The foolish theism of government enthusiasts

“Secular theists” — economist Don Boudreaux’s term — produce governments gripped by the fatal conceit that they are wiser than society’s spontaneous experimental order. Such governments imposed order suffocates improvisation and innovation. Like religious creationists gazing upon biological complexity, secular theists assume that social complexity requires an intentional design imposed from on high by wise designers, a.k.a. them.

In his book “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge,” Matt Ridley refutes the secular creationists’ fallacious idea that because social complexity is the result of human actions, it must, or should, be the result of human design. In fact, Ridley says, “Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organizing, self-changing place.”

What explains the reluctance to admit this? Perhaps the human mind evolved to seek a Designer behind designs. (“On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” Ridley says, “Adam and God touch fingers. To the uneducated eye it is not clear who is creating whom.”) Or perhaps people feel anxious if no one is in charge. Ridley’s point is that everyone is in charge of social change. It is propelled by what Friedrich Hayek, echoing Darwin, called “selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits.” This is a broad-based, bottom-up process by which society, like Darwinian nature, is constantly experimenting.