Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ludwig von Mises Contra Social Darwinism

After Paul Ryan released his proposed budget, it was criticized by some on the left as a "moral disgrace" and by President Obama as "Social Darwinism." Jay Richards responds to that criticism by first providing some hisoriagrphy on the use of the term and then by noting how many of the staunchest proponents of the free market rejected the concept.

Richards has good reason to cite Mises, because Mises understood that the essence of the free market is not social competition, but rather social cooperation, the very thing Sesame Street kept preaching to us as little children.

As early as his 1922 book Socialism, Mises was critical of the application of Darwinian biological theory to economics. Later, in his Human Action (1949) he also specifically distinguishes between Darwinism as a biological theory and social darwinism as a sociological theory.
However, the notion of the struggle for existence as Darwin borrowed it from Malthus and applied it in his theory, is to be understood in a metaphorical sense. Its meaning is that a living being actively resists the forces detrimental to its own life. This resistance, if it is to succeed, must be appropriate to the environmental conditions in which the being concerned has to hold its own. It need not always be a war of extermination such as in rhe reiarions between men and morbific microbes. Reason has demonstrated that, for man, the most adequate means of improving his condition is social cooperation and division of labor. They are man's foremost tool in his struggle for survival (Human Action, p. 175).
Distinguishing between biological competition and social competition, Mises explains:
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 systcm 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. If we want to think of a state of affairs in which there is no social competition, w-e must construct the image of a socialist system in which the chief in his endeavors to assign to everybody his place and task in society is not aided by any ambition on the part of his subjects. The individuals are entirely indifferent and do not apply for special appointments. They behave like the stud horses which do not try to put themselves in a favorable light when the owner picks out the stallion to impregnate his best brood mare. But such people would no longer be acting men.

In a totalitarian system social competition manifests itself in the endeavors of people to court the favor of those in power. In the market economy competition manifests itself in the facts that the sellers must outdo one another by offering better or cheaper goods and services and that the buyers must outdo one another by offering higher prices. In dealing with this variety of social competition which may be called catallactic competition, we must guard ourselves against various popular fallacies (Human Action, p. 275).
The point is that a free economy is essentially on in which people cooperate in the division of labor, not a bitter, dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. By participating in the division of labor, everyone is more productive, which allows for society in general to be more productive and achieve a higher standard of living. This fosters life, prosperity, and a flourishing culture.

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