In a recent article published in This View of Life, the distinguished social scientist Anthony Biglan documents the declining quality of life in America and makes a case for a more nurturing form of capitalism. As a rallying cry, he calls for a new Powell memo.

The reference is to a letter that Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer who was to become an Associate Justice for the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971 calling for an organized effort by corporate America to influence legislation and public opinion in its favor. Before the Powell memo there was the Mont Pelerin Society, which formed around the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek in 1947 and had the same goal. Both efforts were strikingly successful at molding the current US and world economy through the formation of think tanks and lobbying organizations.

As Biglan notes, the Powell memo is richly ironic by calling for a group effort to preach the gospel of individualism. Biglan also invokes multilevel selection theory to question the root assumption that what’s good for the individual and corporation is good for society as a whole. Nothing could be more basic to the economic paradigm that the Powell memo sought to establish—and nothing could be more wrong from an evolutionary perspective.

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The key insight of multilevel selection is that the unregulated pursuit of self-interest at any level of a multi-tier social hierarchy, such as an individual person, corporation, or nation, tends to undermine functional organization at higher levels. Put simply, what’s good for me is not necessarily good for my family. What’s good for my family is not necessarily good for my clan. What’s good for my clan is not necessarily good for my nation. What’s good for my nation is not necessarily good for the global environment or economy.

The declining quality of life that Biglan chronicles in his article—and in more detail in his new book The Nurture Effect—is therefore to be expected from an evolutionary perspective. A powerful faction has cooperated to advance its collective interest at the expense of the society as a whole. It is important to stress that this might not be how Powell, Hayek, or any other booster of unrestricted capitalism thinks about it. They might believe their own gospel to the depth of their souls—but the actions that follow from their belief will have the same consequences as if they meant harm.

We agree with Biglan that a new Powell memo is in order. In other words, a cooperative effort is required to establish a new economic paradigm that will improve the quality of life for society as a whole, not just a privileged faction. It is important that Biglan labels the new paradigm “Nurturing Capitalism”. He is not denying the positive aspects of market and other self-organizing processes, only the need to manage them intelligently. The new paradigm is exactly that—something that doesn’t fit into any current ideological categories.

We think that the intellectual resources already exist to work toward a more nurturing capitalism—but that’s not good enough. The Mont Pelerin Society and the Powell memo succeeded through the formation of institutions that worked together in a coordinated fashion to accomplish the hard work of societal change. Who will be the individuals and organizations that step forward to mount this cooperative effort? Historians will credit them with a role in improving the quality of life during the rest of the 21st century.

The Evolution Institute is one organization that has stepped forward. It connects the world of evolutionary science to the solution of real-world problems with its projects and two communication outlets, This View of Life (which published Biglan’s article) and the Social Evolution Forum (which is publishing this commentary). Economics is a major focus of the EI, including a conference organized with Germany’s Ernst Strungmann Forum titled Complexity and Evolution: A New Synthesis for Economics, which was held in February 2015.

Now the editors of TVOL and SEF have created a website called Evonomics to serve as a gathering place for people who want act upon Biglan’s new Powell memo. A number of distinguished economists, social scientists (including Biglan), and evolutionary scientists have already joined our advisory board and our mailing list exceeds 800 people. Please add yourself to the newsletter so you can become part of what we are trying to build. You are also welcome to contact us directly to discuss how you can contribute to making nurturing capitalism a reality.

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Published On: May 28, 2015

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

Robert Kadar

Robert Kadar

Robert is the founding editor of This View of Life, co-founder of Evonomics, and creator of the children’s book Great Adaptations. Also, he served as Executive Assistant of the Evolution Institute.

Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer

Joe has three bachelors degrees in physics, mathematics, and interdisciplinary studies and a masters in atmospheric sciences. He is a complexity researcher, innovation strategist, experience designer, and serial social entrepreneur who brings a wealth of expertise to the adoption of sustainable solutions at the cultural scale. Among his notable achievements are the creation of an undergraduate degree program in Earth Systems, Environment and Society at the University of Illinois and design of new collaboration protocols for strategic communications among European NGO’s with WWF-UK and Oxfam, Great Britain. He was an active member of the Center for Complex Systems Research from 2001 to 2005, where he studied pattern formation in self-organizing systems. He was a research fellow at the Rockridge Institute in 2007-08 analyzing political discourse in the United States. He contracted with the International Centre for Earth Simulation in Geneva in 2010-11 to help build a globally-focused high performance computing facility dedicated to holistic simulations of the dynamic Earth. His experiences as a social entrepreneur and cross-disciplinary scholar weave together a combination of skills dedicated to open collaboration, interactive design, and empowered civic action for catalyzing change toward greater resilience in our turbulent world.

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