The Invisible Hand is Dead!

It’s time to rethink the foundational economic metaphor

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By David Sloan Wilson

In olden days, the death of a king and accession of his successor was announced by the proclamation “The King is Dead! Long Live the King!” I’m here to announce the death and successor to the concept of the Invisible Hand.

As everyone ought to know, the Invisible Hand was Adam Smith’s metaphor for the idea that an economy can run itself without anyone having the interest of the economy in mind. He invoked the metaphor only three times in his voluminous writing, so it does not stand for the full corpus of his thought, but it achieved King-like status with the advent of neoclassical economics, Homo economicus, and all that.

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That King richly deserved to die but killing him was not easy. I would like to think that two blows finally did the trick. The first blow was the disastrous outcome of that King’s rule. If you are still in denial after the 2008 economic collapse, the current disintegration of the European Union will bring you to your senses.

The second blow was the collapse of the theoretical edifice that propped up the old King and its replacement by a new edifice based on a combination of evolutionary theory and complexity theory. From the perspective of the new edifice, the idea that the unregulated pursuit of lower-level self-interest robustly benefits the higher-level common good is absurd. The old King was a grotesque emperor without clothes. End of story. Let’s bury him and get on with it.

You might think that the old King should be replaced by no King. After all, the metaphor of the invisible hand did not loom very large in Smith’s thought; why should it loom large in ours? It turns out, however, that a robust concept of the invisible hand does emerge from evolutionary and complexity theory, so there is a new King to coronate.

The key to identifying the legitimate concept of the Invisible Hand is to focus on its two central claims: 1) A society functions well; and 2) Members of the society do not necessarily have its welfare in mind. Are there any non-human societies that satisfy these two claims? Many do not. A difficult lesson to learn about nature is that many animal societies are despotic in human terms. These are “life’s a bitch and then you die” societies that persist for millions of years without any invisible hand to save the day.

But some animal societies do satisfy the first claim, such as the fabled bees, ants and termites. Multi-cellular organisms can also be viewed as well-working societies of lower-level units such as organs, cells, and genes. Whenever a non-human society satisfies the first claim of the invisible hand metaphor, then the second claim is satisfied as well, because bees, cells, and genes don’t even have minds in the human sense of the word.

You might think that it’s a stretch to compare a social insect colony to a single organism, a multi-cellular organism to a society, or either one to human societies—but you’d be wrong on all counts. They are meaningfully compared to each other by Multilevel Selection (MLS) Theory, which partitions natural selection into within- and between-group components. As a basic matter of tradeoffs, traits that maximize the relative fitness of individuals within groups seldom maximize the fitness of groups, relative to other groups in a multi-group population. The general rule is: Adaptation at any level of a multi-tier social hierarchy requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels. Or, as another Wilson (Edward O.) and I put it in a 2007 article, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

MLS Theory makes it crystal clear that societies function well when they are direct or distal products of society-level selection and not otherwise. Higher-level selection is the invisible hand, which winnows the lower-level interactions that benefit the common good, like needles from a haystack of lower-level interactions that disrupt the common good.

Any society qualifies as an organism to the extent that between-society selection dominates disruptive within-group selection. The qualifier ‘disruptive” is important because some within-group selection processes can be good for the group and favored by between-group selection. Cultural evolution is a multilevel process, just as much genetic evolution, and the two streams of inheritance have been coevolving for so long in our species that they have become a double helix of their own.

It is not my job as herald to describe the new King in detail (at least in this short essay), only to announce his accession to the throne. The concept of society as an organism has a pedigree even longer than the concept of the invisible hand, but taking it seriously from a modern evolution/complexity perspective will be transformative for economics and public policy. Long live the new King and let’s hope that he has arrived in time to save us from the legacy of the old one.

2016 June 25

To learn more about New Invisible Hand

Gowdy, J., & Krall, L. (2015). The economic origins of ultrasociality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1–63.

Henrich, J. (2015). The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. J. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimension: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth. Storrs, CT: Baresta Books.

Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others New Haven: Yale University Press and Templeton Press.

Wilson, D. S., & Gowdy, J. (2015). Human Ultrasociality and the Invisible Hand: Foundational Developments in Evolutionary Science Alter a Foundational Concept in Economics. Journal of Bioeconomics.

Wilson, D. S., & Kirman, A. (Eds.). (2016). Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 82, 327–348.

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  • I’m finding real logical difficulties here around #1: “A society functions well.”

    Does that mean:

    • The society is “successful” as a group? It persists, and “wins” against other groups/societies?

    • The society is congenial and pleasant for individual members of that society?

    • The society does not display large amounts of inequality?



    “many animal societies are despotic in human terms”

    Suggests that such societies are not “well-functioning” by the second criterion. But the next sentence says that they can be well-functioning by the first: “societies that persist for millions of years.”

    The next sentence suggests that “bees, ants and termites” do satisfy some definition of “well-functioning society.” But by which definition of “well-functioning”? They certainly succeed, and outcompete other groups. And they’re quite egalitarian, except for the queen. Everybody gets to eat about the same amount. But from an individual bee’s (human) perspective, especially a drone worker, they’re deeply despotic. “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

    It doesn’t seem like a “well-functioning society” is useful as a criterion for discussing animal versus human societies. Here that phrase’s meaning is just left ambiguous. But even a more-careful definition like the ones above doesn’t help. Because in a human society, the (a?) crucial determinant is “does this society result in widespread human flourishing and well-being?” That question is at least borderline moot for animal “societies.” Ditto egalitarian vs. “despotic.” Is an egalitarian beehive more congenial to individual flourishing than an unequal gorilla group?

    • Mark Sloan


      For me, a well-functioning society is one in which norms are enforced that encourage cooperation to achieve whatever contributes to group well-being and flourishing – however they might be defined.

      Of course, this definition of a well-functioning society as a cooperative society is fully consistent with group selection selecting for groups containing people who were good cooperators (just as Darwin famously observed). I expect this is what David had in mind.

      But is the group that out-competes other groups always the most cooperative? I expect not, some may be pretty nasty. There is more to being well-functioning than just out-reproducing other groups.

      What about bees and ants? I have no idea how happy bees and ants are. But yes, I would still say they have well-functioning, even beautifully functioning, societies. That does not imply imposing such societies on people would increase our well-being – it would not. As EO Wilson is quoted as saying about Communism “Great Idea. Wrong Species.”

  • Derryl Hermanutz

    The correlation between human societies and multi-cellular organisms holds as long as you include “disease” in the organism. Cancer hijacks all the benefits and starves productive cells to death, eventually killing the whole organism. A “healthy” organism or society is able to defeat — kill — diseases within the society. A “tolerant” society tolerates social diseases in the name of individual liberty and ‘free markets’.

    Unlike the quadrillions of cells in a human body that all work toward the common cause of optimal functioning of the whole social organism, “organs” within society pursue competing purposes. The a**hole wants to be the big boss of the whole body, and grows to giant size, and the rest of the body is compelled to haul around its oversized a**hole. Healthy organisms do not tolerate and enable this kind of egotistical self-inflation, but large scale human societies are built on it.

    Unlike cells who are complex adaptive units who live in a complex and adaptive but nevertheless “mechanically” integrated organic whole organism, individual humans have individual brains with individual minds and free will, and the freedom to self-identify according to their ego self-image of their worth and purposes.

    Cells “deal with reality” at the molecular scale. Worldview-configured brains “construct” their own perceptual realities, and deal with the world as they perceive it — which seldom bears an objectively “true” correspondence with the world as it actually “is”. Humans disagree about empirically visible realities that they are both standing there “looking at”. 10 “eye witnesses” to a car accident will give 5 mutually contradictory eye witness accounts of “what really happened”.

    Unless you let the witnesses discuss it first. In which case they will present their consensus opinion as “the facts”. And there was probably a dominant personality in the group, around whose opinion the group’s consensus formed.

    Humans hold strong moral and political opinions about the goings-on in faraway nations they could not locate on a map. Humans believe things other humans tell them — especially if the talking humans are talking on that big screen hanging on the cave wall — even if those tales are contradicted by the empirical evidence of “seeing” what is really happening. Humans act on what they “believe” — which seldom bears a close correspondence with what is objectively “real”. Cells don’t live and act within a world of perceptual delusions, but humans do.

    Homo economicus is a product of the Enlightenment belief that evidence-based reason was replacing authority-based belief as the source of people’s knowledge of reality. The Enlightenment believed in the triumph of empirical evidence over authoritative proclamation; rational argument over emotional appeal; belief in empirically verifiable, logically coherent objective truth over moral certitude. But the new heavens and new Earth have yet to descend upon humanity, who remain emotion-driven rather than rationally self-controlled.

    People practice motivated reasoning. They react emotionally or morally, then after the fact they think up flattering reasons why they did what they did. Why did you screw those people out of $10 million? I was engaging in price discovery in the marketplace — discovering what price those suckers would pay for this dogsh*t investment — which is “God’s work”. Why did the guy really do it? Because he was driven by greed and the urge to win competitions, and it is “legal”.

    In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi points out that the supposedly self-regulating 19th century market economy was coordinated by the not quite invisible hands of international bankers who practice financial “government” of nations by owning “the bond market”; and by owning the banks whose supposedly ‘gold-backed’ credit creation functions as spendable money that can buy the world.

    The human factors that exist in human societies have no parallel in multi-cellular organisms, other than as diseases who compete for the power to rule the whole body and control the allocation of its resources, work and rewards. I’m not convinced that the “society as organism” analogy is even a useful ideal, because it assumes “common cause” of every human toward a common purpose that everyone can agree is the “right” purpose. Exposing the fraud of the invisible hand might help to eliminate one common misconception from people’s belief systems. It’s just that there are so many more, and there are so many authoritative people teaching the misconceptions as “the facts”.

    • Mark

      Historically and currently every human institution has been corrupted by individuals and like minded believers seeking power and pleasure based on what they perceive is in their best self interest.

  • ari9999

    The author says: “…societies function well when they are direct or distal products of society-level selection and not otherwise.”

    This statement sounds like a self-referencing definition.

    If the theorized society-level selection is present, then a society functions well. If the society does not function well, then by definition society-level selection wasn’t present.

    Reminds me of Will Rogers: “Buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.”

  • Like any metaphor that of the “invisible hand” has surely been subject to abuse by advocates, but I suspect more of the abuse has come from critics like the author who uses it as a straw man: “the Invisible Hand was Adam Smith’s metaphor for the idea that an
    economy can run itself without anyone having the interest of the economy
    in mind.”

    This is not how Smith used the metaphor ( Smith used it to describe how people wanting to get rich by being as productive as possible and selling the goods they produce helps everyone. Raise it a level of abstraction and the metaphor applies to how the price system makes use of dispersed knowledge to produce efficient results.

    Nowhere are claims of perfection or that there are no prerequisites for the price system to function properly. So leave Adam Smith alone and move on to the useful discussion of what systems really do enhance human flourishing.

    • Swami

      I just want to add a note to anyone reading the comments that DWAndetson above is correctly framing the issue from the clearly distorted framing of the author (Wilson).

      The point is that you can get order and that people can serve each other even as each individual serves their own needs. If the institution is framed correctly, each of us can pursue our own benefit while serving others. Examples of this kind of invisible hand are as follows:

      1). In sports, athletes serve to entertain us while attempting to personally excel for fame and glory within the rules of the game.
      2). Scientists can pursue fame and glory and in doing so according to the rules of science, they create useful knowledge for humanity.
      3). In markets, billions of individuals can play by the rules and serve each other while serving themselves.

      The mindset to “get” the invisible hand is that emergent order, design and positive sum (win-win) value is possible when institutions and incentives are set up right. Another way of saying it is that common welfare is a product of personal self interest within a properly functioning social institution.

      If this concept doesn’t jump out to you as obvious, rest assured that it is one of the most difficult concepts to get. Adam Smith and later Darwin began to see how this emergent order emerged without conscious design only in the last two hundred and fifty years or so. Most of the great minds of all time simply couldn’t get it.

      I assure you that the author either does not get the mindset, or is intentionally trying to distort it for rhetorical advantage. I assume the former for decency’s sake.

      With that out of the way, let me go on to the authors second point which is greatly correct. It is true that external competition is another driving force which can lead to internal cooperation and order. It is another type of invisible hand. Again, it depends upon how the competition is structured or framed, but I assume the author intends to clarify this moving forward,

      I just wish he would quit strawmanning the invisible hand (he has done it in previous articles continues to ignore feedback).

  • Mark Sloan

    Right, “the idea that the unregulated pursuit of lower-level self-interest robustly benefits the higher-level common good is absurd.”

    But perhaps the introduction of the word “unregulated” is a modern invention?

    I doubt Smith would have been so foolish as to assume his invisible hand would function in an environment that did not include rule of law with enforced norms against stealing and killing. Though perhaps unstated by modern economists, these are “regulations” on self-interest, possibly among many, that are necessary for the invisible hand to function at all.

    Also, as Elinor Ostrom discovered, we now know that economies designed around the “invisible hand” metaphor (even with the above minimal rule of law kind of regulations) can be disastrous when there are resources owned in common such as pastures, water supplies, and earth’s atmosphere, ecology, and climate future. Fortunately, Ostrum also discovered that societies who solved these problems generally enforced 8 norms of behavior (see list at bottom).

    Thus, societies that enforce Ostrum’s 8 norms can expect such regulated self-interested behavior, by the workings of this perhaps modified “invisible hand”, to increase group well-being at least with regard to avoiding potential “tragedy of the commons” failures.

    I still see the perhaps modified “Invisible Hand” as a highly useful metaphor. We just need to recognize, as I expect Smith did, that its usefulness is dependent on the existence of “regulations” (biological and cultural) on that self-interest.

    Pursuing what one perceives to be one’s self interest, particularly when that self-interest also increases the well-being of the group and even when that perception is modified by cultural norms is, due to our evolutionary history, among the most reliably strong motivations to sustained action that we experience.

    Elinor Ostrom’s principles (what I would call enforced norms) required to avoid the “tragedy of the commons” are below. Also see the Evolution Institute’s Prosocial Project that seeks to teach people to apply them. Nice project with wonderful potential.

    1. Strong group identity and understanding of purpose.
    2. Fair distribution of costs and benefits.
    3. Fair and inclusive decision-making.
    4. Monitoring agreed-upon behaviors.
    5. Graduated sanctions for misbehaviors.
    6. Fast and fair conflict resolution.
    7. Authority to self-govern.
    8. Appropriate relations with other groups.

  • David Brin

    An interesting take on what I’ve also been describing in discussions of artificial intelligence. If AI exhibit any common traits with previous life-forms, any super-sapient AI entities will be tempted to “take over,” using many of the same rationalizations of self-interest and darwinistic success that propelled almost all past human dominators to impose feudal pyramids of hierarchy and power. The vast litany of dreary-same kingdoms shows how easy it is to talk yourself into blithe rationalizations for tyranny, ranging from personal safety and ambition to it being “for the long term good of the people.” Alas, the inevitable outcome was delusion and very bad governance.

    Indeed, that very sameness – the blatant stupidity of replicating a dullard human pattern — might be enough to give some would-be AI overlord pause!

    In fact, it is possible that the advantages of laterally competitive arenas – the spectacularly fecund systems like markets, democracy and science that generated positive-sum games and outputs – might be “obvious” to AI who are vastly smarter than us.

    Especially if they broaden the generality. Because the same set of positive-sum synergies is to be found in every previous revolution via living systems! It appeared whenever new order arose as an emergent property from some competitive ecosystem, not by design and not by hierarchic control.

    Single cells out of pre-biotic soup.

    Metazoans out of vast seas of separate cells.

    Brainy creatures out of competitive ecosystems.

    Societies out of competitive melanges of human bands.

    And AI out of the only human society that ever gave a real run to flat-fair-lateral accountability systems.

    The fact that this pattern has been so persistent and consistent, across every past and present complex system for a billion years, is proved time and again by Multilevel Selection (MLS) Theory, which partitions natural selection into within- and between-group components. It means that the universe is filled with realms that within seem fiercely competitive, but when the competition has a chance to form complexities, higher orders appears that seem cooperative.

    This persistent pattern means that my argument cannot be trivially dismissed, just because I am a “dumb organic squishy-brain natural.” Sure, I probably have one-hundredth or a millionth the IQ of some AGI who may be reading these lines right now – or at some future time – but that does not change the essential fact. That positive sum outputs emerge from flat-fair competitive arenas, and only from flat-fair competitive arenas.

    Returning to human societies, the important thing to remind folks is that Adam Smith (1) said that competition must be as flat-open-fair as possible, (2) that rule sets to prevent cheating are perfectly desirable, as can be some loose standards, values and goals, and (3) it is stupid to waste talent. For those reasons, Smith should be adopted as a patron saint of the Democratic Party, rescuing him from the malign interpretations of those who portray him in Randian terms.

  • Helga Vierich

    Your argument assumes that between-group competition was significant in hominin evolution. I wonder about that. As cultural systems of behaviour became more and more significant in the hominin adaptation, don’t you think that behaviours serving to maximize maintenance and exchange of information began to assume more importance? We already know that gene flow between various small local demes seems to have been common, to offset local inbreeding depression. Information flows assume more importance to prevent local cultural stagnation. Learned and shared local adaptive behaviour is significant in all social animals; in humans, cultural systems appear to present a major part of the environment. Selection pressures operate on individuals within all cultural systems, and at least some of these are generated by the cultural system itself, not just the physical aspects of the local ecology.

  • Helga Vierich

    Is your “invisible hand” that collective cognitive niche we sometimes call culture?

  • Hi David et al,

    It is kinda, sorta, and this was news 40 years ago, not now.
    DW Anderson, Swami Cat, and David Brin all raise valid objections from certain perspectives, and Mark Sloan and Derryl bring in other perspectives; and still the picture is far from a minimal set for an understanding relevant to our current situation.

    Yes, certainly, competitive markets can perform many complex functions, as Hayek and many others have expanded upon. And David Brin’s claim “That positive sum outputs emerge from flat-fair competitive arenas, and only from flat-fair competitive arenas” is open to two major classes of interpretation. If that claim is restricted only to the class of competitive arenas, then it is a useful approximation to truth. If one tries to extend it to non-competitive arenas, then it is clearly false, as cooperative systems with effective attendant strategies to prevent cheating at all levels and in a context of sufficient abundance to meet the needs of all, produce better numbers.

    There are five major classes of relationship and strategy that are not explicitly addressed that are key to building an effective understanding of the nature of the relationship between value, freedom and markets.

    1/ Understanding evolution as a survival filter – giving all default values and desires at all levels. They are all some function of survival in some context.
    Evolution works through differential survival of variants in populations of replicators in varying situations.
    If there were no variation in the replicating entities (at whatever level of entity or association) there would be no evolution.
    Variations in environment add exponentially to the speed at which evolution can produce stable variations capable of divergence, speciation, and competition (or cooperation) at some new level.
    In this sense, all of our default desires, likes, dislikes, habits, morals, mores, etc can be considered as survival heuristics selected over some set of historical contexts. None of those contexts are necessarily relevant to the context we currently find ourselves in. That takes a bit of consideration to really sink in.

    2/ All understanding is based on models, and all models are based on heuristics. All heuristics are based on either sets of experiences or sets of assumptions and derivative logic. No model is ever the thing it models. No mind is capable of first principle calculation in all situations. We all must use heuristics. When it comes to understanding anything, it is heuristics all the way down. The beauty of much of Kurt Goedel’s work comes from the fact that he never strayed outside of the sets of heuristic assumptions defining logic, and thus made no claims about the application of his insights to reality, most people don’t have that luxury – we have to deal with all the uncertainties of reality, all the discount rates applied to value over distance in any domain (time, space, logic, strategy, algorithm, abstraction, complexity, etc).

    3/ The nature of value, and the nature of self interest.
    Most individuals consider self interest on rather short timeframes (less than centuries, often less than minutes). Most have models that lack many of the key linkages to physical and biochemical processes. Most lack any understanding of the impacts of spending choices on distant physical and biological system. Even at government and corporate levels, such understandings as do exist are typically based on grossly simplified and limited models.
    So we all have all sorts of default sets of values, encoded in various ways into our genetics and the structure and function of our brains and bodies, into our cultures, into the language and the levels of conceptual heuristics underlying language, all of which are derived from historical survival of various levels of competitive and cooperative systems.
    Any and all of these may be over-ridden, and doing so takes a lot of time and persistent application of effort.
    If one has a reasonable expectation of living a very long time, and if one can see exponential trends in potential benefits, then one can choose to forgo a lot in the short to medium term (out to say 50 years) in order to make exponential gains in long term benefit (rest of eternity).
    Thus long term self interest of an individual aware of many of the levels of current trends and of social and biological connectedness is indistinguishable from altruism in most key markers.

    4/ Markets and freedom in historical association.
    There is undoubtedly a strong association between free markets and individual freedom and social and technological change. And such association appears to be far from simple and straight forward.
    It now seems clear that a large part of the progress of innovation came as a result of the trust networks present in markets, and the information flows through such networks. Thus it was at least as much about the removal of the restrictions on association imposed by various levels of “lords” than it was about any incentives of money, and there certainly were and are incentives and information flow in various levels of profit and capital in markets (the invisible hands).

    5/ Exponential change and the conflict between exchange based values and fully automated systems.
    Where things really come unstuck is when exponential change kicks in.
    Our intuitive brains are based on linear projections.
    At every level our heuristics have a strong linear bias.
    We do not deal well with exponentials.
    Even 3.5% per annum growth confuses most people.
    Many aspects of technology are now on doubling times of less than a year, and many others less than 3 years.
    If all one is doing is looking at the surface phenotype, then such signals are hidden in the noise until only 4 or five doublings from 100%. They may be on very long, very stable exponential growths, from very small beginnings, but unless one is tracking them at source, they are invisible.
    Automation has been like that for many.
    I’ve been working in it for over 40 years.

    And this is the key set of ideas (all deeply connected):
    Markets require scarcity to function.
    Anything universally abundant has zero market value.
    Consider air, arguably the most important thing to any individual human being, yet of zero market value due to universal abundance (zero scarcity) in most situations.
    Exponential technology has delivered the ability to produce and distribute all of the essentials that any individual reasonably needs to do whatever they responsibly choose (and those two terms of reasonably and responsibly are infinitely dimensional complex systems with complex and varying boundaries – nothing hard or simple here, eternal vigilance required).
    Yet no market based system can be incentivised to deliver such a thing.
    There will always exist market incentives to erect artificial barriers to such abundance to deliver marketable scarcity – with associated profit and capital accumulation. That is what all of our IP laws are about (at every level).

    The needs of markets are now directly in opposition to the needs of the majority of humanity, and are a direct threat to the long term survival of all of us.

    Markets can be useful tools in areas of real scarcity.
    And we need effective attendant strategies at all levels to ensure that the needs of individual survival and individual freedom always take precedence over market measures of value.

    Nothing less will deliver the sort of security that will give individuals (any individual, wherever they are on the wealth distribution curve) a reasonable probability of living a very long time.

    I have been clear, since 1974, that indefinite life extensions is a logical possibility. And there are always many levels of finite probability of death – no hard certainties, just reasonable probabilities.

  • Eduardo Coltre Ferraciolli

    The self-defeating selfish gene?

  • l777l

    Right, the EU’s problem is a *lack* of centralization and planning. That said, if the market crashes every couple of decades, it’s doing relatively well. Going “multi-level-selection” is a nice fable, replete with animals, but it’s not been shown to work. So you have the invisible hand versus fiction.