Is Capitalism a Game of the Survival of the Fittest?

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By Dale B. Halling

December 1, 2015



Is Social Darwinism, especially as portrayed by the image of gladiators slugging it out, good biology or good economics? If evolution were a process in which the ‘goal’ was to destroy other species and then destroy all competitors within the species, life would have burned out long ago.

It is quite common to be in a discussion about economics and proposing a capitalist solution when someone pipes-in “that’s just survival of the fittest.” What they are talking about is “Social Darwinism” and the image they mean to conjure up is that capitalism is like a bunch of gladiators fighting it out to the death until there is just one winner. Unfortunately, this tends to trip many of us because we often say that capitalism is about competition and that competition is what makes America great. In fact some mainstream economists (e.g. University of Chicago– see Pure and Perfection Competition: By What Standard?) have gone so far as to say the very definition of capitalism is ‘perfect competition.’ Conversely, George Reisman has shown that ‘perfect competition’ is really collectivism in the article Platonic Competition. The lack of competition conjures up images of people living under socialism waiting in a line to buy one-size-fits-all black boots.

Social Darwinism refers to a group of ideas that relate to sociology, economics, and eugenics that are supposedly extensions of Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution. Herbert Spencer is considered the father of Social Darwinism and he was the one, not Darwin, who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest.’ Spencer defended capitalism based on Social Darwinism. However, plenty of socialists including the National Socialist Party in Germany also used the ideas of Social Darwinism to support their version of eugenics.

Is Social Darwinism, especially as portrayed by the image of gladiators slugging it out, good biology or good economics? If evolution were a process in which the ‘goal’ was to destroy other species and then destroy all competitors within the species, life would have burned out long ago. The ‘goal’ of life and evolution is to convert as much energy into life as possible. By ‘goal’ here I mean the logical end result of the natural process of evolution, not that there is a conscious objective of individuals. Evolution is an optimizing system that selects those life forms that are best at converting energy in life in a variety of different environments. This results in a variety of different life forms. Even within a relatively uniform environment, the way to optimize the total amount of life is to have a variety of organisms that can exploit different sources of energy.

In economics the goal is not to have 500 firms creating model Ts, it is to have 500 firms all creating unique high value items (If everyone produced the same thing, what would be the point of trade?).  Human life, and then wealth, as we escape the Malthusian Trap, increases as we create more inventions that allow us to live in different climates for instance, or exploit new resources, just as different species maximize the amount of life. I do not want to make the same thing as my neighbor. I want him to make something that is of incredibly high value to me and I want to make something that is of incredibly high value to him.  We want competition to flourish because we don’t want to allow someone to become lazy (rent seeking), and freeride on the efforts of others. But competition is not what makes us wealthy.

I think the 100 meter dash is a good example of what competition (pure competition or competition for the same product) can accomplish. In 1891 the world record was 10.8 seconds. Today it is 9.57 or about a 13% gain. This kind of gain would not support the quadrupling of human population over the same period of time.

A person’s wealth is not increased by destroying other people’s productive capacity. Social Darwinism as encapsulated in the statement ‘survival of the fittest’ is bad biology and bad economics; it’s even a poor gaming strategy in competitive games.

The goal of an economy is to increase the total wealth. A person’s wealth is not increased by destroying other people’s productive capacity. In fact, the wealthiest countries are those in which people are engaged in a wide variety of high-value activities and the poorest countries are those in which people are competing in a small number of industries. The way these high-value positions are created is by inventions that create whole new industries.

Interestingly, the online site, Avid Gamer Rants Dot Com, has shown that a number of games that appear to be setup with a ‘winner take all’ goal can often be ‘won’ most successfully, by rational cooperation rather than by eliminating other players. Game Theory seems to support this as this essay, “New take on game theory offers clues on why we cooperate,” explains. For instance, in both Minecraft and Monopoly your chances of being successful increase, if instead of trying to kill off your fellow players, you collaborate with other players.

Social Darwinism as encapsulated in the statement ‘survival of the fittest’ is bad biology and bad economics; it’s even a poor gaming strategy in competitive games.



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  • Robin Craig

    Interesting take on the question, which set me to thinking. We can indeed think of capitalism as “survival of the fittest” – but as with survival of the fittest in nature, the question is “who is the fittest?”

    To answer that question, we have to consider what determines fitness. Even in nature it is not always the strongest or most vicious – in fact, it usually isn’t. For proof – look at us. We are the dominant species on earth, and we are neither the strongest nor the most vicious. Just the smartest.

    So what about Capitalism? It takes no more than a few seconds’ thought to explode myths of “capitalism red in tooth and claw”. The only way for an enterprise to succeed under capitalism is by providing goods to other people at prices such that they prefer buying those goods to whatever else they might have done with their money. It is inherently benevolent: inherently offering value for value and rewarding productivity and creativity. It is only under statism – the system favoured by every critic of capitalism – that wealth is obtained by force.

    • BMOC

      I agree that the fittest is not always the strongest and most vicious (especially since they are quite subjective terms), however I completely disagree with the idea that our species is proof of this. Are we not strong and vicious? Do we not exact upon each other atrocities the likes of which are not seen from other species? Do we not slaughter in their billions other species, tear down their habitats, inflict upon them incredibly suffering all for our own selfish gain? We do, on a scale that is hard to comprehend. Human beings are incredibly cruel, and incredibly ruthless, and a large number of our kind take great pleasure in dominating and hurting others. It’s not an either/or proposition, you’re not either a) altruistic or b) selfish – we are both depending on what suits us best.

      • Robin Craig

        We do absolutely nothing other species don’t also do. We are just more numerous as well as more efficient. As proof you are wrong, tell me how many cats, lions, hyenas, packs of wild dogs and orcas give a hoot about what they do to other species – whereas *you* do.

        • BMOC

          Tell me how many cats, lions, hyenas, or packs of wild dogs have ushered thousands of their own kind into gas chambers, set up rape camps, held each other captive and visited repeated torture upon each other? The point is, we are in fact the strongest and the most vicious, and that is why we are so numerous (but in fact not the most numerous species as you incorrectly imply), and probably why we are the only members of the genus Homo that still walk the planet. You are right, we are more efficient, because we are intelligent, but you’ve got your head in the sand if you think human beings aren’t capable of incredible cruelty, and that this side of us doesn’t play our on a large scale with great frequency. I assume you are white, middle or upper class and live in the west, as do I, which makes it easy to forget this. Many in other parts of the world are reminded of it every day.

          You may be right that I do care about the plight of other species, and perhaps the predators you mention do not. But this doesn’t seem to stop my species from killing thousands of other species when we clear their forests – leaving many to die horrible deaths, or trawl the oceans, or rip young male calves from their mothers and slaughter them so that the mothers keep producing milk for us, or buying cheap fur products from animals that are skinned alive in china, etc, etc, etc. When was the last time you were awake at night over the guilt of the suffering our species has visited upon other species? I think you should go to youtube and type in PETA if you want to find out the kind of things we do to other species, and you’ll realise that we are in fact far more cruel than cats, lions, hyenas, or packs of wild dogs. I’d also advise you to turn on the news once in a while and get a reality check about the horrible stuff we do to each other.

          You’re living in a fantasy land.

          • Robin Craig

            If you wish to speak of fantasy, I simply suggest you and PETA go live on the Serengeti for a year without benefit of any products of modern civilisation, then come back and talk to me.

          • BMOC

            You’ve immediately assumed that I’m anti-progress, but I didn’t say that, and it has nothing to do with the original argument. I’ll re-summarise to get you back on track:

            You’re argument was that cats, lions, hyenas, packs of wild dogs and orcas don’t “give a hoot” about what they do to other species, and that in contrast homo sapiens do “give a hoot”.

            In response to that argument I’ve given you examples of how we do things that are much worse to other species (and our own) than what cats, lions, hyenas, packs of wild dogs or orcas do. This is evidence that in fact, we don’t “give a hoot”.

            In response, you have actually supported my point by displaying indifference to these acts of cruelty and suggesting that they are justified to progress our own species agenda.

            We are the strongest and most vicious species.

  • lawlesslatvia

    Adam Smith observed in “The Wealth of Nations” that economic success and biological success weren’t related. I recall his example of a skinny rich English woman having no children and a big poor Scottish woman having lots of children.

  • Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.

    Social Darwinism is just a form of collectivism with the top guy ruling over
    everyone else as in the greatest man ruling over the lesser man. It is a
    way of trying to justify the idea that might makes right and that he
    who can rule over others by force ought to get the finest pickings of
    society. However, if we look at history we can see that those times and
    those places where rule by force was the rule of the land no one
    prospered much, not even the rulers. One cannot get the finer things in
    life with the idea that everyone ought to rule over anyone he can. It is
    only freedom that can build a society in which all can win.

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  • Jerry Biggers

    It is difficult to find a thinker more maligned and distorted than Ayn Rand,….but Herbert Spencer certainly was!
    Leftist historian Richard Hofstadter managed (or should I say, “mangled”) to distort Spencer in a manner that successfully assigned his works to oblivion, in his unfortunately very successful book, “Social Darwinism in American Thought.” He got away with this partly, because so few were reading Herbert Spencer’s works by the time that book was published (1944) in contrast to the 19th century when his books sold in the millions (no exaggeration)..

    Any similarity between Hofstadter’s rewrite of Spencer and the real Spencer in his “Social Statics,” “The Man Versus The State,” and for that matter his entire oeuvre, as in “Principles of Sociology” and “The Study of Sociology” is purely coincidental and not intentional on Hofstadter’s part. See for example the essay, “Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?” included in George H. Smith’s book, “Ayn Rand, Atheism, and Other Heresies,” and likely his forthcoming book on Spencer to be published by the Cato Institute.