Evonomics – How About Evopolitics Too?

Evonomics – How About Evopolitics Too?

Today I was at a talk by David Sloan Wilson of evonomics.com on updating the invisible hand metaphor in light of multilevel selection theory. On theoretical substance, he made the case that Hayek was much closer to this approach than to his political allies like Friedman, who – along with the mainstream of economics – took a more Newtonian view of the economy. I think this is right. However, since we ran out of time before I could get a question in, I’ll have a go at it here.

The basic problem is that the specific Evonomics approach is much more naïve on the question of politics than follows from the general multilevel selection approach.

The talk was a combination appreciation of and challenge to Hayek. He showed an anonymous quote from a correspondent to the effect that “Hayek was very insightful about cultural evolution. His theory of intervention, of course, was bogus.”

One thing repeated throughout the seminar is that “we” have to be proactive in sculpting social institutions so as to select for beneficial behavior, otherwise there’s no necessary harmony between individual and group fitness. The very last sentence of the Q&A suggested that the state is nothing more than a giant collective action machine. But if we take an evolutionary perspective on the economy, why not also on the state? This was the point of Hayek’s theory of intervention: that the political process is itself an evolutionary process of rule selection – and one by nature prone to select perverse rules!

The specific selection process is bound up with his theory of complexity. His argument in this paper is that the greater the complexity of the object at hand, the more we have to content ourselves with predicting (or controlling) general patterns, rather than specific elements.1 The Road to Serfdom is a practical application of this logic to the process set in motion when the state tries to control specific elements anyway. The argument can be put in Wilsonian terms: the selection process of democratic elections is not benign unless meta-rules exist that “suppress forms of selection within groups that are detrimental to the group, making benign forms of within-group selection and between-group selection the dominating evolutionary forces” (Wilson & Gowdy 2014). If economic behavior is not sufficient to ensure social welfare without a set of market institutions to suppress individually advantageous but collectively maladaptive behavior, neither is self-interested voting behavior by itself sufficient to ensure good policy without a set of political institutions to suppress maladaptive behavior in that context.

This suppression, of course, is exactly the point of constitutional prohibitions on broad swaths of state action! And once the suppression mechanism on specific regulations fails, the more a government involves itself with the ordering of particular elements rather than general rules, the more strongly the political process selects for ruthless leaders.

So maybe state power would be harmless if we had an immortal and benevolent despot David S. Wilson, k. und k. who can take legitimacy for granted, and who appreciates the necessity of generality in rules at broad levels. Hayek himself wasn’t opposed in principle to the construction of general rules like this:

The spontaneous character of the resulting order must therefore be distinguished from the spontaneous origin of the rules on which it rests, and it is possible that an order which would still have to be described as spontaneous rests on rules which are entirely the result of deliberate design.

from Law, Legislation, and Liberty

But there is no question of this possibility. Any proposal for change must get churned through the political process, and if there’s no general prohibition on rules with a higher-than-warranted specificity, it comes out in a form that is more often than not worse than having done nothing. That’s because the political process selects for this sort of rule, unless you strictly limit its purview with a bright line.

And where does that bright line come from? Certainly not from some pure chooser government that voluntarily ties its own hands. It’s got to be legitimated as a widespread norm. This is my job as an economist. In this sense, laissez-faire – even in its crude popular conception – is useful as a bright-line political rule, rather than as something with any ontological validity in itself. The more you nuance it from there, the dimmer the line gets, the more strongly perverse selection mechanisms assert themselves in the political process.

So why was it that Hayek came across to so many as a free-marketer cartoon? It wasn’t just some prejudice that might just as easily be sloughed off of his evolutionary theory. Rather, it was because Hayek was an evo-political-scientist2 as much as an evonomist. The methodology of complexity implies that restricting state power as much as possible to the promulgation of general rules is the only way to suppress perverse selection of rules in the political process. That’s the evo-political lesson.


  1. Ostrom is a way of getting around this by devolution of more specific regulations to more local levels, where the complexity isn’t quite so daunting, and contestability operates more effectively to suppress perverse rules and rulemakers.
  2. Yes this is an awful portmanteau. Suggest something better and I’ll use it instead.


EvolutionInstitutionsPolitical EconomyRule of LawSpontaneous OrderDavid Sloane WilsonElinor OstromF.A. Hayek


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  • 1

    Stewart Dompe

    Feb 12, 2016 at 13:08 | Reply

    The generous reading I gave to DSW’s talk was that people need to be active in designing and implementing governance institutions. In this perspective, the state is an important player in generating good governance outcomes. The subtext I read into it was a rejection of anarchism and the hand-waving reliance on spontaneous orders to produce good outcomes.

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Feb 12, 2016 at 13:52

      You’re right, it’s hard to disagree with him if you read him that way. There’s a lot to like in his approach. The disconnect on practical politics, I think – the only way you could be fine with a progressive state from an evolutionary perspective – is that he’s not thinking explicitly in terms of the pattern/point (or general/specific) distinction, or at least hasn’t connected it to policy and constitutional rules. Without that distinction, it would be very hard to understand the point of trying to restrict state power.

    • 1.2

      Stewart Dompe

      Feb 12, 2016 at 13:58

      Yes, very true. I think the main response would be to disentangle governance from government. He is, afterall, attacking a version of economics that largely lacks institutions.

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