Social Darwinism, the mainstay of political philosophy known as libertarianism, would have us believe that competition provides us with the gist of the evolutionary principle at work, a naturally acquired trait which explains the survival of the individual, the species, even the society at large. This philosophy is buttressed at times by appeals to biblical if not moral themes, to “industriousness” and the “just desserts” kind of thing, and capitalism emerges as the predominant mode of production, the heart of the economic system at work: those who control the capital and, by extension, the labor of others, are either morally or intellectually superior and, in representing thus the higher rung of moral or evolutionary development, are justified on those very grounds; and the cosmic order (again, either moral or evolutionary) is being preserved. In The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber offers a penetrating analysis of the religious impulse and how it forges both the objective fact and the subjective belief. Frédéric Bastiat’s life and works are devoted to providing the justification.
As an aside, the political philosophy which goes by the name of liberalism represents an improvement. It can’t do away with competition as the key principle which governs human affairs, economic or otherwise. It can’t do so because it takes capitalism for granted and, in so doing, it is, in effect, an ideological justification of capitalism. The improvement comes in the form of offering protection, mostly by way of countermeasures, juridical-legalistic in character and political in origin – a mitigating factor, as it were, designed for the express purpose of keeping the capitalist predatory practices in check. It’s the first time in the history of humankind, I daresay, that the State is posited as an ever-present counterbalance to an economic system in place, to its potentially deleterious effects, more precisely.
That’s the dubious legacy of liberalism, this constant butting of heads between institutions political and economic while all along, mind you, the symbiotic relationship between the two flourishes. In the best case scenario, the result is a stalemate. In the worst, when the state overplays its hand and goes extreme, the result is “statism.”
As another aside, I should state that liberalsm, as I have defined it, is a step down from the vision elucidated by Adam Smith, the original polemicist on behalf of the capitalist system. To his credit, Smith spoke of “moral sentiment” as the necessary ingredient, of regulation only secondarily. And whilst it’s true that liberalism pays lip service to the former, denouncing pure and outright greed, it doesn’t take a moral stance. Just like with competition, greed, too, is taken for granted as the natural order of things, as part and parcel of the human condition, the only thing to do is to control it. Regulation is the main thrust.
I shan’t argue here with the likes of Bastiat who see in the advent of capitalism the realization of a just world order. I’m well aware it’s a popular sentiment among some, but I’m also convinced it makes a farce of what I understand as morality or moral outlook. To regard the poor and the downtrodden as in some way deserving of their miserly condition is not only cruel but downright immoral. Just because you managed to pull yourself by your own bootstraps, it doesn’t mean everyone can; and to hold it against those who haven’t flies in the face of charity. So let those who think so stew in their own juice, is my response.
It’s a different matter, however, when it comes to the evolutionary principle, when reduced, that is, to competition as the decisive element in determining the outcome of human affairs. Not only is it couched in relatively speaking morally-neutral terms, circumventing thus the usually ugly and inconclusive debate concerning justification; it’s also uniquely productive in admitting the positing of viable alternatives.
Altruism is one such alternative to competition as the all-definitive, if not vulgar, expression of the evolutionary principle, and it’s not without credence among evolutionists (Richard Dawkins, for instance) and sociobiologists (E. O. Wilson) alike. Apparently, David Sloan Wilson, the author of The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, belongs to the same line of thinkers.
I’ll conclude in Part III.