Back in 2009, I was talking about adaptive landscapes: three real places and the quite different systems that human communities had evolved there to manage them. That was just before the PhD let go of those strands to focus on spatial economics (I'd been, hubristically, trying to combine all those up to that point). Two of those communities are concrete examples of non-centralised social technologies achieving specific resource goals. The Balinese rice system constrains water use in a way that optimises the balance between pest management and productivity. Andean potato production was a magical innovation machine and living, breathing laboratory spread over the hills.
This stuff is still very dear to my heart, and flowed directly from the questions in the original PhD proposal. I want to get on to the adaptive landscapes stuff, but let's lead into that by answering a more straightforward bit from PhD #1.0. Top of the list: was Hayek right about the sacredness of the price system? Was its 'spontaneous order' a singularity in human history, requiring any attempt at planned interference in human affairs to be suppressed? Given what I've just said about Bali and Peru – guess what? Shock: no, I don't think he was. He correctly identified the price system as a distributed social technology, emerging from the uniquely human mix of evolution and language. But, far from being astronomically unlikely, there's evidence that humans are primed to create this sort of structure. I've long entertained a notion that adaptive landscapes are intimately related to the emergence of language itself, Wittgenstein's notion of meaning as a kind of flock tying nicely to that.
Whether that's true, or whether adaptive landscapes were a later innovation built on the platform language provided, makes little difference to their riposte to Hayek: we are natural-born de-centralisers, and we can make systems as diverse as you can imagine. Deifying the price system? Educating the socialism out of people (Hayek acknowledged people have altruistic instincts early in life) so's they didn't get the urge to meddle? Silly.
That's a gross over-simplification of Hayek's thinking and, in particular, I do partly buy his aversion to "planning blindness" and his view that social change should be more like gardening than engineering or construction. (Planning blindness nearly broke Bali's rice management system, for instance.) But it's clear that, if we followed his manifesto to the letter, new adaptive landscapes would have immense difficulty taking root, let alone blossoming.
A (hopefully measured) rant about sociobiology / pyschology / behavioural modelling, in response to an email on the SIMSOC list, rehashing themes covered on this blog:
Tory David Willetts (apparently 'Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills') is to make a speech tonight at the LSE - the Oakeshott lecture indeed - espousing the virtues of reciprocity, community and altruism. He is proposing that institutions be designed to support this sort of thing. The dry stone wall metaphor comes in because, as the Times quotes:
A dry-stone wall, like the one David Willetts pointed out to David Cameron, does not have any glue or cement holding it together. It holds together because of the way it has been designed. Similarly, the aim of Tories is not to pour social glue on civil society through public policy, and armies of new laws, nor is to enunciate some new abstract principle of justice that might be at variance with human nature. It is to help society find different kinds of equilibrium.
Willetts was on radio 4 this morning enthusiastically recounting how game theory, evolutionary economics and neuro-biology are giving scientific weight to his argument: as the lecture website says, he uses 'latest research from these disciplines [or at least popularisers of...] to explain what Government can and cannot do to influence our behaviour.'