Mises and Social Darwinism

It’s often claimed that support for the free market rests on the ideology of social Darwinism. According to this nefarious doctrine, Charles Darwin showed that evolution is a process of struggle. In it, the strong, meaning those best able to reproduce, supplant the weak. Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, it is alleged, applied evolutionary theory to support the free market. If the poor did not fare well, their situation should not be deplored or remedied. The victory of the strong over the weak is a law of nature, and to endeavor to combat it is futile.

One way to respond is to claim that social Darwinism is a myth, largely concocted by the historian Richard Hofstadter in his book Social Darwinism in American Thought. The journalist Jonathan Goldberg adopts this line, but for reasons I’ve stated elsewhere, it’s a mistake. There really were social Darwinists, who defended capitalism in just the way indicated above.

A better way to counter the claim that capitalism rests on the ideology of social Darwinism is to show that Spencer and Sumner, the supposed chief figures of this line of thought, do not advocate it. In a recent column, I attempt this task for Sumner.

Mises adopts a characteristically insightful standpoint on this issue. He is strongly committed to Darwinism, but, he says, the social Darwinists draw the wrong lessons from evolution. They are right that, aside from human beings in the past several thousand years, evolution is a struggle in which the strong overcome the weak. But the onset of the division of labor changes things. With its onset, the key to evolutionary success is peaceful cooperation between the weak and the strong.

As Mises puts this point in Human Action,

Yet nature does not generate peace and good will. The characteristic mark of the “state of nature” is irreconcilable conflict. Each specimen is the rival of all other specimens. The means of subsistence are scarce and do not grant survival to all. The conflicts can never disappear. If a band of men, united with the object of defeating rival bands, succeeds in annihilating its foes, new antagonisms arise among the victors over the distribution of the booty. The source of the conflicts is always the fact that each man’s portion curtails the portions of all other men.

What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. It removes the natural conflict of interests. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement. Thanks to the higher productivity of labor performed under the division of tasks, the supply of goods multiplies. A preeminent common interest, the preservation and further intensification of social cooperation, becomes paramount and obliterates all essential collisions. Catallactic competition is substituted for biological competition. It makes for harmony of the interests of all members of society. The very condition from which the irreconcilable conflicts of biological competition arise—viz., the fact that all people by and large strive after the same things—is transformed into a factor making for harmony of interests. Because many people or even all people want bread, clothes, shoes, and cars, large-scale production of these goods becomes feasible and reduces the costs of production to such an extent that they are accessible at low prices. The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier. What enhances the price of shoes is the fact that nature does not provide a more ample supply of leather and other raw material required, and that one must submit to the disutility of labor in order to transform these raw materials into shoes. The catallactic competition of those who, like me, are eager to have shoes makes shoes cheaper, not more expensive. (pp. 669–70)

To reiterate, there is for Mises an antithesis between biological competition and social competition. In biological competition, people struggle against each other; in social or catallactic competition, more people does not mean greater struggle. The division of labor means that people benefit each other. As Mises says,

In nature there prevail irreconcilable conflicts of interests. The means of subsistence are scarce. Proliferation tends to outrun subsistence. Only the fittest plants and animals survive. The antagonism between an animal starving to death and another that snatches the food away from it is implacable.

Social cooperation under the division of labor removes such antagonisms. It substitutes partnership and mutuality for hostility. The members of society are united in a common venture.

The term competition as applied to the conditions of animal life signifies the rivalry between animals which manifests itself in their search for food. We may call this phenomenon biological competition. Biological competition must not be confused with social competition, i.e., the striving of individuals to attain the most favorable position in the system of social cooperation. As there will always be positions which men value more highly than others, people will strive for them and try to outdo rivals. Social competition is consequently present in every conceivable mode of social organization…. Catallactic competition is emulation between people who want to surpass one another. It is not a fight, although it is usual to apply to it in a metaphorical sense the terminology of war and internecine conflict, of attack and defense, of strategy and tactics. Those who fail are not annihilated; they are removed to a place in the social system that is more modest, but more adequate to their achievements than that which they had planned to attain. (pp. 273–74)

Mises doesn’t think that it is always true that, once people have discovered the benefits of the division of labor, the more people the better. He is a Malthusian who thinks that there is an optimum level of population. But it is safe to say that such a point will not be reached for a very long time to come.