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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