It is no original insight to note that ecologists and economists both derive equilibrium theories from the Darwinian assumption of natural selection of the traits of successful replicators – organisms for ecologists, firms for economists. Like an ecosystem, the economy is an “emergent” or “spontaneous” order, in which the decentralized actions of countless individuals generate a complex system with properties irreducible to those actions. Michael Polanyi and F.A. Hayek distinguish these spontaneous orders from planned orders, in which a system’s operation is guided or designed by a central engineer, and argue that spontaneous economic orders yield greater social welfare over the long run than planned ones.
Similarly, naturalists find that undisturbed ecosystems find their own equilibrium, in which each organism, as if guided by an invisible hand, seems to approach perfect adaptation to its niche relative to all other organisms. Extirpating one species or introducing another risks upsetting the equilibrium and extirpating more species. Since emergent orders are characterized by “tacit knowledge” unavailable to the outsider, we cannot easily replace them with designed orders that function “as if” spontaneous. Thus, the precise consequences of disturbing an ecosystem are as unpredictable as the precise consequences of disturbing a market (Bastiat’s “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen” is relevant here).
The principal difference between economic and ecologic orders is that the former are composed of more-or-less rationally choosing actors, many of whom are consciously considering the ultimate equilibrium that will obtain in a given market, while the latter are composed of nonrational organisms behaving according to evolved instinct. What this means in practice is that we should expect economic orders to approach equilibrium more nearly and more quickly than ecologic orders, which must wait for generations of organisms to survive and reproduce before desirable traits are passed on. Nonrational organisms seem to learn less about assuring their collective survival over their own lifetimes than do humans.
These considerations tell us that human engineering or central planning of an ecosystem is unlikely to work for the benefit of the inhabitants. Attempting to engineer nature to our advantage will have unintended, adverse consequences for the stability of nature. Why should we care about the stability of nature? Because we are part of it. While the ultimate consequences of disturbing nature in any given case are unclear, we know that there will be consequences, more likely adverse than not.
Clearly, maintaining nature in an absolutely pristine state everywhere is not an option. But then, nor is total spontaneous order in the economic sphere (unless one is an anarchist). Moreover, both economies and ecosystems can survive and adapt to ongoing disturbance, although they may not reach peak performance. However, these considerations do indicate, contra Ron Bailey, that some kind of “precautionary principle” might make sense for both ecological and economic planning. We might do well to build into our institutions and way of life a substantial but rebuttable bias against trying to re-engineer nature or the economy.