On today's Washington Post editorial page, George Will propounds on "Creationists of the Secular Kind," (whom he also calls "Secular Theists") whom he sees as far worse for society and the economy than the "religious creationists." He is inspired in his discussion by earlier arguments by libertarian/Austrian economist Don Boudreaux, who runs the blog, Cafe Hayek, citing him specifically and largely drawing on arguments made by Boudreaux in several places, with I think Boudreaux coining both of these terms and making the main argument here. There are two parts to this argument, both of them in Boudreaux's original post (along with some related blogposts by others) as well as in Will's column.
The main argument is garden variety libertarianism: government regulations and efforts to direct the economy will end up strangling economic growth, most specifically slowing useful technological change that emerges from competition in a Darwinian evolutionary manner (Schumpeter argued this, but he does not get cited by any of these people, bad Austrian that he was), with a more general argument for the spontaneous emergence of market order, drawing heavily on arguments made by Hayek in many places, who in turn credited Adam Smith for this idea. Both Boudreaux and Will criticize "progressives" (Boudreaux) and "presidential campaigns" (Will) for believing in the "fatal conceit" (from the title of Hayek's last book) that government or planners or "the state" can somehow improve on the spontaneously emergent market system. While this is just old hat laissez-faire libertarianism, it has this spice of emergent order, which Hayek identified with complexity, that supposedly makes it more impressive and undeniable, although this has been around since at least the late 1940s when Hayek first made such arguments.
Of course it can be argued that with respect to the basic argument about technological change, it may be that government actions can help stimulate it, although certainly they can also restrain or block it. Among actions that may stimulate it are funding for research, properly structured patent systems (arguably not what we have now), and subsidies to support new technologies, although these can certainly sometimes end up being inefficient pork barrel boondoggles.
Nevertheless, this is an area where I think that Will's initial slam on the supposed "secular creationists" as being worse than the religious ones may be seriously wrong. After all, we have many of these people not only overtly blocking such specific scientific research projects as stem cell research, but also trying to block research on climate change, the effects of gun violence, and many other things, not to mention trying to control our educational system to insert teaching of indeed "special creation," which is just their efforts to impose their narrow theological beliefs on everybody. They are far more dangerous to technological change than are most current "secular theists,"although I grant there are some leftists who oppose certain kinds of research, such as on GMOs, not to mention the more recent general movement on many campuses to restrict academic freedom of speech.
While I disagree with them on this, it is the second argument where I think both Boudreaux and Will simply lose it completely. This part of the argument says that not only are these awful secular theists trying to strangle economic growth with their awful regulations, they also do not accept the idea of the spontaneous emergence of market orders, that they believe that market orders must be created by somebody, which is what their real error or crime of "secular creationism" is.
As Boudreaux puts it:
"Order must, for secular theists, be the result of a [sic] some higher that designs, intends, imposes, and guides willfully the order that we see about us."
Will's formulation is this:
"Like religious creationists gazing upon biological complexity, secular theists assume that social complexity requires an intentional design imposed from on high by wise designers, a.k.a. them."
Now this is a much stronger argument, with Boudreaux rushing to meet possible objections at the end of the linked post above to dispute any idea that anything like the US Constitutional Convention was such an ordering-from-on-high body, that most of the legal structure of the US predated it, and so on and so forth. Curiously, when I looked at the comment thread to his post, I did not see anybody really trying to argue with him on this point.
OK, this is where I am ready to take both of them down hard. Who are these people they claim believe this argument? They never name any names, neither one of them nor any of their pals posting on this either. Boudreaux refers to "progressives," but he names nobody. Certainly there have been leaders who at certain moments did things that altered how the economy works (and, of course, command socialist central planners do take control of economies and guide them, but they are the ultimate enemy criticized by Hayek in the socialist planning controversy). It is not just the US constitutional convention, but such things as Napoleon imposing his legal code (which was drawn heavily on earlier codes) or FDR doing his New Deal, or even something like the Bretton Woods conference that established organizations to oversee the international economy.
But, taking into account that indeed there have been such moments or leaders who have strongly influenced and changed how the market economy works, I am frankly unaware of anybody who denies that in general market economies spontaneously develop through competitive evolutionary processes, even if these are bounded or to some extent guided by organizations or institutions that themselves evolve, if occasionally with a helping hand from governments. But I am at a loss to think of anybody other than full-bore conspiracy theorists who believe anything like the statements I have quoted above by Boudreaux and Will to the effect that all social order has to have been consciously imposed by somebody or other, and this included Karl Marx most especially, who strongly argued that the capitalist economy evolves through competitive natural selection, Marx being one of the very first to openly praise Darwin when he published his Origin of the Species after it was published in 1859.
So, to be very blunt, both Boudreaux and Will are just completely wrong and full of it on this point. They are fantasizing. They can argue from a long tradition of libertarian pro-laissez faire schools that free markets may do better than ones heavily interfered with by governments, but trying to add onto this the ridiculous claim that those who think governments might be able to help economies by proper interventions also believe that there is no such thing as a spontaneously evolved and emerged order and that everything we see must have been planned by somebody, well, this is itself a fatal conceit of the worst and silliest kind.
I shall close this by pointing out that Boudreaux himself completely undermines his own case in this original post, linked to above. Among the supposed idiocies of all these secular theists and creationists is that somehow they do not recognize the virtues and successes of the "somewhat deregulated" economies of [South] Korea, Taiwan, and, yes, China. Oh my. But the joke is that none of these is remotely his model of libertarian laissez-faire. He would have had more credibility if he had cited that old libertarian fave, Hong Kong, but no, we have this bizarre trio. I do not know how ignorant he is on this, but all of these economies have been marked by lots of government intervention and direction by the state. Taiwan may be the most free market, but it still has much government intervention. South Korea had vigorous indicative planning during its highest rate of growth phase during the 60s-80s, and China still has such planning, having just announced its 13th Five Year Plan. Yes, they still have those, indeed are bragging that they have now beaten the old Soviet Union, which only managed to have 12 of them. Among at least semi-large economies, only Iran still has such Five Year Plans for an overall economy. Even North Korea no longer has them.
As for Will, well, he cribs from Boudreaux and others about various forms of evolutionary emergence such as languages and boat technology, and so on, none of it original. But, again, just as with Boudreaux, amazingly enough for all the vitriol and scorn being leveled at all these deluded and dangerous secular theists/creationists, he never names anybody, leaving those "presidential campaigns" at just that, just as Boudreaux is satisfied to snipe at nameless "progressives." Obviously Will is trying to take a broad and long view and perspective for the end of the year with this, but in the end he just falls pompously on his face as he so often does. He is such a joke, he barely even merits being in that class of absurd observers so many of us ridicule as being the Very Serious People, who heavily populate the editorial page of the Washington Post.
1) Cuba also has 5 Year Plans, with a new one adopted just this year, with these having strong command elements, even as the Cuban economy moves more in the direction of marketization. While North Korea probably still has the most intense command planning, it also has increasing markets, unofficial, especially in agriculture. Its 5 Year Plans basically broke down during the famine of 20 years ago. Planning continues but is much more year to year, semi-ad-hoc. Iran's planning is strictly of the indicative sort. Turkmenistan continues to have command planning along with a heavily state-owned economy, although it does not seem to have 5 Year Plans. Ironically while China's central planning is mostly indicative, there do remain command portions in it, making even more of a mockery of Boudreaux'as abysmally nonsensical argument.
Regarding whether there have ever been any serious economists (or social theorists or even just general public intellectuals and commentators) who really go along with this caricature that Boudreaux and Will put forth about people who believe that all observed social order (or complexity) must somehow be the result of design or higher orders from somebody, well, perhaps the most likely candidates for their accusations might be some of the Old Institutionalists, perhaps John R. Commons and his empahsis on the legal foundations of capitalism. However, for all his emphasis on the importance of consciously established institutions, especially legal ones, Commons also recognized evolutionary forces to some extent. Indeed, my wife and I are working on a paper that discusses this very point now, with Old Institutionalist figues as Veblen clearly very strong on evolutionary economics, even if Commons did not go along as much.
Further Addendum, 12/28/15, 4:10 PM
Ah ha! I have come up with more candidates for this dread category of secular theists/creationists, which might fit the political agenda of Boudreaux and Will along with broader one as well. Among economists there is the chartalist school of thought in monetary theory that has its current manifestation in the Post Keynesian Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) approach. In at least one area the MMT view holds that what we see is due to state action and state action pretty much alone, namely the money supply, although that is ultimately endogenous. In any case, the /chartalist/MMT view is that only governments create money, with particularly what gets paid as taxes counting as "money." When confronted with spontaneously emerged media of exchange in "primitive" societies such as cowrie shells or even older debt arrangements as discussed by anthropologist David Graeber, these are not "money" by definition because they are not used to pay taxes to a state that established them as such. Really the most important aspect of money is as a unit of account, and again that unit that defines what one can pay in taxes.
So, this gives a candidate with a strong connection to a progressive presidential candidate, Boudreaux having singled out progressives as prominent among these "secular theists" (although some of the old progressives were Social Christians), and Will whomped down on "presidential camgaigns." So, who is the most progressive of presidential candidates? None other than good old democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. And guess who is top economic adviser is? Ah ha! None other than Stephanie Kelton, a leading advocate of the MMT approach. We have found them!
Well, I have two observations on this. While certainly Stephanie sees this very strong role of the state in creating money, I do not think she or any of her main allies such as Randy Wray think that all things in the economy are determined by state action or some other higher order (I could be mistaken, and if either of them or any of their other allies wishes to disagree with me on this, I shall accept it). But I think that while they see strong state influences on market economies, certainly on the monetary side, they do not see every form of order in markets as due to this. I think that at least they accept that there are competitive evolutionary processes going on in market capitalist economies that drive technological and institutional change over time through market forces with the role of the state in more of a bounding and institutional framework role. I also think this applies to Sanders, who, after all, when being called out on his socialism in the first Dem debate cited Denmark and went on to praise its policies encouraging small businesses, which are not generally directly run or controlled in market economies, which Denmark is. So, I really do not think either of them fits the strong claim made about people who think all social order or complexity is determined from above.
Which brings me to my second point that I think involves the heart of how both Boudreaux and Will have made such fools of themselves over this. I think that they simply do not realize that they are talking about two separate things: advocating a strong and guiding state role in the economy versus saying that even in the most laissez-faire economy there is some higher controlling driving force. This is really seen by their dragging in Hayek so insistently, whose critique of "the fatal conceit" of thinking that societies can be "socially engineered" through central planning they basically cite. Now neither Kelton nor Sanders even favors central planning, although they certainly do support more government intervention in the economy than most economists or politicians in the US. But such advocacy has nothing whatsoever to do with this second bit about how supposedly all order we see is planned or guided from above. This is their fundamental error and confusion, thinking these are the same when they are not. They want to hang this idiotic idea on those who think that government actions might improve the economy, but it remains the case that I cannot think of a single economist of any ideology or period who believes this ridiculous proposition that is the real heart of this silly so-called "secular theism" or "secular creationism."