘leftism’. Perhaps he followed the advice of Enoch Powell.

    Still less is joining an ‘anti-Vietnam’ protest any evidence of leftism in itself, Murray Rothbard and many others did the same.

  • About “falsification”. I’m used to this word meaning something good, namely the successful disproof of a tentative scientific theory, and thereby a step towards truth. It hadn’t quite got to me that what Nils Hyphen meant was the prepetration of or the spreading of falsehood. I get it now. But I still think this shows animperfect grasp of English, or at any rate of one quite important and useful English word.

    Not that there’s anything (much) wrong with that.

  • I’ve read enough of Dawkins’ work to know he is a leftie rather than a Powellite or Rothbardian. He made clear alongside his mention of how he voted in 1974 that he considered Thatcherism selfishness elevated to the level of a political ideology.

    He supported Labour for decades until the Iraq War. Now he supports the Lib Dems.

  • Alan Peakall

    The discussion above arising from Dawkins’ political observations in the 2nd Edition of The Selfish Gene has covered some of what I was planning to add, but I think there is an interesting angle in a quote from Dawkins’ review of Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue:

    If my book The Selfish Gene were to have a second volume devoted to human beings, then The Origins of Virtue is pretty much what I think it ought to look like.

    This suggests to me that, when Dawkins reads the case for morality as a natural, emergent phenomenon argued by a committed (right-)libertarian such as Ridley, he finds it, to some degree, persuasive, but given time he recovers from this lapse.

  • Perhaps I’m coming to this thread a bit late but it strikes me that Dawkins has this precisely the wrong way around. The “efficiency” of the market is no illusion but demonstrably real, as is the efficiency of an evolved organism.

    What is illusory is the notion that the market’s “invisible hand” belongs to something (presumably “prudent” government regulation). Dawkins makes the same error he identifies in those who conclude from nature’s complexity that is must be designed.

  • Frank

    Thanks for that. And maybe that, in a muddle way, was what Dawkins was alluding to. There is a claim in Smith that markets create an illusion, but it is an illusion of design rather than of harmony and efficiency. The harmony and efficiency, as I angrily pointed out in my original posting, is no illusion, and is very real. Maybe he just thoughtlessly chose the wrong words, getting the illusion bit right but misdescribing what the illusion was of, so to speak.

    I am inclined to think that Dawkins’ anti-market thinking is as much the result of neglect as of deliberate wrong-headedness, as others have here suggested.

    In general, I have found these comments most helpful, and I thank all who have contributed.

  • I’m reading Daniel Dennett’s latest book: “Freedom Evolves” at the moment. In describing his disappointment at how one of his fellow “materialists”, Pinker, retains some “mysterian” thinking, he writes: “nobody’s perfect”.

    Indeed Dennett himself, normally flawless in examining all those “unexamined assumptions”, makes a similar lapse a few pages earlier in casually referring to global warming as if it were a proven certainty.

    I think Dawkins simply hasn’t examined this unexamined assumption – “that the market is a dangerous servant and a fearful master” – and just takes it as a given.

  • Sandra Neill

    Amusing that the catalyst for this discussion is the apparently scandalous notion that Dawkins may be “some sort of lefty”. Who but “some sort of righty” could coin such a phrase in the first place? Pardon my sarcasm but I’m surprised by the retrograde categorization of anyone, not just Dawkins, as a “lefty”.

    Any argument brimming withh undue praise or condemnation for a particular economic system is probably one-sided and not terribly thoughtful or evidence-based. But Dawkins’s comments aren’t extreme. Most free market supporters I know would readily agree that self-interest (with which there is nothing inherently wrong as without it we’d not survive all that well or all that long) lies at the base of the free market system. And most would further agree that many folks, for a variety of reasons, fall between the cracks along the way to free market prosperity.

    Recognizing this reality certainly doesn’t make one a “lefty”–whatever that old-fashioned term even means in 2004. Haven’t we come a little too far to still be hurling simplistic lefty/righty insults? If a commentator has reasonable & convincing evidence to support her argument, can we not approach the argument in a rational way, whether to dispute or agree with it, based on evidence rather than outdated & oversimplifying right/left insults?

    Dawkins’s clear position against post-modernism shows he’s no idealogue. The same is not true, I think, of a number of those who’ve commented here, and who have lathered unstinting praise on the free market system–as though it has no flaws at all.

    Last: taking an anti-George W Bush stance hardly makes one a so-called lefty. The guy is a fundamentalist Christian, and he has shown himself, repeatedly, to be an enemy of science. Period.