November 2, 2009 By Lisa Zyga
(PhysOrg.com) -- Terms such as the "invisible hand," laissez-faire policy, and free-market principles suggest that economic growth and decline in capitalist societies seem to be somehow self-regulated. Now, scientists Arto Annila of the University of Helsinki and Stanley Salthe of Binghampton University in New York show that economic activity can be regarded as an evolutionary process governed by the second law of thermodynamics. Their perspective may provide insight into some fundamental economic questions, such as the causes of economic growth and diversification, as well as why it’s so difficult to predict economic growth and decline.
As Annila and Salthe explain in their study published in Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics was originally formulated to describe the flow of heat from hot to cold areas. However, when formulated as an equation of motion, the second law can be used to describe many other processes in energetic terms, such as natural selection for the fittest species, organization of cellular metabolism, or an ecosystem’s food web. In these systems, free energy is consumed; that is, energy is dispersed in a way to promote the maximal increase of entropy, which is the essence of the second law.
While economic activities are traditionally viewed as being motivated by profit, Annila and Salthe argue that the ultimate motivation of economic activities is not to maximize profit or productivity, but rather to disperse energy. From this perspective, a growing economy consists of entities (e.g. products, labor, etc.) that are assigned an energy density resulting from their individual production processes. These density differences are the forces that direct energy flows (e.g. manufacturing processes) to equalize energy density differences within the system and with respect to its surroundings. …