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    Social Darwinism, Capitalism and Charity

    I once made the mistake of proposing to our Rabbi that “Social Darwinism” might help explain Israel’s seemingly miraculous victories in the decades following World War II. After all, in addition to being very lucky, those that survived the Holocaust and made their way to Palestine were probably among the most persistent and enterprising of the Jews who lived in Europe before the war. It was a bad idea, or at least a highly unpopular one. I won’t try that one again here. But I will argue that a good form of Social Darwinism is alive and well in the guise of capitalism. Plus you’ll receive my even less popular critique of charity at no extra charge!

    I was reminded of this since I have recently been reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, an excellent exploration of evolution, where philosopher Daniel Dennett works hard to advocate Darwinian principals in a strong but evenhanded way. Moreover, he extends them beyond pure biology, arguing that human accomplishments like language are still the valid fruits of natural selection. That’s because 1) our abilities evolved to allow them and 2) human systems like language tend to evolve and improve with time even though no single person or group designs them, in a manner very similar to “real” evolution. But his evenhandedness does not extend to Social Darwinism, which Dennett calls “odious”, “racist” and “misapplied” without quite explaining why.

    I like and respect Dennett’s work. And I certainly do not want to be charged with racism. Still, I think economic systems can embrace Social Darwinism in a real and positive way. Perhaps these systems are a limited subset of pure Social Darwinism and the racial theories Dennett has in mind. But it seems to me that “Social Darwinism” is still the most descriptive term for them. Of course you have already guessed that by “economic systems”, I really mean “capitalism”.

    The Game that Virtually Everyone Loses

    As Dennett explains, we were created by a massive four-billion-year lottery where virtually every living thing that has ever existed was a loser. The vast majority of branches in the tree of life perish and the those remaining among the living are more incredibly lucky than words can express. Yet even those lucky few survivors (including ourselves and our progeny) are very very probably going to perish somewhere down the line, and probably sooner rather than later. The whole system depends on failure on a massive scale, something we typically find abhorrent. Dennett goes to great lengths to defend a strong form of this “dangerous idea” from the legions who would contain it within limits acceptable to their religion, morality or ego.

    So his summary dismissal of Social Darwinism was surprising to me, sort of like Luke Skywalker succumbing to the dark side. To be fair, I think he is only using the term for a particular brand of racial argument. But I believe the term should have broader application and that some other forms of Social Darwinism are both necessary and good.

    Time for a short humor break:

    Q. How many Darwinists does it take to change a light bulb?

    A. It doesn’t really matter as long as one of them survives.

    Q. What about the light bulb?

    A. You’re right, the light bulb must also survive. And while we’re at it, we should probably throw in one more survivor if we’re talking about sexual life forms.

    Q. What about Social Darwinists?

    A. Pray that none survive.

    Capitalism’s Problems

    When writing about government spending, I argued that capitalism only has winners. That everyone ends up richer than they would under a system based on socialism or fairness. But I was probably wrong and someone probably does end up poorer. Maybe not many, but at least some. After all, capitalism seems to be rooted in Darwinian style competition. Only the fittest business ideas survive and replicate themselves, producing wealth. So non-fit business must perish for capitalism to work. And that raises specter of death, which is undoubtedly the most severe form of poverty. Fortunately business death is not necessarily the same as human death. That’s the great thing about capitalism. It kills non-productive economic ideas without necessarily killing real people. They usually just have to find a new job.

    So Darwinian natural selection requires losers. But at least with capitalism, to lose is not so extreme as it with other forms of Social Darwinism, let alone real biological selection, where to lose is usually to die. Plus experience seems to indicate that capitalism mostly works where socialism mostly does not.

    There may be a worse problem with capitalism, at least from the socialist perspective. Even if few get poorer under capitalism, different people benefit the most. So for example, artists may thrive under socialism, specially if their style of art is favored by the government. But under capitalism, artists are often among society’s poorest members and may spend more time waiting on tables than creating art. Yet less deserving merchants, who after all create nothing but money, tend to thrive. Sure, (almost) no one is starving (especially with all of those artists working in restaurants). But some capitalists prosper seemingly at the expense of those who many see as society’s creative elite. I cannot contest this complaint other than to ask whether we should ever allow anyone, government, organization or person, the power to decide who best deserves society’s favors?

    Social Darwinism, the Good and the Bad

    Social Darwinism applies the mechanisms of biological evolution to human affairs. Many argue strongly that the concept of Social Darwinism is a mis-application of natural selection, and a potentially evil one. After all, the purpose of society is to allow people to work together effectively. In that way, society is the antithesis of competition. So “Social Darwinism” might be an oxymoron at best. At worst, its application might conceivably destroy civilization. While admitting these are valid concerns, I disagree.

    It seems to me that as awful as the idea sounds, social competition is a fact of human nature. Maybe if we were more ant-like, we could cooperate more perfectly and do without Social Darwinism. But we are human and do not cooperate well enough for pure cooperation to work on a large scale. Sure, we cooperate well enough that most families and maybe even clans are basically communist. But for larger groups, cooperation breaks down and competition tends to appear. In a large society, there will probably always be winners and losers. What is great about capitalism is that total wealth usually increases and losers can usually switch occupations.

    Capitalism seems to me a proper subset of Social Darwinism. It definitely involves competition for scarce economic resources and does indeed naturally allow for selection of the fittest by criteria that seem to work without intelligent intervention. And socialist economic intervention often turns out to be a lot less intelligent that we would hope.

    I agree that other subsets are possible with potentially evil consequences. Dennett’s concept of Social Darwinism as racial warfare is probably one. I would add feudalism as another. Under feudalism, if I can steal your property, then I become a “King” with divine rights and powers. Whether you become dead or just a vassal does not really matter. But the good news is that I probably need someone to farm my land (formerly yours) and so I will probably decide to keep you around for a while.

    The Rules of Capitalism

    Some would argue that kind of feudalism is exactly what happens under capitalism, but I disagree. Capitalism sets up a few rules, making it a subset of full-throttle Social Darwinism. But the rules are simple, so even imperfect socialists such as our species can usually follow them cooperatively. I claim these rules eliminate some of the worst effects of competition.

    1. We shall not kill. Life is sacrosanct.

    2. We shall not steal. Property is sacrosanct.

    3. We shall not treat life as property. Slavery is forbidden.

    4. Property must be traded or gifted on a voluntary basis. Both parties must agree for property to change hands.

    Other than these limited rules, pretty much everything else is allowed under pure capitalism. Competition becomes economic but kills almost no one. It’s the opposite of a neutron bomb, killing the infrastructure while leaving the people standing. And we tend to get pretty rich, since only the most productive economic ideas survive.

    The Problem of Charity

    However, a big problem remains. My version of capitalism is at odds with the 3,000 year old Judeo-Christian tradition of charity. Pure capitalism says we cannot kill people, but we are under no obligation to save them from starving. So most people would argue that a fifth rule must be added above. Society must provide a safety net for the less fortunate. Government must guarantee a minimum standard of prosperity.

    It seems that almost everyone agrees that we must amend capitalism to provide charity for the less fortunate. But this is a problem for me, because government-mandated charity is just another term for socialism. So if socialism does not work, then government charity must not work. But since charity is a key attribute of our most deeply held traditions, most people conclude that it is capitalism that must be limited if not eliminated.

    Can we provide a safety net without destroying the benefits of capitalism? Most would say yes, but I tend to disagree. It’s hard to argue against helping society’s less fortunate without sounding, well… uncharitable. But let me try.

    For one thing, it’s a slippery slope. How much government-mandated charity is enough? Isn’t it better to err on the side of safety and provide just a little more? Before long as the Beatles song goes, we’re back in the USSR.

    Also, why rely on government charity when private charity breaks none of the rules of pure capitalism? There is no problem as long as someone voluntarily feeds the poor. But that is not fair unless everyone is required to donate. Plus it may be insufficient, we humans being naturally selfish. So the common solution is to enforce charity through government mandates and spending.

    But that too is a problem, since all such spending is non-optimal and decreases society’s wealth. To paraphrase Milton and Rose Friedman, we tend not to spend other people’s money as wisely as our own, even if we are the beneficiary. And spending our own money for others, we may not choose as wisely as we might for ourselves. But spending other peoples’ money for the benefit of other people is the most wasteful of all. (See Free to Choose.) Government mandated charity is precisely that.

    Is Charity Charitable?

    If those were my only objections, they would probably not be enough to override millennia of pro-charity morality. So let’s try what may seem to be an outrageous argument at first. Charity is not really charitable. What I mean is that charity may typically benefit the giver more than the recipient. Sure, wealth is exchanged in one direction. But prestige and self respect flow the other way. And given the nearly universal human hunger for self respect (explained quite eloquently by Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”), I claim the recipient of charity is usually the overall loser.

    I believe anthropologists have discovered other cultures who knew this truth better than we do. As I remember from one long-ago undergraduate course, the “potlatch” customs of many Native Americans openly acknowledged that the giver’s prestige normally weighs heavily against the recipient. As Wikipedia puts it, “The Status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The host demonstrates their wealth and prominence through giving…”

    So, “it is better to give than to receive” may literally be the truth. Maybe charity is not the universal boon that our tradition preaches.

    Let’s take an extreme case, donations of food to keep starving children alive in some ravaged country. Very few would argue that such donations are evil and I tremble at the thought of trying. Such donations do preserve life in the short term. But they may also encourage the kind of evil in societies that leads to such human degradation. Evil governments can get away with more if they know the world will bail them out.

    Plus I’ll claim the recipients are further degraded by our donations and so may be less likely to right the wrongs around them. After all, they are in a much better position to de-ravage their environment than we are, because they are the interested party. By allowing them to become dependant on our charity, we may be sapping their will to fight injustice. That means we may doom them to long term poverty and victimhood.

    Yet we are undoubtedly keeping at least some alive in the short run and that makes for a pretty sticky dilemma. Still maybe it’s time to admit that our tradition is questionable at best and may be plain wrong in at least some cases. Charity perversely stratifies society between givers and receivers, rich and poor, rulers and proletariat.

    A more charitable approach might be a less stratified society without charity. Of course there would still be the rich and poor, and the rich might well be even richer without government mandated charity. But required charity destroys some of society’s wealth, yet perversely also destroys the self-esteem and ultimately the will of the “favored” underclass. That makes charity a potential lose-lose situation.

    Plus our ethic of charity is probably the biggest objection to capitalism, a system that has otherwise proved to be a pretty good thing for the societies that have openly embraced it. All in all, it seems to me that maybe we can do without the charity. Certainly, we would be better off without forms of charity mandated by government or society, which spend someone else’s money on someone else and may ultimately harm that someone else to boot.

    This may be my most unpopular idea of them all. After all it is uncharitable by definition. The very word “charity” means goodness in our culture. But that is what makes it interesting.

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    Reader Comments (4)

    Your article hits on a lot of ideas which I agree with, but few authors are willing to address head-on. Your take on social darwinism lays out the facts without unnecessarily sugar-coating the way things are. While your perspective on charity is undoubtedly unpopular, you raise many valid and compelling points that an open-minded reader could take to heart. Great post!

    November 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterChris Ballance

    The more I read your blog, the more I like the way you think. But I humbly suggest that capitalism and socialism are not mutually exclusive systems. Even the process of evolution, whose similarities to capitalism you have noted, has found cause to cultivate the charitable impulse in human beings. There is value in cooperation and sacrifice as well as competition. The very existence of language underscores the importance of cooperation to our place in the food chain.

    I believe one of the reasons democracies like ours have thrived is because we have insured that both economic philosophies get equal time. So long as the pendulum swings both left and right, the machine keeps working without needing the gears oiled in blood. If the pendulum swings too far left, the incentive to win is lost, entropy grips the economy and everyone loses. Too far right, and wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, until the losers begin to form large torch-wielding mobs that vastly outnumber the winners. Either way, just about everybody loses. But keeping the pendulum swinging to and fro insures that wealth flows both ways, and everyone wins.

    Not all games are zero-sum.

    May 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFritz

    Competition does not lead to better animals in nature any more than it leads to better products in buisness. Bigger Male Elephant Seals for example, have grown big enough to be good at just winning fights and repoducing. Their individual lives are shorter and less healthy than the smaller males they replace in the gene pool.

    September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJim

    I wouldn't say that capitalism doesn't kill anyone. After all, our defense industry makes it very profitable to have wars, which inevitability kill civilians, including children. Because our Federal elections cost so much money, they are for sale to the highest bidder, and corporations like GE, Halliburton, etc. can afford to be the highest bidders. Even Eisenhower, a Republican, warned us of this long ago. I find it troubling that corporations have become legal human beings, afforded all the same rights as individual human beings. Also, our fire fighters and police comprise a socialist economic structure. Should we do away with them and go the feudal route where only the wealthy corporations can hire their own armies of police and fire fighters? And what of China, a capitalist economy that is also totalitarian? And Pinochet's regime? And then the Scandinavian countries, which are economically socialist, yet democratic? Socialism and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Socialism is an economic system (really economic democracy) and democracy a political system. Capitalism as an economic system seem more analogous to aristocracy (monarchies) or plutocracy, not democracy or democratic republics where every citizen is afforded a baseline of political power (one vote) and should be afforded a baseline of economic power, i.e. life (health care), and the general welfare: food, housing, education, and health care. A healthy, educated country is economically stronger than one where only the rich few can afford those benefits. All social species had to evolve instincts for cooperation because a cooperative collective was stronger and more able to survive and carry on its DNA than an anti-social individualist species, a species of sociopaths basically. To my knowledge, we are a social species with a instinct for altruism. Science is recently discovering this, linking levels of dopamine to altruism (University of Israel).

    November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

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