“[W]hile you see the products and services provided for you by the government, you are forever blind to the benefits that would have been provided by those same resources had the government not confiscated them…”
reationism has lost the argument in the public square. Any biologist working to understand life-related phenomena has no choice but to take seriously Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. That is that all of the apparent design and purposefulness that we observe in the biosphere, from a bird’s wings to a shark’s fins to a human brain, came about by a long but steady series of gradual changes in unbroken genetic lineages. Amazingly, Charles Darwin (as well as Alfred Russel Wallace) discovered his elegant explanation of the biosphere’s apparent design without knowledge of the underlying code of life: DNA. Nor did he know about genes, the fundamental unit of evolution by natural selection (for a detailed overview, see Richard Dawkins’ seminal book, The Selfish Gene).
To be sure, there is a host of unsolved problems in biology, but that is always the case in science; it is no blemish against Darwin. A theory must always be judged against its rivals, not against some utopian theory that explains everything once and for all.
Next time you roll your eyes at a religious fundamentalist’s denial of Darwinism, remember that there is another Creationism pervading our culture, one that is far more destructive.
Biological Creationism is the theory that the wondrous designs we see in the biosphere cannot have arisen due to ‘mere’ mutation and selection—and that a divine source must, instead, have caused them. Some Creationists insist that all creatures have had the forms that they currently hold, while others accept Darwin’s theory but posit that God nudged evolution along according to His own plan. In either case, the Creationist rejects that complex adaptations could possibly emerge without a top-down Designer intervening. And when such a Creationist hypothesis is coupled with the assertion that the world has not yet had its 10,000th birthday, mockery understandably comes its way. Millions of laypeople can now articulate and defend the idea that the design and complexity of living things have come about by a process that involved no Designer whatsoever. The Creationist often rejects this design-without-a-Designer idea merely on the grounds that it’s utterly counterintuitive.
But Reality does not care what we intuit to be true.
So while Biological Creationism is rightfully rejected in many quarters, there is another strand of Creationism that is both widespread and far more dangerous than its biological counterpart. I speak of what I call Economic Creationism. There are many variants, but in general, Economic Creationism is the theory that the complexity and order in society cannot emerge spontaneously and, therefore, requires a top-down Planner. All theories worth their salt have logical consequences, and Economic Creationism, while false, is no different. For example, if only the Planners passed the right laws, then the evils of the day would vanish. Surely the answer to racial discrimination, to gun violence, to terrorism, is more legislation and top-down control. Poverty, too, can be resolved if only we rejigger society in just the right way, like rearranging pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until they fit together. If only the taxation scheme was just right, then we’d have the outcome that we want, whether that’s an acceptable level of either inequality or absolute poverty. And so adherents to Economic Creationism think that politics is the mechanism by which we work our way towards a better world.
But politics is, almost by definition, a game that requires the initiation of violence to play. If you, Citizen, refuse to give politicians the resources they require for their schemes, people with guns will knock on your door, kidnap you at the threat of violence, and throw you in a cage. My point is not to conclude that such a game is therefore immoral (alas, my thoughts on the matter may be ill-concealed) but rather to expose the economics of the matter. In order for a political apparatus to do anything, they first have to confiscate wealth that was created by private citizens. At best, then, political schemes can merely shift wealth around, rather than create it. And make no bones about it, we’re all interested in creating wealth—as we should be, as it’s the thing that allows us to solve ever more problems. Even the Economic Creationist thinks that some class of people will be made “better off” through political schemes—in other words, wealthier.
Okay, politics can’t generate wealth. So what? Maybe we can sacrifice a little total wealth in order to make gains in economic equality—or in governmental rule-of-law. But it turns out that there is no such trade-off; a society is only rendered poorer than it would have been absent such coercive measures. This can be shown in a number of ways. There’s the famous ‘seen vs. the unseen’ principle, as expressed by economist Frédéric Bastiat: while you see the products and services provided for you by the government, you are forever blind to the benefits that would have been provided by those same resources had the government not confiscated them in the first place. Resources are always scarce, and, at any given level of wealth, more of one application is less of another. If a government takes a farmer’s profits in order to further its schemes, so be it. But regardless of what the government does with those resources, we will never know what the farmer would’ve done with them; he could have hired another employee, lowered the prices of his crops, etc.
Then there’s the economic calculation problem, first explained by Ludwig von Mises—in short, prices are what they are for reasons, something Economic Creationists fail to appreciate. Prices reflect a host of underlying factors that are beyond any one individual’s control—people’s subjective preferences, the cost of production, the number of competitors in the industry, etc. The amount of information embedded in a price is as impressive as the amount of information encoded in a strand of DNA. Because governments operate outside of market competition, they lack the information that their free market counterparts enjoy via prices. Hence, not only do they tend to produce services at comparatively low quality, but they also tend to produce them at quantities either above or below what citizens demand.
And finally, we have Friedrich Hayek’s knowledge problem—that the data required for economic planning is so vast, complex, and widely distributed among free individuals that no top-down planner can possibly possess it all at once. Consider all of the decisions you make on a daily basis. Now imagine that someone will confiscate some of your resources and make those decisions for you. Do you think they’ll do a better job solving your problems than you would? Or, to take a less personal example, consider the production of a single pencil (here I borrow unapologetically from Leonard Read’s brilliant essay, I, Pencil). The writing instrument first requires the transformation of trees into logs, which, in turn, requires mining ore and converting that into sawing tools. The logs are then shipped to another location, where they are shaped further into pencil-shapes before being merged with the rest of the numerous components of a pencil. The entire pencil-creation process is spread across time, space, and production lines and requires an uncountable number of individuals in order to create the finished pencil. And not a single person involved could recreate the process by himself—not in his own mind, and certainly not physically.
So wealth is created by free individuals, each responding locally to problems in their own lives. Prices emerge by the interaction of uncountable numbers of people. The creation of technology requires more knowledge than a single person is capable of possessing and instead requires the spontaneous order of the economy. But the Economic Creationist denies these rules. He dismisses the value of prices, the impossibility of centralizing the knowledge that is distributed across millions (or billions) of individuals’ minds, the freedom and creativity that is required to create wealth in the first place. He is a proponent of forcibly extracting created wealth from free, disparate individuals and putting it into the hands of a single organization. We may summarize the rules denied by the Creationist as follows:
You cannot coerce your way to a better world.
So yes, Biological Creationism is false. But the consequences of Economic Creationism are far more damaging to humanity. Their rejection of freedom as a prerequisite for wealth creation leads to advocacy of proposals that vitiate the wealth that our ancestors and contemporaries have worked hard to build. Next time you roll your eyes at a religious fundamentalist’s denial of Darwinism, remember that there is another Creationism pervading our culture, one that is far more destructive. Economic Creationism is the great Enemy of Civilization. Let’s take it seriously.
Logan Chipkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and host of the Fallible Animals podcast. His writing focuses on science, philosophy, economics, and history. Follow him on Twitter @ChipkinLogan.
This article first appeared on the website of The Libertarian Institute.