The Foundations Of Evotopia

This book is not one of intellectual history, but occasionally a brief historical digression is in order. It is useful to sketch out some of the past threads of evotopian thinking, in order to place any new developments in their context. Prior to Charles Darwin, we find inspiration for evotopian thought in the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) and John Stuart Mill (18061873), among others. Both these writers stressed the role of diversity in progressive change. Let us start with Malthus. His writings are often ignored because he is regarded as a reactionary. Like it or not, however, Malthus's ghost has returned to haunt us: world population is currently doubling every forty years, and we face an uncannily Malthusian ecological crisis in the twenty-first century.

Malthus's relevance is heightened for additional reasons. It is not widely known that one of the main reasons why Malthus published his famous Essay on population in 1798 was to counter radical and utopian ideas concerning the perfectibility of society that had emerged in the period of the French Revolution. Indeed, the full title of the first edition is An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers. It is notable that two rationalistic utopians were mentioned so prominently, and singled out for criticism.

Malthus suggested a sophisticated line of argument that can be used to criticise later utopian proposals, such as those advanced by both Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek. Paradoxically, it is the anti-utopian writings of Malthus that give us an insight into a modern utopia; while being described elsewhere as immoral they in fact sustain a moral vision upon which the modern utopia or evotopia can be based.

In his Essay, Malthus addressed a key problem faced by all believers: why should a wise and caring God plan or allow the existence of such wickedness and suffering in the world? Malthus's answer is that the intended role of evil is to energise us for the struggle for good. Malthus did not tolerate evil. He simply explained the existence of such sufferings and wrongs in terms of their function in arousing humanity to strive unceasingly for virtuous ends. He warned that without evil to struggle against, the virtuous may become complacent or inert. Goodness in this way depends upon imperfection.

A similar argument applies to the existence of diversity and imperfection in the natural sphere. Malthus (1798, p. 379) saw 'the infinite variety of nature' which 'cannot exist without inferior parts, or apparent blemishes'. This diversity was seen as having an essential and ultimately beneficial role in God's creation. The function of such diversity and struggle was to enable the development of improved forms. Without such a contest, no species would be impelled to improve itself. Without the test of struggle, there would be no successful development of the population as a whole. Malthus thus hints at the essential, dynamic function of diversity and variety. This idea was a key inspiration for Darwin in his development of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Although Malthus accepted some reforms, he insisted that the creation of a perfect social order was impossible. Furthermore, as well as offering no solace for radicals, there was no comfort in the Essay for Panglossian conservatives either. In opposition to Malthus, both the conservatives and the radical utopians believed in harmony and perfectibility; they simply differed in their idea of perfection. Similar remarks apply to the utopias of centralist socialism and market individualism. Malthus's conception of endless struggle, diversity and impurity within a population ruled out any such optimal outcomes.

Malthus's doctrine of the imperfectibility of the world thus had two important by-products. First, no kind of economic mechanism, including the market, could ever bring about an optimal order. Second, given that no optimum was possible, and that every result necessarily contained bad elements in opposition to the good, then no means or outcome should be denied moral evaluation. The utilitarian device of disregarding the morality of the means, by assuming that they served clear and specified ends, did not work for Malthus. Regrettably, neither ends nor means could be entirely cleansed of evil, and both were thus subject to moral vigilance and scrutiny. His utilitarianism was thus qualified, and his ideas were in contrast to the more pronounced utilitarian drift of much subsequent economic theory; he provided a place for ethical assessment of both policies and outcomes.

Even his theory of population was not fatalistic; he advocated the limitation of the birth rate. Further, his theory of gluts involved a denial of the existence of effective equilibrating mechanisms and pointed to some limitations of the free market. For such reasons, Malthus's views were subsequently an important infusion for John Maynard Keynes's (1936, pp. 362-4) theory of unemployment, in which the market is not regarded as a necessarily self-righting and optimising mechanism. For Malthus, neither self-interest nor the invisible hand had unqualified virtue. While Malthus endorsed the idea of the global benefits of the pursuit of self-interest, he added the reservation that an individual should so act only 'while he adheres to the rules of justice' (Malthus, 1836, p. 2). In contrast, few such qualifications are found in the writings of Adam Smith and other classical economists.

Turning to John Stuart Mill, his 1859 tract On Liberty put forward parallel arguments encouraging diversity of opinion and behaviour. Like Malthus, Mill recognised the functional role of error. Unless a received and true opinion is vigorously and earnestly contested, it will ... be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds ... the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct.

Furthermore, given the possibility of a received opinion being false, to deny any contrary opinions any outlet is to wrongly 'assume our own infallibility' (Mill, 1964, pp. 111-12). Mill goes on to extend such principles, not only to thought, but to behaviour. 'As it is useful that while mankind is imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living ... the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically' (ibid., pp. 114-15). Mill thus argued for multiple experiment and comparison in socio-economic design.

The common recognition of the functional role of diversity and error in the writings of both Malthus and Mill undermines a fixed notion of utopia derived by reason, or containing a uniformity of structures or institutions. Instead therein we find the roots of evotopia: a mixed economy where variety and impurity are essential to test all structures and systems on a pragmatic, experimental and evolutionary basis.

Crucially, Malthus inspired Darwin. In the Origin of Species, Darwin emphasised that biotic diversity provided natural selection with its evolutionary fuel. In turn, Darwinism inspired social science, and in particular Thorstein Veblen and other American institutionalists in the 1890s and thereafter. Malthusian insights thus took root within institutional and evolutionary - as well as Keynesian - economics. Veblen criticised both communists and promarketeers for proposing that history could, would or should reach a fixed or perfect outcome. Veblen rejected as pre-Darwinian the doctrinal and teleological concept of a final goal, be it communism, capitalism or whatever. Like Malthus and Darwin, Veblen stressed the positive role of human diversity.

He also attempted to analyse the sources of institutional and economic variation. He saw individuals as largely moulded by their circumstances, and thus capable of learning and advancement.

Similar ideas were advanced at about the same time by John A. Hobson, the pioneer of institutional economics in Britain. In terms similar to Veblen, he criticised the fixed utopia and 'free trade' market individualism of the nineteenth-century 'Manchester school':

Manchesterism ... takes a purely statical and mechanical view of society. The conviction that there is one structure of industrial society right for all nations and all ages was generally accepted. ... The evolutionary idea had not yet been assimilated, either from the study of history or of the natural sciences. Even to-day the tendency to construct rigid and absolute 'ideals,' and to seek to impose them upon the world of phenomena as practical reforms, is the commonest of errors.

Hobson rightly suggested that a rigid utopian scheme ignored the possibility of its own fallibility: it did not recognise the importance of evolutionary ideas. He warned against the kind of utopian thinking built upon 'rigid and absolute' principles. But at the same time he advanced flexible and pragmatic reforms.

Hobson placed emphasis on 'organic' moral values and on the limitations of atomistic self-interest. Hobson combined the basic 'old' institutionalist tenet of the malleability of human purposes and preferences - prominent in the history of institutionalist writing from Veblen to John Kenneth Galbraith - with an assertion of the centrality of social norms and moral values to economic policy. Hobson also insisted on the importance of material and pecuniary incentives to motivate individuals. To some degree economic policy has to appeal to self-interest, but at the same time it has to transcend it by considering the 'organic' interests of society as a whole.

John Dewey also expressed what are described here as 'evotopian ideas'. Writing from the perspective of a radical, sodal liberalism, he stressed the ongoing importance and interconnection of both individual education and social reform. He rejected fascism, market individualism and centralised socialism. Like Hobson he eschewed fixed utopias, embracing a 'method of experimental and cooperative intelligence' based on science. He looked forward to the time when 'the method of intelligence and experimental control is the rule in social relations and social direction' (Dewey, 1935, p. 92).

The rejection of Benthamite individualism and utilitarianism is important within an evotopian perspective. Benthamite utilitarianism falls back on the individual as the best judge of his or her own interests, thus failing to accommodate the full possibility of future individual learning and education. This defect of utilitarianism troubled John Stuart Mill, when he questioned the utilitarian conclusion that 'pushpin and poetry' were morally and aesthetically equivalent if they led to the same degree of individual satisfaction. Contrary to Bentham, Mill thus suggested that some normative values could not be reduced to individual satisfactions. But Mill was never able to resolve this difficulty, for he remained in an utilitarian framework based on individualist foundations.

Influenced by the social organicism of the German historical school, and writing towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish economist John Ingram warned of the theoretical and ethical dangers of an excessive individualism and subjectivism, in the then emerging neoclassical economics:

The radical vice of this unscientific character of political economy seems to lie in the too individual and subjective aspect under which it has been treated. Wealth having been conceived as what satisfies desires, the definitely determinable qualities possessed by some objects of supplying physical energy, and improving the physiological constitution are left out of account. Everything is gauged by the standard of subjective notions and desires. All desires are viewed as equally legitimate, and all that satisfies our desires as equally wealth. ... The truth is, that at the bottom of all economic investigation must lie the idea of the destination of wealth for the maintenance and evolution of a society. And if we overlook this, our economics will become a play of logic or a manual for the market, rather than a contribution to social science; whilst wearing an air of completeness, they will be in truth one-sided and superficial. Economic science is something far larger than the Catallactics [science of exchange] to which some have wished to reduce it.

Writing in 1933 along similar lines, Keynes (1972, pp. 445-6) went further than Mill in his critique of Benthamism, seeing it as corrosive to civilisation itself:

I do now regard that [Benthamite tradition] as the worm which has been gnawing the insides of modern civilisation and is responsible for the present moral decay. We used to regard the Christians as the enemy, because they appeared as the representatives of tradition, convention and hocus-pocus. In truth it was the Benthamite calculus based on an over-valuation of the economic criterion, which was destroying the quality of the popular Ideal.

Keynes's ideas fit in with an evotopian perspective for an additional reason: his advocacy of a mixed economy. Broadly, Keynes accepted a market-based socio-economic system. He saw the market as 'the best safeguard of personal liberty in the sense that, compared with any other system, it greatly widens the field for the exercise of personal choice. It is also the best safeguard of the variety of life' (Keynes, 1936, p. 380). However, at the same time, he noted the limitations of the market, particularly in regard to questions of long-term investment. He thus noted that: 'When the capital development of a country becomes the by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done' (ibid., p. 159). As a result he argued 'that a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment will prove the only means of securing an approximation to full employment; though this need not exclude all manner of compromises and devices by which public authority will co-operate with private initiative' (ibid., p. 378). Consequently, he laid out a broad path to a mixed economy, criticising Hayek in particular for greatly underestimating 'the practicality of the middle course' between markets and planning and between private and public enterprise (Keynes, 1980, p. 386).

As exemplified in these writings, the necessity of variety is the first principle of an evotopian analysis. After the Second World War, this idea found its way into systems theory, and the writings of those influenced by it. It is argued that a functional justification for variety is to cope with a degree of unforeseen change (Ashby, 1952, 1956; Beer, 1972; Luhmann, 1982; Hodgson, 1984). We have to conceive of 'a system that would continue to operate despite radical changes in its environment' (Boguslaw, 1965, p. 142). As a result, it is necessary to ensure that 'some degree of variability' is continuously generated. Also necessary is the capability to detect changes in the system's environment, and to find solutions to the new problems that emerge. However, this principle does not inform us about the nature and range of such variety. It is a task of evotopian discourse to address this question.

The point, however, is that there never can be a final answer. Our bounded understanding of all complex systems and our ignorance of future events and possibilities render all such analysis as provisional. Goals are necessary, but they too will evolve. Much work is required to derive detailed policy conclusions, and in time they will require amendment, but that does not mean that we should not start the process.

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