Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
King Solomon (Proverbs 6:6-8)
In 1975, biologist and ant expert E.O. Wilson quipped, “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.” Wilson argued that socialism succeeds in the worker ants because they are mostly infertile and share 75% of their genes. With no way to reproduce individually they hold a powerful evolutionary incentive to work for the society instead of the individual.
He was neither the first nor the last scientist to find political inspiration from ants. Albert Einstein in his essay, Why Socialism? held up ants as the model for man. Einstein said that humans were selfish and predatory under capitalism. If only we could be as altruistic as the ants we could create a more cooperative and productive society. In 1923, scientist Auguste Forel wrote his magnum opus, The Social World of Ants, praising the ants for their apparent success in building socialist communities. Even H.G. Wells wrote on the subject in The Empire of the Ants, a story about how natural selection would create a species of ants so superior to humans that they could replace us.
In arts more sympathetic to capitalism, the socialist ants are rejected as anathema to individualism. In Starship Troopers, the libertarian author Robert Heinlein presents the alien ‘Bugs’ as the nemesis of human civilization. And in Star Trek, the socialist Borg try to ‘assimilate’ individuals into their hive mind.
Whether or not you find the collectivism of the ants appealing, they do pose a problem for free marketeers. How do the ants make their apparent socialism work? Ant nests can coordinate economies of over 300 million workers, yet have no profits, no rents, and no money at all. Why could we not do the same?
That a bit of selflessness is all we need to create socialism would be news to Friedrich Hayek. The Austrian economist thought that socialism could never work, not because we were too greedy but because no one could have the knowledge to plan an economy. He said that the problem of economics is how to allocate our resources and labour when knowledge is dispersed in many millions of individuals.
Imagine iron has become scarce, perhaps because an inventor has found a newfound use for the material. In a free market the price would increase, causing firms to economise on iron and use cheaper substitutes like copper. Mining companies responding to the price would demand more workers and investment in iron mines. Workers seeing higher wages in mining iron might move from farming to mining. The firms and workers need not know the reason why iron is more expensive, yet prices guide them to allocate their resources more efficiently. Hayek thus thought that prices aggregate dispersed information so as to organise the behaviours of thousands if not millions of people.
Without prices the socialist would have no idea what to do when his iron has run out. Does he use less iron for trains or for computers? Does he substitute iron for tin or would copper be cheaper? Does he move workers out of farming wheat or would it be easier to spare workers farming rice?
Without prices how do ants make economic decisions — often involving millions of individuals — wisely?
Imagine ants are out searching for food. Most ants find nothing. However, one ant finds a large dead insect to be eaten. How does she inform other workers to stop searching for food or building tunnels or feeding larvae and instead help her collect this new food source?
This ant leaves a trail of pheromones on its way back to the nest. Other ants smelling the pheromones check to see what has been found. If there is a lot of food they also secrete pheromones, if there is none left they do not. The rest of the ants judge how much pheromones have been secreted to judge how much food there is. If there is a lot of food they will stop doing their work to help forage, but if there are not enough pheromones they may keep to whatever task they were previously doing.
Just as high prices coordinate humans to reallocate resources and labour to produce a good, a high intensity of pheromones will coordinate the labour of the ants. When facing an economic problem, ants do not plan their economy, but instead use a sort of market — where pheromones play a role analogous to prices. More pheromones suggest higher value and fewer pheromones suggest lower value, allowing the ants to make tradeoffs between different work they could undertake. The analogy of prices to pheromones reminds us what prices actually are. They are an ingenious mechanism for aggregating dispersed knowledge so as to organise our behaviour for the better.
The ants show us ‘prices’ are still necessary to organise large economies, even with a truly selfless population.
So ants truly are paragons of a market system, but that does not mean the ants are perfect. Market failures can be seen in ants, just as they are in capitalist economies. Sometimes if too many ants secrete pheromones in a circle, others will join the circle and reinforce it with more pheromones. Instead of being productive, the ants walk around in circles until they starve.
The same phenomenon exists in our economies. Prior to 2008, investors had overvalued houses and taken too many loans to buy them. The increased prices encouraged yet more buyers, creating an ever-increasing spiral in prices. Sometimes good money follows bad, much like the circle of ants. When the proverbial ants dropped dead they had malinvested their capital with no profit to pay off their debts.
Whether or not you see the ants nest as a selfless society, or a dystopian system offensive to individuality, the ants are a free market success story. Despite their altruism, ants depend upon ‘markets’ and ‘prices’, regardless of their flaws. Perhaps Karl Marx was wrong, maybe socialism does not work in any species?