Are you not hearing pundits associating a liberal society, free trade, and generally ‘the market’ to Social Darwinism? The latest example comes from no less than the President of the United States. In a speech to a gathering of newspaper editors last week, President Obama accused his opponents of “thinly veiled Social Darwinism”. The theory teaches that evolution is a cosmic struggle in which the strong overcome the weak. As human generations unfold, the unfit among us get no chance to reproduce, whilst the strong survive, have progeny, and ensure our species’ gradual progress. To aid the poor, the weak and the disabled, distorts that healthy and natural selection. What claptrap! As David Gordon, the author of An Introduction to Economic Reasoning, notes (after Kropotkin and others): “Darwin did not teach that human evolution depends on ruthless struggle. To the contrary, he emphasized the importance of social unity and collaboration. ‘Selfish and contentious people will not cohere,’ Darwin declared, and without coherence, what could be effected?”
You won’t find a more radical herald of free markets than Murray Rothbard. “If the Social Darwinists’ idea,” wrote this outspoken libertarian economist and philosopher, “is that the unfit are being protected by modern medicine and philanthropy, and are debilitating the race by being permitted to live and have children… the mere statement of it exposes it as obvious bilge.”
Let’s push the reasoning further. Even if all that discourse about survival of the fittest and rugged individualism accurately described evolution, and it doesn’t, why should it guide our behaviour? Even if we knew the aim of biological evolution, and we don’t (assuming it exists), what is the value in attaining it? Sheer luck played the biggest part in determining who survived since the beginning of life; and mere survival is hardly evidence of high moral qualities.
Darwin held Malthus’s views on the struggle for existence in high regard. Not so Malthus’s friend and critic, David Ricardo. The law of comparative advantage, which Ricardo identified, one of the few valid ones in economics, confirms not only the benefits of the division of labour, but adds a twist Adam Smith had missed: Even those who are the most productive in every field (the ‘fittest’ and ‘strongest’) have interest in an association with the less able. A baker takes an assistant; a dentist hires a secretary; a company outsources its textile manufacturing in a poor country. The baker, the dentist, the company, could perform the less skilled work themselves, obviously. But they want to concentrate on high-value tasks. The market’s incentive is not to seek a profit, but the maximum profit. And for that reason, everyone is needed and invited to cooperate.