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May 2000
Volume 18, Number 5

Ant Man vs. The Market
Michael Levin

E.O. Wilson of Harvard University is among the world's most esteemed biologists. An authority on ants, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes and coined the term "sociobiology," outraging his peers by suggesting that human behavior has some relation to human nature. Sadly, these triumphs seem to have inspired him to lay down the law on everything-a trend that culminated about a year ago in his book Consilience, which purports to unify all branches of science, religion, ethics, and art into a recipe for human happiness.

The reviewers couldn't praise the book enough, but what they didn't reveal, as I discovered when I read it recently, is that its whole point is to attack the free market. It is hardly news when a Harvard academic calls the market a threat to life on Earth (Al Gore, Harvard alum, thinks so too), but Wilson's mistakes are subtle, so merit some attention. As one might expect from a biologist, Wilson's pitch is ecological disaster. He begins his windup by pointing to the pressure put on natural resources by the current rapid growth of the human population. Fisheries are near depletion. Arable land is now used to the max, and savannas and tropical forests are being cleared to create more. The greenhouse effect looms: "tundra ecosystems will shrink and may disappear altogether . . . tropical cyclones will increase in average frequency." What is worse, the present "extravagant lifestyle" enjoyed by the West and Japan requires "destruction" (i.e., consumption) of the material resources of other countries. We are so bad-not only to our fellow men, but to "almost all other life forms," which, says Wilson, must vanish as humans monopolize available energy. After denigrating religion throughout his book, he pompously declares that "preserving the Creation by taking as much of the rest of life with us as possible [is] another responsibility to meet" as we "make the passage" through the world. 

By now you can predict the villains of the piece: they are the "schemes" of "venture capital" at work in "the global free-market economy," abetted by "the myopia of most professional economists [advocating] neoclassical economic theory"-too obsessed with "competition, market fluctuations . . . and the optimal uses of labor and resources" to "incorporate the environment." The culmination of evil is reached, according to Wilson, in the recommendations of one Frederick Hu, namely "low taxes, little interference and free trade and sound market institutions such as the rule of law and the protection of property rights." 

As for what should replace the rule of law and property rights, Wilson is coyly unspecific. He drops hints, though. He would like to see "governments create population policies"; he speaks of "the dream that acquired general currency at the Earth Summit" in Rio in 1992, and is pleased that "by 1996 no fewer than 117 governments had appointed commissions to develop Agenda 21 strategies." Above all, he wishes to see "the effort to rescue biodiversity made part of the political process." In other words, socialism-government control of production, not in the interests of efficiency or justice, values the old Marxists at least had the decency to acknowledge, but to save the rain forest. Where does Wilson go wrong? Well, he's right about some things. Sheer arithmetic says that if the human race keeps growing at its present rate, it will cover every square inch of the surface of the Earth by AD 3000. Nor is there enough germanium or copper in the Earth to give that many people a personal computer. So we know that something will have to give between now and then. 

But why is Wilson so sure it must be the market? Often an author's metaphors reveal more than his explicit arguments, and so it is with Wilson. He consistently describes the changes we can expect (without benefit of government intervention) as sudden. He talks repeatedly of a "wall humanity is rushing toward," "the environmental wall," the "solid wall" of overpopulation. He compares mankind to "a household living giddily off vanishing capital." For him, "overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves." That is Wilson's picture: one Sunday night there is abundance but we wake up Monday to find no fish in the sea, no water in the aquifers, no minerals in the ground, no food in stores. Universal starvation, machines without fuel, buildings falling down, men at each other's throats. "Rwanda," he says in all seriousness, "is a microcosm of the world." 

This scenario neglects the gradualism of the market, and the continuity of change it promotes. Markets signal growing scarcity with rising prices, which induce consumers to shift to other resources. Suppose for instance more salmon are taken from the Pacific than natural reproduction can replace. This is not because Americans like (or, as Wilson might say, stuff themselves with) salmon, but because they like salmon at the going price. As it becomes harder to catch, fishermen will charge more for it, and marginal salmon-consumers will start to buy cheaper alternatives. 

Eventually, one of two things will happen. Either the salmon population restabilizes, with its flesh commanding a price that attracts only connoisseurs, or it disappears altogether, long after consumers have gotten used to doing without it. 

Likewise, falling supply plus steady demand for germanium will raise the price of computers and trigger compensating behavior by computer users-who might begin pooling funds and sharing hardware. At the same time, computer manufacturers, noticing this change in behavior, will drastically slow the introduction of new models. 

The one sure thing is that there won't be any Oh-my-God-no-computers catastrophes. If anything, overnight shortages are apt to occur under the sorts of centralized control Wilson endorses. Wilson will no doubt protest the despoliation of other lands our Western economies require, but here too the market has a ready answer. So long as third-worlders sell first-worlders raw materials to process into consumer goods, they must like the price they are getting. If and when these returns begin to pale before the droughts, plagues, etc. free trade supposedly brings, third-worlders simply begin to raise their prices accordingly. Indian teak merchants are unlikely to announce out of the blue, "OK, that's it, no more wood for Americans." 

The great thing about market signals is that they can't be ignored. When a consumer finds a good unaffordable, he has no choice but to direct his resources elsewhere. (The good goes to purchasers controlling resources commensurate with its value, the optimum outcome.) Herein lies the market's solution to the population problem. Signals in the form of high costs tell individuals when they lack the resources to have more children. As reproductive resources become "scarce"-i.e., too costly for the speaker's taste-reproduction will fall, without need for China's coercive one-couple-one-child program or other "government population policies" that Wilson admires. 

The real danger, in fact, is governmental transfer of resources that permit individuals to have children they cannot afford (when made domestically, these transfers are called "welfare"; made across national borders,"foreign aid"). There are, to be sure, special concerns about babies. Since they carry hidden long-term costs, you can mistakenly think you can afford to have one in a way in which you cannot mistakenly think you can afford to buy a candy bar. Wilson would no doubt say this delay is what gives human shortsightedness a chance to work its usual harm if (as he puts it) "a free market in genetic diversity" is allowed. In reply I would ask which outcome is more likely: are people so stupid as to keep having children no matter what, or will they (as they do elsewhere) adjust their preferences for children as real costs become ever more apparent? If the former, nothing-not world government, Draconian laws, or the other measures Wilson flirts with-can save us, and we might as well give up. If the latter, the invisible hand of the free market will be a sufficient guide. Free trade is not a Rwanda waiting to happen. It is not a tinderbox waiting to consume mankind. It is not a wall we are about to hit at 60 mph. And Wilson should stick to ants. 


MICHAEL LEVIN, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches philosophy at the City College of New York.


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