[October 23, 2003]

Capitalism and Survival of the Weakest

By Wayne Dunn

Capitalism is sometimes disparaged as "dog eat dog," a system of "cutthroat" competition and "survival of the fittest."

Such characterizations, however, have little to do with truth.

"Dog eat dog" better describes conditions under anti-capitalist regimes. During one of the recent famines in communist North Korea, for example, there were reports of humans eating humans; doggie cannibalism would be an improvement.

It seems that both man and man's best friend fare best under capitalism.

As do the weak.

Take Christopher Reeve, for example. Who could be less fit for survival than he, a quadriplegic? Yet if not for the technical wonders of capital and industry, he’d have died the day of his accident.

But we needn't consider only extremes.

Take an average problem, flawed vision, say. What would be a major disadvantage for someone in a primitive, survival-of-the-fittest culture is little more than a minor inconvenience for us. Indeed, companies competing to improve people’s sight offer glasses, contacts, even laser surgery.

Such is the nature of business competition.

Oh, but that doesn’t hush critics. "What about all the jobs lost in this 'cutthroat' rivalry?" they yap.

Well, anyone who feels it's unfair we tend to spend our money on goods and services we prefer instead of on those we don't, is perfectly free to put his wallet where his feelings are. For instance, in the name of "saving jobs" at vulnerable companies, he's free to sacrifice for them-- to patronize restaurants with the worst food, gas stations with the highest prices, stores with the shoddiest merchandise, dry cleaners with the least convenient locales and so forth. 

But such sacrifice is unnecessary. When a business folds, the owners and employees don't perish. No one's throat gets cut. They simply must find work consumers will reward.

If, say, a shirt manufacturer goes belly-up -- due to inefficiency, cheap foreign labor, or whatever-- it's not as if the workers of the defunct shirt factory have to go topless. They too can benefit from the lower-priced or higher-quality clothes their former rivals sell.

A larger scale example, when the automobile's advent kicked the horse-drawn carriage to the curb, ex-blacksmiths and buggy-makers didn't starve. No, they too could work in a Ford plant and even buy a car. The industry that killed their vocation prospered them in the long run. The "little guy" won big.

The "strong" raising the living standard of the "weak" is a feature of capitalism few grasp the extent of, but one which economist Ludwig von Mises illuminated decades ago. He has shown, for instance, that since businesspeople want the most productive workers in positions most profitable for the company, the least productive face less competition for the jobs for which they’re qualified. 

For example, a hotel manager might be capable of outperforming anyone on her cleaning staff at the task of housekeeping. Yet because she was free to rise to a level commensurate with her skills, job-seekers qualified to do nothing more than clean rooms will never have to compete against her for a housekeeping position; the market moved her out of their way, benefiting all.

Thus, capitalism gives everyone -- particularly the "weakest"-- the best shot not merely of surviving but thriving.

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© COPYRIGHT 2003 by Wayne Dunn