Saturday, December 28, 2013

Darwin improves on Adam Smith

What can the theory of evolution tell us about how the economy works? A lot. But probably not what you think it does.

Famous economists such as Joseph Schumpeter (author of the notion of "creative destruction") and Milton Friedman, and the contemporary economic historian Niall Ferguson, have viewed economies as Darwinian arenas: competition among firms reflects the ruthless logic of natural selection. Firms struggle with each other, with successful firms surviving and unsuccessful ones dying.

Thus evolution seems to support three pillars of the conventional, neoclassical model of the economy. First, that "economic actors" are self-interested, second, that self-interest works to the good of the public (propelling Adam Smith's "invisible hand") and, third, that together these lead the market to deliver the community ideal outcomes ("optimisation").

But there's a basic fault in this contention, as Dominic Johnson, of Oxford University, Michael Price, of Britain's Brunel University, and Mark van Vugt, of Amsterdam's VU University, point out in their paper, Darwin's Invisible Hand.

In conventional economics, "economic actors" can be either individuals or firms, although the theory tends to treat firms as though they were individuals. In reality, however, firms are groups of individuals - in the case of big national and multinational companies, thousands of them in one firm.

So if Darwinian selection applies to competitive markets, this implies that selection pressure acts on groups, not individuals. And group selection, as opposed to conventional Darwinian selection at the individual level, leads to the emergence of traits that act against self-interest.

With group selection, "we should expect the suppression of self-interest among individuals, not its flourishing", the authors say.

"Firms with less self-interested workers will compete more effectively and spread at the expense of firms with more self-interested workers, which will compete less effectively and decline. In other words, the model predicts nasty firms but nice people.

"Firms vie for market share and profits, group selection would predict, while individuals within those firms sacrifice their own interests for the good of the group. They will work long hours, accept low status and low salaries, co-operate with each other, share resources, accept hierarchy, obey their bosses, volunteer for extra duties and never help - or move to - rival firms."

Does that sound realistic to you? No, me neither.

"In reality," the authors say, "firms are made up of individual human beings, with various goals and motives but, most importantly, considerable self-interest.

"Darwinian selection at the level of groups implies that the interests of group members are weaker or synonymous with the interests of the group as a whole. In the real world, they are not. There is often some overlap, of course: the boss will want his workers to perform well; the workers will want the firm to survive.

But we also have strong personal desires for salary, status, rank, reputation, free time and better jobs.
"In short, any evolutionary model must account for two opposing processes that operate simultaneously: competition between firms and competition between the individuals within them."

So the authors are adherents to a relatively new school of thought holding that selection occurs at both levels: "multi-level selection theory". And this leads them to conclude that taking account of the role of evolutionary selection doesn't really bolster the conclusions of the neoclassical model.

Economic actors are self-interested only sometimes. Self-interest promotes the public good only sometimes. And these things mean markets produce optimal results only sometimes.

Great. But where does that get us? The authors argue that being more realistic by integrating the factors at work at group level with those at work at the individual level allows us to make better predictions on which interests - individual or group - will dominate in particular circumstances.

"A one extreme, if selection among groups is frequent and severe, we may expect an increased alignment of individual and group interests resulting in successful firms with hard-working, groupish, highly committed employees," they say.

"At the other extreme, if selection among groups is rare and weak, we may expect increased conflicts of interest resulting in inefficient firms and lazy, self-interested workers."

By group selection they mean cultural selection - some ideas and practices beat others - not biological selection. And, because ideas can spread so quickly, not needing to wait for genetic evolution to occur generation by generation, cultural evolution is much faster and more powerful.

The authors say competition between firms may be a quintessential example of cultural selection.

A weakness of the neoclassical model is that it exalts competition between economic agents while ignoring the co-operation within firms that is such an important part of real-world competition in markets.
The evolutionary approach, however, does much to illuminate the role of co-operation.

"Individuals are adapted to co-operate in groups but do so in individually adaptive ways," they say. "That is, we are co-operative, but only so long as our own individual costs and benefits are taken into account."

People want to be rewarded for their contribution but also to see that their reward doesn't compare badly with the rewards fellow workers are getting relative to their contribution.

But whereas the conventional economic model focuses on only monetary rewards and punishments, the evolutionary approach predicts that individuals will be powerfully motivated to strive for social status and prestige within their firm, even at the expense of material rewards or the risk of punishment.

The evolutionary approach also offers a better explanation of why individuals would want to take on stressful and time-consuming leadership positions, which are not always compensated by higher salaries: higher social status rewards.

The key to improving the performance of firms, we're told, is not to strike some inefficient compromise between the interests of individuals and their group but to work with the grain of human nature to bring individual and group interests into alignment. If you know what you're doing, this can be achieved relatively easily and at low cost.