The democratic revolution involved the overthrow of discredited authoritarian regimes and their replacement with democratic alternatives modelled on Western growth economies.

In 1975 less than one third of Nation State economies could be loosely described as democratic yet by 1995 the count had risen to more than two thirds. Democracy has always had an enduring appeal because authority is instinctively resented but by 1995 there was accumulated evidence that democracy was also an essential prerequisite for wealth creation.

Democratic institutions spread rapidly in an attempt to tackle insidious problems of poverty and secure self sustaining economic growth.

A battle of ideas, top down design verses bottom up evolution, had moved decisively, the heavy lifting had been done in the 1980s.

1 The history of idea of democracy

‘We, the people’ will decide for ourselves; self determination, democracy has the lasting attraction of freedom; oppressive Bishops, tyrannical Princes, dictatorial Generals and even errant bureaucratic majorities threaten our autonomy.

However the history of democracy has been fraught with difficulties, there has been trajectory of ideas and experiments which has required constant refinement.

In the absence of knowledge, in a world of scarcity, risk and uncertainty, we imagine … Gods, myths and conspiracies … fear freezing us into submission.

Plato was aware that ‘knowledge is what we seek, but opinion is all we have’. Plato was a critic of Greek democracy which he described as ‘mob rule and emasculation of the wise’, this encapsulated a conundrum, the problem of reconciling the political impulse for organising society and the civil liberties essential for creative innovation. 

Aristotle was clear that knowledge was sense perception. Reason and empirical science could not cope with democracy, there was no reasoned consensus, reality was diversity and competition. But there was debate and persuasion.

Augustine (400) suggested reason was never sufficient, progress required faith. God did not intervene in the detail of man's life there was plenty of scope for choices. But democracy seemed to require everyone to be a believer in God’s authority.

Aquinas (1250) made progress and synthesised faith and reason. There was no conflict between God and science. Aristotle’s ‘Prime Mover’ and Aquinas’ God converged. But democracy was not the effect of a cause.

Early Republicanism recognised that self determination required protection from tyranny and oppression but replacing one dictator by another was no solution. Machiavelli (1500) preached ‘eternal vigilance’.

During the Renaissance and the Reformation the power of the myths was eroded and questions were asked which led to the new understandings of the Enlightenment and Science. But it was a false dawn, democracy was not part of a clockwork universe.

Hobbes (1651) saw nature as strife and the Leviathan state was an essential policeman if the people were to be protected from themselves.

Locke (1690) on the other hand saw nature as largely co-operative with the state having to be constitutionally constrained if individual liberty was to be protected.

Rousseau (1762) developed Republicanism further with the concept of a 'general will' of the people leading to a ‘common good’. This was easily identified when opposing the tyranny of Kings, but it soon evaporated in the reality of practical policy making in a diverse and competitive society.

The democratic ideas of Madison and Montesquie (1776) were embodied in the constitution of the USA where necessary Federal activities were subjected to elaborate checks and balances to guarantee freedom in the states.

The father of modern Liberal Democracy was John Stuart Mill (1859) who attempted to resolve Plato's conundrum by a clear separation of the two concepts of necessary political co-ordinating activity and innovative individual freedom in civil society. But with freedom embracing a caveat; the moral and legal obligation to avoid harm to others.

Marx (1848), even with the caveat, thought Mill was trying to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’, Marx identified class economic power as the undermining distortion of democracy.

By the middle of the 19th century Mill and Marx had started a battle of ideas that would rage until the end of the following century.

Schumpeter (1930) suggested the efficiency of technological bureaucracies always tended to result in a leadership elite, but competitive rivalry could counter tyranny. However there was little role for the democratic institutions of civil society.

Dahl (1950) pursued the idea of competitive interest group rivalry which seemed to reflect the reality of modern politics. But interest groups were unequal or ‘gridlocked’ and social scientists were suggesting that the state itself was an vested interest group.

The new right supported market freedom within the law. But did not directly address Marx’s problem of the distortion of economic power.

The new left supported participation in active politics to balance the undemocratic nature of the modern state and multinational companies. But this left essential wealth creating technological innovation outside of politics.

Plato’s conundrum remained unresolved.

2 The battle of ideas

The battle was not authoritarianism verses democracy but a much more subtle battle about how best to organise ‘the common good of we the people’.

Civilisations developed because of the benefits of team work, co-operative economic activities – specialisation, scale, synergy, science, investment, imitation and innovation.

These activities need organising because of the multitude of people involved.

The question was how best to organise society -

by planned design - organisation by hierarchical direction and control, plausible top down instructions

The alternative to authoritarian command was to extend and deepen democracy through the principle of majority voting to control the distortion of economic power.

The central idea was that ‘the common good’ is legitimised by majority voting in a command economy -

evidence is accumulated, evaluated, weighed and balanced

future consequences are imagined and thought through

appropriate decisions are taken and the necessary instructions are issued

physical actions to deliver the desired result are then undertaken

Progress results from a plausible linear process of logical cause and effect, an imagined outcome is implemented by 'intelligent design'.

by evolution - self organisation by counterintuitive bottom up natural selection.

The democratic institutions of capitalism are organising systems, evolved ‘as if designed’ to exploit the benefits of social co-operation. ‘We the people’ organise democratically not from command but because it is in our own self interest so to do.

The central idea is that top down command is not required, self organisation emerges in civil society by consent as co-operation differentially survives because of economic advantages in a market economy -

evidence is a perception; incomplete, dispersed, diverse and complex

future consequences are unpredictable and unknowable

decisions are experiments in the imagination and alternatives maybe better

‘successful’ outcomes are physical experiments which differentially survive as 'bad' ideas die out

Survival progress results from a process of evolution, a diversity of options are generated and actual outcomes tested for survival benefits. The population frequency of ideas with survival benefits will increase at the expense of less valuable alternatives.

The battle involved a common aspiration to avoid tyranny, oppression, dictatorship and error – Republicans fear monarchs, Marxists fear capitalists, Libertarians fear political majorities – but a very different process …

3 The case for Evolution – Co-operation tends to advantage survival

Life is a struggle, full of scarcity, risk and uncertainty. The inexorable 2nd law of thermodynamics acts ‘as if’ a continuous cost and the benefits of civilisation have to be painstakingly maintained over generations.

Evolution is the process which constructs all life, self consciousness, language, ideas, cultures and belief systems.

It is a process which discovers survival value in excess of costs more efficiently than competitive alternatives.

Co-operative organisation evolves because survival value -

 is generated by economic activities which involve the team work of a multitude of different people – specialisation, scale, synergies, science, investment, imitation and innovation

 is destroyed by fighting over 'winner takes all' spoils

Democracy is a co-operative organising system that has evolved.

a) Reality is evolution constrained by the Laws of Physics.

The evolution of democracy is not biology, which is the evolution of DNA, but an analogous process the evolution of ideas -

 replication and inheritance. Some ideas ‘catch on’, ideas which have survival value. Successful ideas from the past perpetuate and are built upon

 variety generation and random diversity. New ideas, hitherto unconnected connections, are constantly created as everyone thinks. These ideas become candidates for consideration. The process must be random because good ideas cannot be identified in advance, and because it is random the vast majority of new ideas die immediately as they compete with more promising alternatives

 differential survival sifts value. The generation of diversity, is followed by the sieve of differential survival which identifies value. Harmful ideas compete with beneficial ideas, the sole criteria is survival value. Value is not determined by Bishops, Princes, Generals or bureaucratic majorities, but by the choices of each and everyone of us with our ancestors and colleagues, as social agents

development in environments and population dynamics. Ideas develop in the scarce, risky, uncertain hostility of the current environment. Survival value manifests itself by the occurrence frequency in the population and is constantly tested over time against the rigors of reality by different people, with different experiences and beliefs, at different times, in different environments. It is a battle of ideas in brains

Co-operative ideas tend win evolutionary survival battles.

In this way ideas construct of layer upon layer of complex changing interconnectedness which extend far beyond brains to cultures and belief systems. Successful ideas developing eventually to influence behaviour.

b) Behaviour is evolution but we do have choices.

Although self regulating adaptive order is all around us in the living universe, it is counter intuitive, ‘the penny has to drop’.

Darwin, Mendel and Watson and Crick explained the biological evolution of life, but more recently the evolution of self consciousness, language, culture and belief systems is becoming the subject of scientific investigation.

Astonishing survival progress is made by evolution, coping with the struggle by inherited culture, blind instinct and generating and pre-testing ideas in our imagination and more recently in scientific experiments.

A process which eventually produces complex social behaviour and democratic organisation.

Diversity of appearance, race, class, and religion are everywhere, manifesting themselves in differences of belief and behaviour; authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes.

However, differences based on belief can change as people learn through education and experience. Successful behaviour can be imitated, democracy can spread.

But it is not a facile process it can’t transferred like a package.

The biggest barrier to the spread of democracy is the authoritarian command impulse which results from plausible cause and effect reasoning. Everywhere it is easy to assume people act by design, commanding, planning and conspiring desired outcomes logically.

But behavioural reality is evolution, described by Herbert Simon as ‘satisficing’ (satisfying and sufficing) -

building on past patterns of success

choosing between options available at the time

experimenting to discover added value

cooperating with others to enhance value

retaliating to protect value and

learning from the outcomes.

A flexible, responsive, pattern of behaviour, not the best but better than the alternatives.

It is what we must do because evolved outcomes cannot be designed, complexity is changing variables are interconnected -

knowledge is tacit, dispersed, incomplete, inaccurate and selective

alternatives are random and innovative

decisions involve different people, with different experience, with different perspectives, at different times, in different environments

response options are limited, flexible and competitive

The future is unknowable there is no means of controlling the choices of others and there are only a limited set of responses but we do have options and we do choose.

Satisficing is Darwinian thinking and a distinct flip away from the assumption that we act as rational calculators. Darwin himself was aware of the counter intuitive problem -

it’s an awful stretcher to believe the peacock’s tail was so formed … most people just don’t get it … I must be a very poor explainer’.

Although winning ideas cannot be identified in advance we do know which way to bet, the dice are loaded. Bet on co-operation. Co-operative ideas tend win.

These tendencies result in statistical uniformities, recurring patterns, which give the delusion of design, but they are the result of blind evolution. ‘Designs’ can be nothing more than experiments to be tested.

For certain there will always be parasites, tyranny, oppression, dictates and error and most plausible of all some will try to ‘command’ co-operation.

However such ideas are handicapped because they all generate conflict and inefficiencies while others, who embrace co-operation, gain an advantage.

It is not laissez faire. Freedom to choose is constrained by evolutionary retaliation. The market is accountable human beings facing the consequences of their deals.

The Liberal Democratic caveat - the moral and legal obligation to avoid harm to others - evolved because of its associated survival benefits.

4 Critique of the Case for Design – The control myth

a) Economic power cannot ‘distort’ democracy.

Marx’s idea of the ‘power’ of capital has proved highly resilient, even surviving the socialist collapse in 1989. This continuing survival success merits serious appraisal by evolutionists.

Dialectic materialism and Hegel’s ideas are evolutionary. Rational plans dynamically unfolding with each seed containing its own contradictions leading to a reconciliation which on close scrutiny reveals further contradictions.

Although Hegel developed a theory of history Marx wanted to use theory to legitimise revolutionary change. But Marx’s revolution was evolutionarily unstable -

Capital is not wealth. The ‘power’ of capital is a Marxist restatement of the Mercantilist fallacy. Long experience of nation and class warfare has bred a concept of wealth as transferable gold or booty. Plundered gold does not result in wealth it results in dependency.

The evolutionary lesson of the industrial revolution is that nations do not become rich by accumulating gold, they become rich by building profitable processes.

Wealth creation comes from ‘know how’, knowing how to turn factors of production into valuable products and services.

Co-operating people create ‘know how’ through high value low cost ideas which cannot be exclusively confined to capitalists, they are widely dispersed, nobody knows where the next good idea is coming from. 'know how' is difficult to high jack, it is the result of innovation, hitherto unconnected connections. Acquisition of 'know how' is not a facile process.

In comparison capital is easy, as Peter Jay has suggested, 'for capital nothing is required but saving; and for saving nothing is required but income; and income we already have'.

In the absence of predators, capital will tend to accumulate because there is survival benefit from delaying consumption and investing in the profitable processes. Capital will tend to follow to profitable innovation because of the irresistible opportunity to share in the potential wealth. Profit and capital are two sides of the same coin.

We only ‘see’ successful capital, capital invested in poor ideas doesn’t survive.

Natural resources’ are not wealth. Peter Jay has recently emphasised, 'technology determines what counts as a natural resource'. It is ‘know how’ which identifies the value in all resources -

land ownership is massively skewed as are resultant incomes but ownership identity is irrelevant. It is ownership behaviour or ‘know how’ that creates wealth; the output per acre needed to feed the urban populations.

natural resources are endowed irregularly but crude oil was a disgusting pollutant in the Middle East until Western ‘know how’ converted it into heating oil. Nigeria’s natural resources can be squandered while Switzerland, without natural resources, can become rich though the ‘know how’ of it’s people.

rotting pepper in the East Indies and cheap glass beads from the West were traded for their value when transferred to different locations. This arbitrage trade made many rich but value was not in the commodities themselves but in the location change.

antibiotics are small tablets, often easily manufactured, containing minimal material resources but they are the result of massive quantities of ‘know how’ built up from centuries of scientific development and tedious hours of endeavour in research labs.

Survival success comes from ‘know how’ not capital nor natural resource endowments.

The democratic nature of ‘know how’. If capital is merely a derivative of ‘know how’ we must ask whether ‘know how’ distorts democracy?

Human activity is based on ongoing flow of information. ‘Know how’ is everywhere in the evolution of life; genetic information, self consciousness, language, culture, belief systems and science.

The democratic nature of ‘know how is suggested by -

human capital. All people have creative ideas and nobody knows who will have the next good idea. Ideas are developed by education, requiring effort, learning involves competitively evaluating alternative ideas. Diversity and choice sifted by tedious differential evaluation over centuries.

scientific method. The acquisition of ‘know how’ is dominated by scientific method because of its rigorous sense perception / validation process. The discoveries of science depend on a community, the methodology is co-operative.

the tacit, dispersed, incomplete, inaccurate and selective nature of knowledge. Creative ideas from the individual brain are random but their exploitation requires participation and contribution in co-operative democratic institutions, on our own we are vulnerable. ‘Know how’ resides in families, neighbourhoods, tribes, clans, churches, societies, clubs, associations, charities, institutes, companies, partnerships, interest groups, networks, and political parties … a vast domain of co-operative interaction and interconnectedness in civil society.

Inequality of ‘know how’ is a problem addressed not by a transfer of capital or natural resources but by education and building co-operative democratic institutions. 'Know how' is not secret but wealth producing processes are not facile.

The move from authority to democracy is a recognition of these insights.

b) Majority voting cannot ‘justify’ command.

Organising by design by top down, majority legitimised, command for ‘the common good’ is plausible and widely accepted but -

 at best it is nothing more than one option, an experiment

 at worst it is profoundly undemocratic because it disenfranchises minorities who voted the other way

Consider the problems for any ‘justification’ of command -

if outcomes of evolution are unknowable, what is the nature and source of the superior knowledge for instructions?

Majorities cannot acts as Gods, voting cannot be the better way to sift good from bad.

if diversity and differential survival discover better value, what is the justification for ignoring the innovative alternatives which can’t be identified in advance?

There will always be a better alternative somewhere.

Elitist belief systems have been used to justify oppression by tyrants throughout history.

The problem is not with conflicting ideas, they are healthy, the problem is with the forced curtailment of alternatives -

if acceptability and legitimacy are desired. Who has the moral authority decide on behalf of others who may disagree?

Rawls developed a ‘veil of ignorance’ argument for the moral authority of equality but he ignored dynamic evolution. Evolutionists demonstrate that progress comes from diversity and differential survival, equality cannot be moral if better alternatives always evolve - 

if the process is inclusive, how do the minorities who disagree, contribute and participate?

Plato recognised this dilemma as ‘emasculation of the wise’.

Good ideas are not known in advance, there must be an opportunity for everyone who has a new contribution, they maybe right.

There is also a practical problem. How are the actions of other interested interconnected agents stopped? Are unauthorised contributions made illegal? How is compliance arranged? Law enforcement requires unanimous juries?

Voting creates a problem not a solution!

5 The Designer’s Riposte

but progress is about much more than mere survival of the fittest, why should evolution deliver ‘normative’ ends like the idea of democracy?

It doesn’t, evolution is blind! But evolution constructs using the advantages of co-operation. Human beings identify co-operation as a ‘normative’ end.

The qualities admired in democracies – liberty without harm, equality of opportunity, civil rights, altruism, autonomy are exactly those qualities which co-operative societies must embrace if they are to survive.

There is some opprobrium in the word survive. The evolutionary meaning of survival is that good ideas (democracy) become more dominant at the expense of bad ideas (authoritarianism).

but nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’, groups will always work for their own selfish advantage, why should they see it in their interests to want co-operation?

They don’t, evolution is blind! Many groups do choose parasitic options but they are at a competitive disadvantage when confronted with those adopting co-operative strategies.

but many people will refuse to co-operate and need to be legally sanctioned?

Yes! But uncooperative parasites will be ‘automatically’ the object of retaliation.

Evolved institutions are not lawless. Participation involves accepting the rules of co-operation. Scientific methodology, common law, canon law and mercantile law and the laws of cricket all evolved quite readily to bind international communities together without design.

Ostracism is very effective in denying co-operation benefits.

but there will there be a waste of effort as a multitude of silly ideas preoccupy everybody?

Yes! But we don’t know in advance which ideas are silly. The more ideas tested the greater the chance of discovering success.

but won’t this lead to the end of democratic politics and to anarchy?

Yes! But only in the sense of the end of authoritarian coercion, not in the sense of lawlessness. Democratic politics will be alive and well in un-coerced civil society where people will continue to associate for all sorts of benefits.

Evolution results in order, there is no survival value in disorder.

but eventually is too late, won’t it all take too long?

Today’s inheritance already has more survival value than competing alternatives. Tomorrow there will be more.

But thinking has to be flipped, there is no knowledgeable designed alternative.

Keynes suggested, ‘in the long run we are all dead.’ But ideas compete across the generations in our cultures, it is not a here and now issue it is evolution over aeons … ideas like democracy are not short term issues.

but isn’t it a utopian dream, a Panglossian future.

Evolution does not produce the best solution only the alternative with a better survival value.

but evolution is not democratic?

It is not majoritarianism but evolution is by definition self determination and ultimately self determination by the genes which make the brains which make the choices.

but cause and effect can give useful explanatory insights?

Necessary causes are useful but they are never sufficient.

Undoubtedly the giraffe’s neck is ‘caused’ by some infinitely complex molecular physiology but the only meaningful explanation is that short necked giraffes died out.

6 Conclusions

Evolution my or my not be the process which built the universe. But if not we face formidable problems explaining the reality around us. Is it really the handiwork of people who caused it to happen by design?

Prior to 1859 and evolution theory the only alternative route to co-operation was an organiser, a designer, a sovereign, or a God, and the 'mob rule' of Plato’s democratic conundrum was excusable.

In all organisation there is an intuitive direction and control assumption. But order evolves and the process where value in excess of costs emerges from co-operative human activity is now producing wealth creation and economic growth on an unprecedented scale.

The democratic institutions of capitalism evolved, liberal democracy and capitalism are inseparable parallel manifestations of co-operative organisation. Innovation and imitation exploit specialisation, scale, synergy and science for private reward in markets where there is tacit, dispersed, incomplete, inaccurate and selective information on resource costs, a diversity of alternatives, customer value decisions and the investment response incentive for differential survival.

‘Know how’ is not available for authoritarian predators to steal. Oppressive Bishops, tyrannical Princes, dictatorial Generals and errant bureaucratic majorities cannot commandeer it; ‘know how’ resides in the people and their institutions.

The process advantages remain whether the desired outcome is a Mozart opera, a Paris commune or a new antibiotic.

Stephen Hawking has succinctly encapsulated reality and explained why democracy has spread so rapidly -

‘Some individuals are better able than others to draw the right conclusions about the world around them and act accordingly. These individuals will be more likely to survive and reproduce and so their pattern of behaviour and thought will become dominant’.

The answer the Plato’s conundrum is being revealed by evolution. We do what is right for survival not by command but because it is in our interests so to do.

Sources and further reading - bibliography ...

The evidence mounts. New sources continue to be published confirming, supporting and expanding on the universal relevance of Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics.


john p birchall

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