Saturday, March 24, 2007

Capitalism: the Antithesis of Social Darwinism

Okay, so the following comment in response to Julian Sanchez’s phrase “the progressive version of the intelligent design fallacy” got me all riled up, and I’ve already criticized it here.
If you want to make an evolutionary argument, you have to realize that the way evolution by random mutation works is by failure. Trial and error. Lots and lots of error. Millions of kids lives would be ruined, society would collapse, and a new society billions of years from now would have evolved the innate capacity to build properly functioning schools for their multi-tentacled offspring. Or something like that. Anyway, the point is that if you want progress you can find in the newspaper rather than in the fossil record, you need intelligence.

Julian was advocating for school choice (i.e. vouchers), so I assume that this commenter is an opponent of school choice, and probably of capitalism in general. Who knows...The point is, a lot of people commit the fallacy of associating capitalism with evolution, or more specifically, Social Darwinism.
What's the easiest (and intellectually laziest) way to attack a person advocating capitalism and free markets? Accuse him of supporting Social Darwinism. Of course, such an attack is misguided at best, and actually couldn’t be further from the truth.
In a market-based system, wealth is created through innovation. In evolution/Social Darwinism, wealth is transferred to the biggest bully. Sure, at any given instance, the competition between two businesses vying for the same thing (access to some resource or customer or money) might resemble an encounter between a snake and a mongoose, but the customer ends up winning in either case because the winner of the battle must do something (such as inventing a new product that makes life easier) to win the battle for the resource.
In fact, communism—the polar opposite of capitalism—more accurately resembles Social Darwinism; the lack of incentives for innovators results in a fixed amount of wealth being fought over instead of new wealth being created (through the innovation that capitalism so uniquely fosters). Carl Milsted sums it up nicely here:
Another notorious metaphor [to capitalism] is “Social Darwinism.” It implies a tougher fight for survival in a market system. Ironically, when traditional societies become more free market based, populations tend to explode, until parents realize that their children are likely to live long lives. As far as people are concerned, capitalism is anti-Darwinian. A good case could be made that our descendants will be stupider and less hearty because capitalism has made life too easy.
There is an evolutionary aspect to capitalism, but it applies to businesses, not the people they serve. Businesses that fail to provide good service do get weeded out by competition with better businesses. But the evolutionary process is not entirely Darwinian: businesses learn. Lamarkian evolution is the norm.
Anyway, the point is this: in a market-based school system, some schools would fail, while others would succeed. But just as the consumers win when Target matches Wal-Mart’s prices and provides a more comfortable and attractive shopping environment (while other competitors like K-mart fall by the wayside), the students and parents would win if schools were pitted against each other. Sure, some schools would be closed (i.e. go out of businesses), and (gasp!) some teachers would lose their jobs. But I want bad schools to close, and I want bad teachers to lose their jobs. After all, I’m not all that concerned about the schools and the teachers; I’m concerned about the students!

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