by Michael Rothschild
This article appeared in Upside (May 1992).
Bionomics is a fundamentally new way of thinking about the
Several questions about the basic tenets of bionomics keep
so I'll try to provide some succinct answers.
How does Bionomics differ from conventional
To begin with, all traditional schools of economics are
based on the
concepts of classical physics, while bionomics is based on
principles of evolutionary biology. Isaac Newton described
as a perfectly predictable clockwork mechanism. And orthodox
economics describes the "economy as a machine." Everyday, we
about "jump-starting" or "fine-tuning" the "economic
engine." We're told
that the "economy is losing steam" or that the government
repair a failed "market mechanism." Like Charlie Chaplin in
Times, deep down we imagine ourselves as cogs in a vast,
Bionomics rejects "economy as machine" thinking?
Absolutely. Instead, Bionomics says that an economy is like
"evolving ecosystem." A modern market economy is like a
rainforest, populated by vast numbers of highly specialized
organizations instead of highly specialized organisms.
They're all linked
together in an incredibly complex web of competitive and
relationships. Each company works to survive in its market
niche just as
each individual organism works to survive in its ecologic
How does the economy evolve?
All living things evolve. Over time, they become more
specialized and efficient. In nature, this happens when
genetic code, the
information recorded in the DNA molecule, undergoes mutation
natural selection. Biological evolution creates new species.
our economic ecosystem, technological information recorded
databases, technical manuals, source code, and blueprints is
innovation and market competition. Technologic evolution
Are you saying that the economy runs itself?
For the most part, yes. Remember, even though the tropical
is the most complex thing on the planet, nobody designed it
nobody runs it. Truly complex phenomena cannot be planned,
emerge spontaneously. They self-organize. Bionomics argues
market economy is just such a process. No one planned the
economy and nobody's in charge of it.
Bionomics holds that capitalism is not an ism. It is not a
like socialism. Instead, the market economy, like a tropical
the product of a naturally occurring, spontaneous
How do Bionomics and conventional economics differ
on the process of technological change?
I know this is hard for non-economists to believe, but
economics essentially ignores technological change. The
first rule of
economic modelling is "Assume technology holds constant."
make that assumption, you can make predictions; like a 1%
GNP will increase car sales by 1 million units and that
will rise by Y tons because the average car uses 1000 pounds
It's all neat and tidy input/output tables.
But once you allow technological change into the model,
unpredicatble complexity. For example, even as GNP rises,
travel patterns like telecomuting and air travel whittle
automobile demand. Car makers keep substituting more and
aluminum and plastic for steel. Across the economy, new
keep changing the relative value of alternatives. In
reality, all the
input/output ratios are fluid and dynamic. Precise
impossible. But rather than admit that, orthodox economists
ignore technological change. Bionomics, by contrast, pays
attention to technological evolution.
Does Bionomics reach different economic policy
conclusions than orthodox economics?
Yes, of course, and there is a consistent pattern to these
you believe that the "economy is a predictable machine,"
logically assume that the government ought plan, control,
and repair that machine. There is a built-in bias toward
on the other hand, you believe the economy is a like a
be very cautious about intervening. You'd be "ecologically
careful not to damage the bionomic ecosystem. You wouldn't
Army Corps of Engineers in to "fix" the Amazon rainforest,
wouldn't use industrial policy to "fix" our high-tech
Does that mean no role for government?
No, that's impossible. But instead of distorting and abusing
economy by constantly tinkering with subsidies, taxes,
government ought create a stable policy climate that
spontaneous technical evolution and economic growth.
The tragedy of machine thinking is that it leads to a
control" mentality. Bionomics thinking leads to a policy
is patient and nurturing.
What specific economic policies would Bionomics
For example, the machine mentality, says we should use
regulation to force a clean up of the environment. And today
state planning and a vast bureaucracy to get results.
Bionomics says we
should use markets instead. Organizations, like organisms,
feedback signals in their environments. In the economic
those signals are called prices. Because the law says air
and water are
free, with a price set at $0, organizations overuse those
They resist regulations that close off access to those free
But if the law said you had to own a permit to emit a ton of
dioxide, dumping CO2 would no longer be free, and companies
quickly find a new techniques to cut CO2 output and avoid
the cost of
buying CO2 permits. Pollution markets would harness the
power of high-tech capitalism.
What does Bionomics say about U.S. competitiveness?
First, we have to realize that we already have an Industrial
policy in the
U.S. Unfortunately, it's an Anti-Industrial policy. Instead
earnings, savings, and investment, we tax them very heavily.
same time, the Federal government hardly taxes consumption.
At the corporate level, most American executives think of
companies as profit-making engines. They work hard to get
machines to run just right, but the world around them keeps
messing up their plans. When I teach bionomic methods to
corporations, I stress that a company is a living, learning
Everyone in a company must work continually improve its
methods. Furthermore, to survive over time, a company must
much of the territory, or market share, in its niche as
possible. This is
the way Japanese executives think. Taking market share or
territory in a competitive landscape comes first. Profits
If we're going to turn around the American economy, it's
going to take
something much more profound than anything we've previously
considered. At both the public policy and corporate levels,
of reform will have to start with a fundamental rethinking
of our most
basic ideas about what a market economy is and how it works.
Copyright 1992 The Bionomics Institute