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7. Workshop – Evolution in Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft und Natur: Grenzen wirtschaftspolitischer Planung

Soazza, 24.10.2002 – 27.10.2002


Report on

Progress Foundation Conference
“Evolution in Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft und Natur: Grenzen wirtschaftlicher Planung” / “Evolution in society, economy and nature: limitations for economic planning”

The conference was held October 24-27, 2002 at Soazza/Switzerland and assembled fifteen scholars and journalists with various intellectual backgrounds from economics, biology, theology, sociology and political science. The topic of the conference was discussed in six sessions, each of them with special reference to an introductory text and altogether throwing light on the rich tradition of evolutionary thought from the age of Enlightenment up to key texts of modern social philosophy. In sum, the conference illustrated that the argument for free entrepreneurship, market economy and limited government in the sense of the rule of law or Rechtsstaat tradition derives from a coherent philosophical interpretation of the spontaneous and unintended origin and progress of economic, social and political knowledge. It includes a realistic understanding of how limited the ability of rationalistic planning in economy and society is and of how dangerous a pretence of knowledge must be for the growth and welfare of economic systems and societies.

Session 1: Scottish Enlightenment (Hume, Smith, Ferguson) vs. Rationalism in the tradition of Condorcet

This session confronted the participants with two opposite approaches towards the idea of progress within the 18th century. The Scottish school of moral philosophy, represented by Hume, Smith and Ferguson, taught the understanding of unintended, spontaneous progress in societal, economic and political institutions and gave unsurpassed insights in the key topics of evolutionary economics. While they described the advantages of market order and non- centralised discovery processes, Condorcet on the other side stands for the rationalistic branch of enlightenment and argued for the predictability of progress. This idea of progress is a rationalistic construction and replaces eschatological hope by a secular message of salvation. It supports optimism in political planning and weakens scepticism against the promises of an overextended idea of politics.

From first reflections on the introductory texts, the discussion of the participants led towards some main points of interest: Can we – with our knowledge of the 20th century – read Condorcet as a predecessor of Marxism, socialism and totalitarianism, or does it overstress the intellectual bias between his ideas and the later applications of rationalism in economics and politics? Why is there a constant yearning for optimism in man-made progress? Why was the technological progress so attractive in the 20th century that its rationalistic conception became a main inspiration also for the economic and political sciences?

Session 2: The discussion in the 19th century (Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer)

This session was focussing on the dialogue between biological and social sciences in the 19th century and therefore touched delicate questions about the distinction and analogies between biological and economic evolution. During this session one could reaalize that economic thought is often dominated by mechanistic views and terms, which illustrate the immense influence of rationalistic thought on the development of modem economics. Contrasting these popular images of economics with biological understandings of evolution and order opens new anthropological perspectives, not only by discovering similarities, but also by recognising the differences between economic and biological evolution. Not only has one to distinct individual and over-individual evolution, but it is also questionable in how far biological categories like survival, reproduction or expansion can be used for explaining economic and political processes. On the other hand, the comparison of economic and biological evolution illustrates that the coordination function of markets cannot be reduced to a term of hostile competition, but also contains cooperation to mutual advantage. In this context, it was helpful to take a closer look on Herbert Spencer who is misunderstood if not forgotten in the German speaking world. His idea of progress can be used to understand economic development, because it argues without a normative idea of improvement, but simply with an idea of increasing complexity of orders. This abstract term seems to allow to compare economic and biological orders and its progress without running into false analogies, In a similar sense, the idea of adaptation as a kind of not absolute, but relative progress in dependence on special circumstances could be used to understand success and failure of economic strategies in a non-normative sense.

Session 3: Modern evolutionary biology and culture (Masters, Eibl-Eibesfeld, Wickler)

This session confronted the participants with key texts of modern socio-biology and stimulated the very controversial discussions on the question in how far modern results of evolutionist biology can be generalised to explain the development of human institutions. Especially the explanatory ambitions of biologists like Masters were rejected, while Eibl-Eibesfeldt was treated with more goodwill. The importance and influence of biological research on modern thought was emphasized throughout all contributions to the discussion. Some questions of evolutionist biology have been discussed with special attention regarding their relevance for economic thought: the tension between small groups as subjects for evolution and the trend to centralisation, the problem of decline and dead end-paths of evolution, criteria for improvement, optimising strategies, productivity or adaptation, the variety of environmental circumstances, which enforce strategies for survival and progress. Some deeper philosophical questions occurred during the discussion: Is there a nature of man? In how far can we understand man as a part of nature? Are there any individual or group abilities of man and societies which differ from a purely biological existence? What about natural law and naturalism as categories for political philosophy?

Session 4: The concept of cultural evolution (Friedrich August von Hayek)

With the discussion of Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution, the conference reached a point, where the strong bias between biological and economic understanding became most striking. Some of the contributions were focussing on an accurate understanding of Hayek’s thought, e.g., the question whether his idea of group selection suits his methodological position of individualism and microeconomics, or the modification of his argument that switched from the explanation of evolutionary selection of rules to the evolutionary selection of groups in his later years. Moreover, Hayek’s ideas were taken to discuss cultural and economic evolution itself: especially his distinction between micro and macro societies, between abstract and concrete orders as two different levels of evolution, and between rules and actions stimulated important insights and questions. If the creative powers of a free civilization can only be set free by breaking established rules and conventions, how tolerable must a society be, when facing the neglect of rules? Which violations cannot be accepted? Is competition a process of discovery or invention? How is it possible to balance instinct, tradition and reason as sources for progress? What about the tension between the stability of orders and the dynamics of evolution? How can orders generate evolution? How can a complex order as a market economy be sheltered effectively from ambitions to material distribution of incomes which regularly are attractive for politicians and interest groups in modern democracies?

Session 5: Limitations for political planning (Michael Oakeshott)

While Hayek was accepted by all the participants as a guide to liberal convictions, Michael Oakeshott had to face strong criticism during the discussion. Caused by the essayistic, rough style of the dealt with chapter, his distinction between the political styles of “faith” and “scepticism” did not convince every speaker, although Oakeshott’s argument for the limitation of rational planning in politics has in fact much in common with Hayek’s ideas. Especially Oakeshott’s terms of “nomocracy” in the meaning of a rule of law and “telocracy” in the meaning of a rule of special interests refer to a limited ambition of government on one hand, and to an extended role for government on the other hand and therefore aims at the distinction between justice and social justice. Even if not everybody was convinced by Oakeshott’s preference of the political style of scepticism, some far reaching thoughts derived from the discussion of the text: Can competition be understood as distribution? Is egalitarian distribution necessary for the stability and acceptance of a political and economic order? Or is it necessary to reach a balance of power inside a political order? ln case there are some arguments in favour for a limited distribution policy, can we define limitations for it, or does the acceptance even of a minor amount of distribution necessarily lead to a road to serfdom? How can the humble but responsible ambition of a nomocracy in Oakeshott’s terms be communicated against the energetic promises of telocratic policies?

Session 6: Limitations of political planning (Erich Weede)

The character of the last session differed from the others, because it was possible to directly discuss the introductory text and the consequences for economic planning with Erich Weede. His concept of evolution led him to a state of “capitalistic peace”: according to him, even small concessions to freedom and law generate significant improvement of wealth and peace. Despite his preference for private action Weede defined some aspects of social life, he does not see any alternative to state action for. He especially mentioned international security policy, internal security policy and environmental policy. He differentiated between true and false state activity and argued that the fulfilment of the former is hindered by the extension of untrue and expensive state activities, which he described as a “cure without illness”. During the discussion of his theses light was thrown on some important points: Of what kind is the planning, which is inherent in social evolution? Can state action dispose negative externalities or does it only create new ones? Do individuals always behave rational? If we can uphold the falsification of the homo oeconomicus model, why can we not replace it by an alternative and less absurd anthropological model? Why does selection happen in evolution? What are its criteria beyond economic capability? Can we describe the development of many western countries as an evolutional decadence?

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