'Go to the ant, thou sluggard'

(Title: Proverbs 6:6) How do ants build vast underground cities without a chief engineer? How do bees build a hive and make honey without a leader? How do swarms of migrating birds or schools of fish seem to move as one organism? An article in the current National Geographic, “Swarm Behavior”, offers insights into the question of how the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group -- but this 2007 author reveals an economic blind spot about what Adam Smith understood as early as 1776.

According to this article, what appears to be intelligent, coordinated behavior is actually the culmination of individuals’ actions. A school of silvery jacks appears to be one organization. No one, however, is in charge; each fish fulfilling his responsibility to stay together, go the same direction and not run into another fish. Individual locusts by instinct align their direction with others creating an army of insects systematically mowing down acre after acre of crops.

Foraging ants “know” when to leave the nest in the morning when they have encountered a sufficient number of patrolling ants returning from the night guard. If the patrollers are detained by some threat to the nest, they don’t return and foragers don’t go out. Neither patrollers nor foragers know the “big picture” yet their individual actions create an orderly and beneficial system.

In humans, swarm behavior is something like wisdom of the crowd. Take for example, horse-racing odds are calculated from the all bets before a race. They are usually correct. Stock-market prices reflect the individual decisions of a lot of people and are usually a good indicator of value.

The article goes on to provide examples of applications of swarm behavior such as Google, which relies on the accumulation of web site hits to rank pages, and Wikipedia, which contains the cumulative knowledge of thousands of writers.

The article, however, misses the greatest example of beneficial swarm behavior or crowd wisdom in humans – the free market. In the free market, the culmination of individual choices determines the price and quantity of goods and services. Nobody is in charge, yet the market works to create jobs, goods, and unprecedented wealth for the greatest number of people.

Where the market is freest, the most people enjoy the greatest wealth. Where it is most constrained, people are poorest. Desired goods grow scarce while undesirable goods pile up and gather dust. Suppressing economic freedom is like throwing a net on a school of fish; individuals can no longer act and the group is tangled in confusion. Hillary, Barack, Sen. Edwards, Mr. Gore, Speaker Pelosi... call your office.