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Monday, June 21, 2010

Social Darwinism and Capitalism

I have once been accused, at least in an implicit way, of being a social Darwinist because I happen be a laissez-faire free market capitalist. Now I am not ashamed of being called a laissez-faire capitalist. I know this word is often used as a way to demonize capitalists. In the same way referring to skeptics as "non-believers" or "godless" is a way to demonize them. When we call someone "godless", for instance, it makes religious people think that the skeptics are people without any moral values or that they do evil if they can get away with it. This has been part of the reason why skeptics and atheists started to refer to themselves by different terms, like "humanists", in order to get rid of these negative connotations. In a similar manner the word "laissez-faire" is filled with a lot of negative connotations. Many think of laissez-faire capitalists as people with no moral values, who only care for money, who are greedy, who hate paying taxes because they want the poor to die, and so forth. All of these accusations are false, just like all accusations against skepticism are false. One more accusation that carries a lot of negative connotation to it is calling laissez-faire capitalists to be social Darwinists.

Now what is social Darwinism? I am actually not sure. It is one of those terms that is never really so well-defined (like "racism"), perhaps, because the term is used for emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons. It seems to me that social Darwinism is the idea that some people are inferior to other people because of their nature. To improve the human population we need to get rid of the inferior people and this will lead to an improved species. Many people have accused laissez-faire capitalists of being social Darwinists because we believe that the unsuccessful businesses should fail and the prosperous ones should grow. The weak businesses will be driven out of the market and be replaced with the strong businesses. Competition is the mechanism, like natural selection, that destroys the weak and rewards the strong.

It is true that laissez-faire capitalists believe in the last two sentences in the above paragraph. However, I fail to see the connection to social Darwinism. There are certainly people who are more talented than other people. And it is true that if we massacre the untalented we will have more talented people. That is the theory of evolution after all. However, where do capitalists advocate getting rid of the untalented? Disabled people are much weaker when compared to normal people, normal people are much weaker when compared to intelligent people, however, where exactly do capitalists support the idea of getting rid of these people? This is the part I do not understand. If capitalists supported such an idea then it would be fair to call them social Darwinists but since they do not such a name calling is unjustified.

Besides the "strong" businesses and people in a capitalist society are not necessarily superior in their talents to the "weak" businesses and people. Consider Lady Gaga (the only reason why I know who she is, is because of South Park) and Albert Einstein. It is unreasonable to compare these together. Einstein was the greatest scientist of the 20th century who was an extremely intelligent human being while Lady Gaga is simply a musician. However, as a capitalist, Lady Gaga is "stronger" than Albert Einstein. Because she has a lot more wealth than Einstein. Wealth is not the measure of ones superiority. Einstein is clearly superior to Lady Gaga but he is not wealthier. People often object that this is the inherent problem with capitalism, that the wealthy people do not deserve it, the wealthy are not necessarily the superior people. This common fallacy follows because one confuses wealth with superiority. And this is why the very same people confuse capitalism with social Darwinism. Lady Gaga is certainly not comparable to Albert Einstein. But there is something that Lady Gaga can definitely do much much better than Einstein did. Namely, to be able to satisfy the needs and tastes of the masses. Lady Gaga is so wealthy precisely because she is able to make so many people happier as a result of her music. One can object that her music sucks or that she has no talent, but that is all irrelevant when it comes to wealth. Wealth is accumulated when one is able to satisfy the needs of others. Now it makes sense why Einstein can be so much smarter and superior to Lady Gaga but why Lady Gaga is wealthier, because when it comes to satisfying the masses she is superior to Einstein. Capitalists support the weak businesses "dying out" to the strong ones because it improves the economy. It has nothing to do with who is superior. It all has to do with who is able to satisfy the needs of the people more. Bill Gates may "kill" a lot of his competitors, but this is good for the economy, and as a result better for us all. However, I make no statement about whether or not Bill Gates is superior to his competitors, that would be a non-sequitor.

There is also one more very serious problem with people who call capitalists to be social Darwinists. The common accusation says that laissez-faire capitalism was influenced by the ideas of Darwinism. But this is false. You may be surprised to learn that it was capitalism that influenced Charles Darwin, not the other way around! The "Wealth of Nations" was written by Adam Smith in 1776, the "Origin of Species" was written by Charles Darwin in 1851, that is quite a big time gap. Adam Smith introduced to the world the ideas of laissez-faire capitalism. Nowhere in his entire book did he ever advocate a form of social Darwinism. Charles Darwin was not even born yet, how can he influence Smith? Adam Smith introduced the beautiful concept of the "invisible hand", the idea that people driving for self-interest, indirectly, produce economic growth. Adam Smith was concerned for promoting for the public good and realized that the mechanism of the free market is, almost paradoxically, the best means to achieve such a goal. Smith's idea was that people striving for profits through the competitive process is what produces a strong economy. What is interesting is that Charles Darwin was influenced by this idea. Darwin realized that the similar process is at work with evolution. There is no central designer (or central governing body as Adam Smith saw) in life. Rather life has to struggle by natural selection, similar to the competitive process in the market. Life and death is a form of creative destruction where more complex life emerges, as with laissez-faire capitalism, where life and death of business is a form of creative destruction where more complex economies grow. Go here to see a nice explanation by Stephen Gould (was an evolutionary scientist) which compares Adam Smith to Charles Darwin.

I can also play the same game with social Darwinism. I can say that socialism is a form of social Darwinism. Because Adolf Hitler practiced extermination of the untermensch for the ubermensch. Of course, I will never imply that socialists are social Darwinists because that would be a ridiculous argument to make. And I hope that people who are critical of laissez-faire capitalism stop making an almost as ridiculous argument against capitalism.

1 comment:

  1. Baruch, you are invited to post at should you feel inclined.

    P.S. I know you aren't thee Baruch Spinoza. lol