During the later years of the Eastern Brook Trout Solo Adventure, I thought I caught sight of something that looked like a self-regulating economy among the organisms of the eastern forest. And by the time I was done, it seemed odd to try to fit the strictures of command-and-control governmental policy to a living, evolving organic system.
It seems though that I’m not the first to feel such inklings. While visiting a public-policy think tank last year, the president of that institution asked me whether I’d read “Bionomics” by Michael Rothschild. I hadn’t so Mr. Bast fetched his own personal copy and gave it to me. I’ve taken my time with it, savoring it and considering it in small bites and I come away from it awed by Mr. Rothschild’s long-sighted erudition.
The most fundamental premise of the book is this: We’ve gotten it all wrong when we try to imagine the American economy as a great machine rather than as an ecosystem. The ideas of Marx, which shaped so much of our modern economic thought, grew from philosophy, history and economics but not from biology. Capitalism, conversely, grew organically from the millions of voluntary exchanges between consenting partners. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is The Inevitability of Capitalism.
Mr. Rothschild’s prolonged and well-informed analogies are not for those of short attention span. Much time is taken (chapters) early on to demonstrate the grandest of these analogies, the accumulation of information over time. This imperative took a great leap forward, states the author, with the invention of the printing press which obviously allowed much more efficient dissemination and accumulation of all kinds of information. The comparison is made, in painstaking detail, to the evolution of DNA – our own organic system of transferring information and conferring itterative improvement. The arrival of the printing press could be technology’s Cambrian explosion.
Competition, specialization, co-operation, exploitation, learning, and growth are demonstrated to overlap between business and biology. Evolution is a paramount theme, pointing back even to the seminal writings of Adam Smith who found inspiration in the theories of Charles Darwin. Economies evolve, or should, too and this is shown to be the element most absent from Marxian theories. For the centrally planned economy, the wheels would grind on much as they always had or at least change would come with infinitely more resistance, over much greater time. A great test was run during the 20th century to prove the efficacy of these competing theories and the planned and controlled economy of the Soviet Union lost this wager decisively. The adaptability and inherent self-propulsion of capitalism could not be overcome.
It was a thought-provoking and worthwhile read. The author was hardly a doctrinaire adherent of Friedman’s economics or Rand’s Objectivism but rather introduced something new to the discussion, something that may have largely been lost from our national conversation because it was such an outlier. Environmentalists didn’t want to embrace this because it didn’t seek to efface capitalism. Capitalists didn’t adopt it because it maybe sounded too much like some kind of environmental newspeak. So, in the end, it remains a text for the open-minded more than for self-assured partisans.
It’s good fodder to carry in one’s head out to the woods as well. And perhaps most importantly, this view allows for environmental optimism; a view that sees all as change and evolution, not a view that sees only continual degradation of the environment by humans.