How Capitalism Threatens Your Health
By Julian Edney
04 April, 2006
The main event in capitalist free markets is the creation of wealth. The other event is the creation of inequality. Under principles of laissez faire this is not so much a tradeoff, a positive for a negative, as it is two positives. Inequality, the natural outcome of competition, is a sign of healthy struggle on which the whole community is said to thrive.
In corporate philosophy the mission of business is to maximize profit. To that end it values efficiency over almost everything, including moral considerations. The parent philosophy, utilitarianism, does not care if some people suffer injustices if a greater good shows up later. (In fact some have drawn "indifference curves" showing various gradients of inequality among humans, suggesting the more equality, the fewer total satisfactions (1)).
The industrial revolutions raised Western nations to massive wealth. Their stories can be written as a history of progress, and that is the outward appearance. But their entrails also ran with strikes, rights actions, antitrust decisions and labor strife; at times the creation of wealth ruined people. Free marketers will still explain labor mutinies as envious workers bent on random wreckage. But these actions all targeted massive inequalities.
Yesterday's and today's conservatives both say inequality is not bad if it comes from a free and fair market. They explain that where you land in the economic struggle for survival depends on your abilities, intelligence or character, so the blame for pain must be laid on the individual. Actually, some go further and hold inequality and injustice to be in the nature of things, so installing ethics or equity is tampering with natural law and its Darwinian ways, and it's not a good idea to help weaker players or the less talented because that slows natural selection.
The nub is that free markets and equality are opposed.
Next, what laissez faire tries to promote also collides with the two prime values of democracy: freedom and equality. They are the two legs on which democracy walks; the goal is therefore to preserve both.
Louis Brandeis, who as Supreme Court Justice before and after World War I inserted himself in the midst of these struggles, said that we can have democracy or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both (2).
Working conditions have improved of course. We no longer use child labor, nor fourteen hour shifts, nor do we pay workers the absolute minimum they will accept. But every one of these reforms was contested, fought, litigated, and intensely lobbied, because it is not in the nature of laissez faire business owners to want what is moral or humane. They want profit.
The basic colors of this conflict have never changed. The arguments that nature is ruthless and cannot be changed and that poverty results from inability or weak character still abound. The rest of society is concerned with morality every day. But businesses are amoral, following utilitarianism, and so we have collisions. (Cardinal Ratzinger once presented the church's moral position in this chronic conflict (3)). In this part of history we are on a rightward swing of the pendulum. Union power is at a low ebb, and corporate culture, materialism, and big money all seem formidable. People struggling for social justice have reason to fear because laissez faire and Social Darwinism are rising again (4).
Free market capitalism continues on its fundamentally undemocratic course. The interior landscape of most corporations is authoritarian, often exploitative. As a kind of public relations gesture they regularly serve us those well-chewed paradoxes: that competition is good for everybody, and that what is bad (the unhappiness of poverty) is good because it's a spur. Third, that making wealth by these competitive means raises everybody.
But common observation shows that competition is not good for everyone, only the winners; that what is bad is not good; and that unhappiness is not a source of energy, it is depressing. And while this country gets richer it grows more unequal (this has been going on since1774 (5)). So does the free market lift the whole of society up? It does not. It spreads the upper and the lower apart. (We may have wondered about these tricks of reason, but laissez-faire is a powerful ideology, and under its spell we somehow accept that wheels on the same axle can turn in different directions.)
The bigger the unfettered free market, the less equal we become. And poor people cannot change this, because even if dependable and hardworking, they are powerless.
But now a new player has stepped in. New scientific evidence has been accumulating that inequality itself is bad for our health. It's not so much the qualities of the individual. Nor what he does. It is the system. It's the shape of the community he lives in hierarchical or egalitarian.
After years of collecting health data, Ichiro Kawachi in the U.S.(6), Richard Wilkinson in Britain (7) and John Lynch in the U.S. (8) and their associates have discovered that more lethal than cigarettes, obesity, alcohol, pollution, AIDS, vehicle accidents, suicides and homicides, is the gradient of inequality in our societies.
This finding was unexpected and earlier researchers published and stood waiting for confirmation. Over ten years, confirmation came. Now more than 30 studies show that if you live in an unequal society, you run the risk of a shorter, unhealthier life and your environment is more violent. In researchers' comparisons of the 50 states, social equality is correlated with life expectancy (9, 10), and the steepness of the inequality predicts homicide rates and a raft of social ills. It's not just poverty (separately, poverty is correlated with poor health).
When you compare nations, on the other hand, richer nations don't have the longer life expectancies; egalitarian nations do. Robert Sapolksy, in his recent Scientific American article (11), teases out the mediating factors: it seems that people in communities having higher 'social capital' (the degree to which residents trust each other and participate in social groups) experience better health, longer lives and less violence. It turns out that communities with high social capital are also more egalitarian.
In short, each community has a social gradient. The steeper the gradient, the more that community is a killer. We can expect this new scientific evidence to be resisted with every sinew--it runs frontally against our free market beliefs. The United States is one of the most unequal nations in the world. Over 40% of the wealth is owned by only 1% of the population. This is a terrible weapon in the hands of the rich.
If we want to improve our health--something that obsesses Americans--it is clear what we must do. We must find a way to raise both affluence and equality.
Julian Edney is the author of Greed: a Treatise in Two Essays. Born in Uganda, he now teaches college in southern California and can be contacted through his website.
1. Rawls, J. A theory of justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 32-34.
2. Brandeis actually went more inclusive at one point, stating that curbing bigness was essential to democracy. Strum, P. (Ed) Brandeis on democracy. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
3. Razinger, J., Cardinal (now Pope Benedict XVI) Market Economy and Ethics was presented at a 1985 symposium "Church and Economy in Dialogue" in Rome and can be retrieved at http://www.acton.org/publicat/occasionalpapers/ratzinger.html
4. Edney, J.J. Greed: A treatise in two essays. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, 2005. See Greed II.
5. It appears in 1774 the top 1% owned 14.6% of the national wealth.~ By 1989 it owned 36.3%. In Gordon J.S. "Numbers game," 1992, Forbes, October 9. p. 48.
6. Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B.P. and Wilkinson, R.G. (Eds.) The society and population health reader. New York: The New Press, 1999.
7. Wilkinson, R.G. The impact of inequality. New York: The New Press, 2005.
8. Lynch, J. and G.A. Kaplan. Understanding how inequality in the distribution of income affects health. In Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B.P. and Wilkinson, R.G. (Eds.) The society and population health reader. New York: The New Press, 1999. p. 202.
9. Kawachi, I. and Kennedy, B.P. The relationship of income inequality to mortality: Does the choice of indicator matter? In Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B.P. and Wilkinson, R.G. (Eds.) The society and population health reader. New York: The New Press, 1999. p. 112.
10. Sapolsy, R. Sick of poverty. Scientific American, 2005, 293, 92-99. (December 2005).
- Essay -
Is exploitation wrong?
by Julian Edney
This is not the first time the nation has produced dramatic economic inequalities. What are very wealthy people like? The everyday world of work vs. values of democracy. How assumption of self-interest leads to fear in the workplace. Freedom, the illusion of freedom, coercion. Exploitation. Credit cards. Meritocracy. Sociopaths. Corporations and the economic justification for the damage they do. Historically we are emerging from an era with no clear ideology, but an era in which materialism and business has expanded powerfully and internationally, and out of the vacuum two old, discredited ideologies, laissez-faire and Social Darwinism appear to be rising again in modern guise. These ideologies are still flawed; the first (contained in modern Libertarianism) vigorously promotes freedom but ignores justice and is indifferent toward democracy. The second is supported by science, is disinterested in humane values and accommodates exploitation as part of the nature of things. The search for a modern economic theory closer to reality. Is this a society of individuals rationally maximizing happiness? Andrews’s view: at least among the disadvantaged, it is a political economy of hope and fear. (1)
Looking for morning news, I click on my computer. My internet service flashes with color, the biggest houses, the biggest jewelry, the most expensive toys.
The internet’s financial press waxes muscular.
Television is the same. The media are a river of adulation for all this glitter and the people who own it.
School textbooks carry a similar message. Despite setbacks, the economy is ever expanding, its power is unparalleled, we are now spreading free market capitalism around the globe, bringing unimagined wealth and improvement to mud-level nations and countries sucked out by socialism, raising everybody, because that’s what capitalism does.
Has everybody been raised here?
Actually, with talk of equality written into this nation’s founding papers, the scenery never looks right. The contrast between rich and poor grows, and this year has been no exception. As an acquaintance on the street puts it: every year there are more homeless people and every year the limousines get longer.
If the stated goal of the system was to gradually create inequality, it might also claim success.
We barely notice because we are adjusted. But if you are a foreign visitor, how does this nation show? A svelte Scottsdale, of course. Disneyland, of course. The flamboyant homes of the film stars. Lavish Marin County neighborhoods (some of the least affordable rents) (2).
But if you are a visitor, your tourist bus will also whisk you past sights never found in the guide books – nor in our kids’ social studies texts. Neighborhoods awash in shootings (1,200 gun injuries in South Los Angels alone last year (3)); square miles of city filled with houses with barred windows, chaotic schools, downtown blocks of sweatshops; whole neighborhoods sunk in semi-literacy, drugs, gangs, fear; and our nightmarish jails (4). Not everybody looks like they have been raised.
The numbers show a radically skewed society. Rather than pages of numbing statistics, I’ll sketch a couple of facts, the first from sociologist Steven Rose. If you drew a line on a building three stories high to represent the distance between the lowest and the highest family income, the average (median) income sits at only 10.5 inches off the ground and half the nation is clumped below that (5). Second, despite the prodigious numbers of poor, housing for them is so scarce that of the 3,141 counties in the United States, in only 4 can a person making minimum wage afford a one-bedroom apartment (6).
I believe this imbalance mauls the national psyche because the media repeatedly show us images of people and places from the beautiful upper stretches of that vertical line. In the comparison, thrown at us daily, most of us lose.
This nation equates decency with wealth and indecency with poverty. These media images also create floods of anxiety. Being “less than,” being poor, carries a stigma. Another sociologist thinks we are so materialistic, poverty now actually carries the shame that cowardice carried in earlier, warrior times (7).
And actually if the economy is on fire, we have some funny facts.
The dollar has dropped to a fraction of what it was worth thirty years ago. No amount of policy tinkering has been able to stop manufacturing’s chronic decline. The national trade deficit is at an all time high (meaning roughly, if it’s foreign made we want to own it). Personal debt has reached swaggering amounts. And bankruptcies have ballooned, now running 1.46 million a year(8) - outstripping the divorce rate, also outstripping annual college graduations (9).
Defenders say, “but compared with dusty nation X or backward country Y - it’s so much worse elsewhere. We are the envy of the world.”
When we compare nations, we should keep in mind who we are comparing. Every third world nation has a middle class, no matter how small, with houses, and those folks are still better off than our hordes of homeless. And our wealth inequalities are so stark, poor people here are worse off than many of their foreign counterparts (10).
And if you start comparing nations, what about the quality of life? Are our 30 million citizens on antidepressants also the envy of the world? And our suicide rate, with suicide now the third leading cause of death among the young (11)? Here lurks the question of how much life is worth living.
I wish I could get away from these inequalities, but I cannot. Fly away from it all? Board a plane, and we take off. Having settled in at cruising altitude on a flight, surrounded by other passengers, I look out the sun-filled window and we float among the iridescent clouds and for a moment it seems we are transcending the world's concerns. Then the stewardess carefully draws the cabin curtain across the aisle between us and the passengers in first class section. This act is noiseless and delicate. All passengers’ eyes are riveted on it.
Nowadays, nobody seriously criticizes the rich. Criticizing the rich doesn’t make much sense if you think you’re going to be one. But it wasn’t always that way.
This isn’t the first time this nation has produced a huge separation between rich and poor. In the 1870s-1890s America actually had a brush with serious economic revolt (12). The trouble was started by common farmers in the hinterland - stake holders in the new frontier - dismayed that all their hard work didn’t deliver.
The Civil War’s aftermath was a time of immense capital growth for some and hopeless drudgery for others. Chicago and New York contained both wealth-aristocrats in frivolously decorated mansions that mocked European aristocratic manors, and on the other side, smoke-stained factories with legions of ragged workers. In the rural South rich plantation owners lived in white-columned country homes while paying barefoot field workers scrip they could only spend at the owner’s store – contract labor working in endless debt. This was the era of flamboyant corporation owners in top hats chomping on outsize cigars, also the era of steep child mortality rates, pestilences that swept the streets, misery and short life expectancies for the poor.
It was an era of unrestrained markets, the era of monopolists who collaborated with each other in setting prices; little was illegal.
Following the Civil War, there were a couple of different currencies in circulation, one sinking in value and less reliable.
City banks peddled mortgages widely on new farmland they had never seen. A new farmer could sign on in either currency. Then a national money contraction occurred, consolidating the two issues. Farmers took the fall. They were left owing the banks up to twice what they had signed for. Believing in the national promise that hard work brings wealth, they found they only worked and lost money on their slow-producing farms, then worked harder and lost more. Meanwhile, the banks flourished. They grew spectacularly. They argued they were only being patriotic.
Bewildered, farmers actually started trying to understand what was wrong by reading books on economics. The result was a bitter understanding of ‘the money power,’ of lenders rights, of monopolistic control, and of American credit corporations as fortresses of wealth.
In desperation, farmers’ cooperatives started up. They aimed for debtors’ independence. They were made up of plain people seeking self expression. First in the South, this movement swept across Texas, then the Western plains states, attracting farmers by the thousand. Then they joined up with railroad workers who were desperate over low wages and ruinous equipment and who were striking. Eventually the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union spread far west and north, and at its peak had over a million members. The Populist Party was started. This new party was virulently anti-monopoly, and its hero was the opposite, the poor-but-good worker. It successfully ran candidates for local government, and then William Jennings Bryan, a Populist, actually won the Democratic nomination for President. Bryan had risen from stump-speeches in open fields to the political crest with firebrand oratory telling farmers and workers they were “crucified on a cross of gold,” nailed to the impossible demands of credit merchants, and the victims of a monied tyranny (13).
The poor have always been demonized. But for the first time, in the 1890s, the rich were being demonized.
Bryan lost the election to McKinley in 1896. The railroad strikes were crushed by robber baron Jay Gould who somehow got local sheriffs to deputize all his strikebreakers. Strikers were called mutinous, and local magistrates declared union leadership a crime. Without Bryan rising, the Populist movement suddenly faded. There was capitulation and disgust. People muttered ‘you can’t fight the nation’s banks.’ Some farmers even left the country and moved to Canada. Corporate power rose everywhere again. Sentiment changed. In memory, words like ‘the people’s’, and ‘progressive’, became tainted with the shadow of socialism.
That era is remembered in history books. But it has been so diluted that Populism is described as an agrarian movement, a protest. Omitted are the rage, the oratory, the fires, the marches, the riots, the militia shooting strikers.
I believe some of the early conditions of that movement are reappearing. But today we are mute. We are back to the dogma that whatever the wealthy do is good for the poor. Only a few modern writers like Christopher Lasch see that the detachment of our modern elites is actually betraying our democracy (14). Fewer writers, like Charles Derber, are saying the moral decay in this country starts at the top (15).
We live in a peculiar era. There is said to be no ideology.
What is ideology? It is a visionary assertion of values, goals and aims. It ties a people together, explaining what is bigger and more important than each of us. It is part theory, part speculation. It urges loyalty. Ideologies can be national, grand and visionary, or subdued and local. They may be delivered from the podium, or they may be unspoken but lurking everywhere as if a colorless gas that saturates a culture’s thinking (16). An ideology can move a community to prepare for war, or it can move a nation to peace; but it gives motivation and meaning, it states the common good, and explains why the people must work together. Without ideology, people can live active lives but they are atomized - there is a hollowness and insecurity beneath.
Daniel Bell wrote a book The End of Ideology which says that in the United States, ideology has dissolved (17).
Bell: Through the last century - at least through the belligerent period of the two World Wars and the 1950s Cold War - the United States had plenty to say about what it stood for, also what it hated. Ideology was sharp and it was national. But with the advent of peace, and especially with the decline of communism, there was suddenly less reason to deliver thunderous speeches about why we are here, what we are ready to die for - the speeches that bring urgency and purpose and meaning to people.
We have drifted since the Vietnam era without an ideological rudder. We exist in a kind of void, in which individualism flourishes, and narcissism, ego, materialism, the pursuit of self, wealth, status and greed - but nothing that moves the masses together.
Predicting the future may best be left to crystal-gazers, but we can always take hints from newly published books because they contain ideas that may be influential for years.
Some new publications are unsettling. Into this void, I’ll argue, are creeping two quasi-ideologies. Actually they are not new. They are two old ideologies, mutated, which are rising again.
First a popular book which appeared in 2002. It describes a part of this society. The way the author works is a new fashion and it is revealing.
Beyond that Curtain
Very rich people are hidden from us because they want it that way.
Naturalist Richard Conniff uses sociobiology to describe the upper class. He has patiently followed the superrich around (and these folks are above 'junior wealth' which is about $5-10 million) and has interviewed them in their natural environment.
This is the new fashion, to explain what humans do because of their genes and their evolution. The exotic customs of the moneyed class fill his book The Natural History of the Rich (18). Because he is a naturalist, he unflinchingly compares the people at the top with the alphas (top members) of other animal species.
Conniff says the superrich are an intensely narcissistic and competitive small group. They arrange their lives so that wherever they go (Aspen, Monaco, Paris) they see the same few hundred people. They are self-encapsulated. They regard the rest of us as "irrelevant, uninformed, even subhuman," and they don't like to talk to us. (One fabulously wealthy lady used her cell phone to call her chief-of-staff who was in another country to call her maid to tell the maid what to do next. The maid had a cell phone and was on the opposite side of the room from the lady).
Conniff reports that just like other top animals, the superrich are driven by the quest for status, mating opportunities and dominance - except that the human version constantly denies it.
Waste to Impress
Top-rungers also flout the basic rules of economics. While average folks purchase more stuff when it becomes less expensive (supply and demand), the leisure class prefers to buy stuff that is more expensive, even when comparable stuff is available for less. The object is to dazzle. Sociologist Thorstein Veblen identified that odd habit back in 1899 and termed it ‘conspicuous consumption.’ It’s waste in order to impress (19, 20). Conniff points out animals do this too. The cascading tail feathers of alpha male peacocks have no useful function. They are there to impress other peacocks - in fact they are so conspicuous they practically prevent the bird from flying.
More biology: the way the superrich have isolated themselves for centuries now qualifies them as a "pseudospecies". By hanging out and mating only with their own kind, over many generations, they have effectively removed themselves from the gene pool.
Sociobiology is a fairly new division of biology. It’s been around since the 1970s. It holds that human behavior is genetically shaped, like animals which run largely on instinct. It says our behavior is evolved. Sociobiology has a younger sister, evolutionary psychology, which talks more about humans than animals, but in the same way. Evolutionary psychology holds that our daily routines and our choices are not nearly as spontaneous as we think because our behavior and our emotions are determined by the long tracks of natural selection. Both these disciplines are in their infancy. Both are busily looking for parallels between animal behavior and our behavior to show we are more instinct than we think.
So what Conniff does is to illustrate the dominant posturing of top rats versus the belly-crawling of their subordinates, and the bluster of top baboons versus the rump-presenting submissiveness of subordinates - and compares it to the obsequious behavior of human underlings who attend to our superrich. Dominance patterns in this species fit dominance patterns in that. So for instance in both human and walrus communities, the top elite have more. They copulate more, they get more of what they want, and they guard more resources than they need. Conniff states: "Humans seem to be 'ethologically despotic,' like chimpanzees; that is, we have a natural predisposition to hammering other people into submission." Except that in human males this is expressed as a "single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world" (21).
Why do the rest of us go along with this? We can’t help it. A stare from high authority throws us into rabbit-panic. Lower ranking humans throw themselves into submission, even sacrificing themselves for their high superiors. It’s all biologically evolved behavior.
Inequality is everywhere in the animal kingdom - even animals that can’t do much else, such as chickens, are expert at knowing the ranks of all other chickens. And a low ranking wolf will fight to the death for its pack even while its daily life is made miserable by cruel tormenting from the animals above it because belonging to a hierarchy is everything. According to sociobiologists, hierarchy chains us humans too. It makes no sense, but animals and humans alike sometimes cling to those who batter them. It's in the genes.
Along the way, it would be heartening to learn from sociobiologists that our top people are good people. That part is missing. The ultra rich are likely to have serious mayhem in the family history. Conniff traces this old saying to Balzac: ‘Behind every fortune there’s an undiscovered crime.’ Generations ago, many alpha families originally ascended by force and illegal conquest - and, in his interviews, often show themselves proud of it.
And what of our popular belief the wealthy are that way because they work very hard? Do they? Well, maybe. Conniff interviewed one extremely wealthy woman who told him, "I'm the most normal, normal person, I'm not like most rich people. I work really hard. Most rich people I know don't do anything but eat, drink, sleep, pardon the term, fuck, and have a good time" (22).
Genius and Alcoholism
If our behaviors are genetic, it means we don’t have much control over them. Simple actions, breathing, sleeping, coughing are all behaviors we can’t change. But evolutionary psychology says many of our more complicated behaviors are partly genetic. We have a ‘genetic predisposition’ towards overeating or dominance or addiction or depression, musical genius, alcoholism, and possibly some criminal behaviors too - because these things have been found to run in families. Today’s cutting edge research is looking for behaviors that are controlled by genes, and how much. There is a scale called a ‘heritability index’ that runs from 0.0 to 1.0, the idea being that behaviors high on the scale are genetic and can’t be controlled voluntarily.
The implications ripple across our legal system. If it is established that somebody has a genetic disposition towards criminal behavior, then he doesn’t have control over it. Think of the possibilities: imagine a criminal lawyer putting on the following defense, “…Your Honor my client is not to blame - he couldn’t control his thieving - he was just fulfilling his genetic destiny…” In fact, these legal defenses may become more common as evolutionary psychologist are now arguing that using pornography (23), not paying child support (24) and rape (25 ) are in the genes.
Evolutionary psychology is deliberately pushing into public policy. The appearance of a new book Evolutionary Psychology, Public Policy and Personal Decisions shows its intended scope (26).
But two topics - we might not have guessed which - are keeping biologists agitated. Are we run by selfishness? And how important is the individual, as opposed to the group?
This is the way it’s coming down:
1. Selfishness. Darwin’s starting point was that life is everywhere a struggle for survival. If you want to survive, you can’t waste time helping others. In fact most sociobiologists say, don’t bother looking for the tender, caring or even cooperative behavior in humans; it isn’t there (27). But the central issue being kicked around: is selfishness by itself sufficient to keep a group surviving? Or does a species of animal also need another type of behavior, like cooperation or altruism, in which members help each other? One camp, the hard-nosed Darwinists, says yes to selfishness – that also means genes-powered greed, genes-powered waste-to-impress (28) – and no to altruism.
2. Selection between whole groups. Darwin said natural selection happens between individuals. But what about selection between communities (and herds and flocks)? This issue is so hot, arguments between sober academics almost read like kids having tantrums. The point is this: if there is competition between groups (communities) for survival, the winning group will be stronger because of teamwork, which takes something like cooperation or altruism between members. A group of only selfish individuals is weakened from within.
And these two issues go hand-in-hand. Orthodox Darwinists say, you don’t need to think about altruism because there is no group-level selection.
Daniel Batson writes on this debate. At this point, sociobiology is new and unsure. It keeps issuing statements then correcting itself. Does natural selection exclude group selection? Yes; correct that, no. Does natural selection produce only selfishness? Yes; correct that, no (29). Actually this is not just a scuffle under the stairs among academics. Because of Darwin’s assumptions, all this threatens the very planks on which the theory of evolution rests. So a lot of people are watching this fight (30).
When these infant disciplines finally get their sea legs, they will bring home the bogeyman of all questions, because selfishness and altruism are not just behaviors, they are moral values. What’s really lurking behind all this work: is our morality controlled by our genes?(31)
And who Cares?
Adam Smith cares. Recall that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations tell us all people act in their own interest (selfishly) - and that is fine, according to him since the whole community eventually benefits. Who does this sound like? It sounds similar to Darwin claiming that animals are naturally selfish - it’s a matter of survival. Both Smith, in Wealth of Nations, and Darwin don’t truck with altruism. It would change the basic assumptions of both of their whole theories. And we get the hint that Charles Darwin and Adam Smith were singing off the same sheet of music.
So the appearance of Conniff’s book waves a flag. Any alliance between biology and big money should keep us nervous. This alliance has a scurrilous history.
A contemporary of Darwin’s was English philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer was not only thinking on the same tracks, it was Spencer who invented the term “survival of the fittest.” Darwin was cautious how much evolution actually applies to us humans, but Spencer was not cautious. Spencer applied “the fittest” to the wealthy (32).
Spencer became very popular with the monied classes towards the end of the nineteen century. On the lecture circuit in America he said humans, like the animals described by Darwin, are all in a competition for survival. This was normal. For wealthy industrialists to exploit and discard hordes of the poor in their factories was also understandable. The poor were the unfit. Nature was ‘red in tooth and claw.’ The industrialist was just hastening nature’s way of weeding out the weak members. Spencer also said welfare - even charity - was a bad idea. It encouraged the poor, who would multiply and spread their unfitness. Overall, did the rich prosper at the expense of the poor? Of course - and in the long run, Spencer said, this was good for a nation.
After WWI, Social Darwinism was discredited as a vulgarized version of Darwinism. At the time, communist ideology was flourishing in Europe, and the argument that the workers were going to control everything was turning Russia inside out like a glove. Socialism was on the rise in Europe, and America decided to keep one eye on its poor. Pro-worker feeling grew and between the World Wars, President Roosevelt built a more poor-friendly, worker-friendly atmosphere, and started Social Security.
But it is now sixty years since WWII, and times have changed again.
Won’t Sit Down
During this last century, of course, many things changed. Science itself made vast progress, reaching peaks, so that at 2000 it could point back at a moon walk, the atom opened, the defeat of plagues as points on its startling ascent.
Today science has tectonic credibility. It is unimpeachable. If a layman attacks science, nobody listens.
But this topic, Darwinism, will not sit down.
Among the few with credibility to question science are philosophers. Philosophers are carefully trained in logic.
Philosopher Richard Perry, in the staid journal Ethics, quietly walks up and kicks the struts out from under sociobiology.
Is it really science? Or is it a con?
Perry shows the logic under all sociobiology to be not the grid of deductive logic you would expect in science, but only a patchwork of analogies.
Now there is a certain use for analogies, but analogies do not prove anything, they only show likenesses. The best use of analogies is in the persuasive arts, oratory and poetry.
Analogy is the warp-and-woof of sociobiology. That’s what they do, says Perry. If you want to say humans are aggressive, describe the aggressiveness in rats – show the similarities. If you want to prove humans territorial, talk about the territoriality of mockingbirds - invite the similarities. And so on.
Perry says, but wait. Why these analogies in the first place? - There’s something odd about circling around one species to make pronouncements about another. Why are we studying animals to understand humans? Would you investigate houseflies by studying blue herons? Wouldn’t that distort what we already know about flies?
His article “Sociobiology: Science in the service of ideology” warns us the logic is so bad, sociobiology should be embarrassed. It is more like weaving a net with the study of animals and throwing it over humans. And it should tip us off to ulterior purposes. We should look for what else it does.
Perry urges us to decline trust in sociobiology. It is engaging reading. But it does what Herbert Spencer did. It tells us we don’t have to feel guilty if we are brutal with each other - animals do it. It gives comfort to perpetrators of social injustice (33 ).
The next point in this essay is that Social Darwinism, or some modernized variation, is rising again.
Supported as a science, our neo-Darwinism is fed by hours of exquisite photography on Discovery Channel where we repeatedly watch hungry leopards stalk innocent deer, fell them and gorge on their entrails hour after hour. (What car salesman hasn’t watched, and said to himself, that animal lives in me, I can use any method to drag down fleeing customers?)
Darwinism has a dangerous ally. Another twist in logic, which always gate-crashes the party and says, if it happens in nature, it must be right.
But the problem is, you cannot logically convert a fact into a right. (Example: it’s a fact some kids beat up other kids on the playground, therefore they have a right to do it).
Morality should step in.
It took a long time to get that right in western civilization. Because it’s a fact Charles Darwin reported on a species of slave-making ants, humans do not have a right to make slaves.
Then as now, using analogy as a justification for ignoring human pain and fear, or creating it, is a perversion.
Place your Bets
Social Darwinism will be much harder to get rid of this time. If we are not vigilant, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology will set new standards of indifference. The implications are stirring. What if our politicians and policy makers, administrative agencies and bureaucracies, our military, our justice system, our legislators, watching, all believe that rich and poor, good and bad, winning and losing are in the genes? Place your bets, because depending on the way a couple of these controversies turn out (especially selfishness) we may have biologists telling us what is right and wrong, that democracy is unnatural, and that inequality and injustice are in the nature of things.
Laissez-faire was the table-thumping cry of monopolistic big business in the 1860s through the 1920s – overlapping the Populist era, but on the capitalist side. From the businessman’s point of view, this was the Gilded Age. Will power was a virtue, expansion always seemed the way to go, and everything was believed to be better if it was bigger. (The Crystal Palace, the Eiffel tower, and the Titanic were industrial symbols). The concept traces back to 1825, and it means government abstention from interference with individual action, especially commercial action.
But it was found that if business was not restrained at all, the economy rose and fell in a cycle of peaks and destructive crashes. Second, it produced monsters that worked people to disease or death. During the laissez-faire era, people died or got maimed on the job in perilous mines, foundries and rail yards, getting no compensation (because, it was argued, they worked there by choice). This is what the Populists battled. The battle was rough and long, with repeated strike actions, and poverty and despair for workers.
Laissez-faire, the philosophy of robber barons, was eventually collared and muzzled, notably in Supreme Court decisions headed by Justice Brandeis who saw unfettered business practices as an eventual threat to democracy. It took many years to produce a real turn. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 was another attempt to break through.
Eventually both Social Darwinism and laissez-faire were abandoned.
Laissez-faire is rising again.
The Libertarian Party, formed in 1972, looks New Age-ish. Libertarians promises a bright new beginning, the kind of thing that always attracts young people with spirited talk about freedom from authority. In fact libertarians almost never stop talking about freedom.
Libertarians believe this: Individualism is what a society is all about. The promotion of self, and self-interest, life, liberty and property rights are important. Businesses and markets should also be free from restraint. Libertarianism hates constraint. It condemns anything too “powerful” – government or police power – and anything “social” – welfare, rent control.
Here are its founding assumptions. At heart, libertarians believe that all human relationships should be voluntary. They think there is a natural harmony of interests among people, and any society works by a sort of spontaneous order.
In politics, libertarianism claims to be against both the left wing and the right. It states opposition to fundamentalist religion as much as against any state agency - both threaten individual freedom.
How do we know the old ideology of laissez-faire is in here? Because a 1997 book which explains the basics, by David Boaz (executive vice president of the Cato Institute) called Libertarianism: A Primer, says so. It states that laissez-faire capitalism is the answer to everything because it brings incredible wealth to all. And it proudly champions Adam Smith’s ideas as its heritage (34).
Justice in Two Pages
Those founding assumptions are nonsense. First it’s obvious not all people are interested in harmony. Some are excessively greedy. Some people prefer power, which tends to corrupt. Second, world history books have shown few human societies working smoothly by spontaneous order.
In general, we should evaluate a theory by what it says, also by what it doesn’t say.
What does libertarianism say about exploitation? Nothing. The word isn’t even in the index.
Next, its treatment of justice is negligible. And what does it say about equality? - Almost nothing. It is hard to convey libertarianism’s disinterest in equality. Or perhaps this: Boaz’s book has 314 pages. Just over one page is given to equality. Equity? - nothing. Justice? - under two pages.
Consider a modern concern. What about big-business abuse of the environment? Among other points in the book - to give environmentalists nightmares - is that libertarians see no contradiction between industry expansion and the environment. Quote: “Economic growth helps to produce environmental quality.”(35)
Reading Libertarianism reveals something much more troubling. The book explains that freedom is so prime, it is more important than democracy.
Libertarianism is disinterested in democracy. Rather, libertarians believe in Natural Law, laws seated in ancient, even tribal, crude customs, which are hardly enlightened ways. There is actually a fringe element among libertarians, gaining momentum, which seriously wants to dismantle democracy in America (36) which it interprets as mob rule.
While this style of business in the 1890s, for profits, freely harnessed uneducated millions of the poor into sweatshops and mills, at wages that always seemed to keep them frightened and hungry, all those problems are now forgotten by libertarians - as if the century had no shadow.
And without a twitch of embarrassment, a Chicago Tribune review on the dustcover of Boaz’s book Libertarianism explains that “these are ideas that are coming to dominate the thinking of government all over the world.”
But laissez-faire is critical for today’s aggressive corporations because they cannot operate at their gargantuan level without almost total freedom. Corporate businessmen cite as their biggest enemy, government. They see greed as a solution rather than a problem. They despise the push for equality as a death-knell. They refer to justice as something the envious dreamed up (37). For them, democracy is no more than a bright tinsel wrapping to be torn off the moment it poses any real constraint to their freedom.
Despite these concerns, our market economy is not weakening in any way.
The reverse. At this point in history, capitalism is just getting started on a second Big Bang. We are recently launched into another expand-or-die wave that dates back approximately to the fall of the Berlin Wall and is already showing geometric power. It’s being promoted by our massive gifts and loans to foreign countries and by our placing key capitalists in international banking. And, less benevolently, by the starting of foreign wars, which require repairs, for which we provide contractors, whose profits return to us.
This new wave is not powered by any single ideology. But this odd combination of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire is a soil mixture that produced the explosive capitalism and empire-building at the turn of the last century, and it will work again.
I say odd combination because these two theories are actually contradictory. Libertarians should look over their shoulders. Biology promotes the opposite point, that we humans don’t have much freedom because our behavior is controlled by our genes. Sociobiologists say even the functioning of our societies is constrained by our genes, so the idea of us choosing to expand our liberties is hilarious to them.
These two theories were also contradictory a hundred years ago. That didn’t stop monopolists then and it will not stop the high-octane business leaders of today - none of whom are exactly intellectuals.
Turn on the television and watch our national leaders talk policy. They explain we are bringing our way of doing business to foreign lands because capitalism brings democracy. We are the bringers of fortune, uplift, goodness, opportunity and freedom for all - the best destiny humanity has to offer.
Just because this argument is delivered from a podium bathed in rotating lights does not make it true. It is also broken logic.
One of the main events in capitalism is the creation of inequality.
We recall that the two basic values of democracy are freedom and equality. They are the two wings on which that exalted bird flies.
And we notice these official speeches on foreign policy promise freedom, but they never promise equality. We cannot export equality. You cannot give away what you haven’t got.
Second, a point always omitted from these speeches is that capitalism comes in different species. One type is authoritarian capitalism and it is decidedly undemocratic. A governing power, sometimes a military dictator, promises businessmen they will make astonishing profits if they just follow his orders. This - the melding of business and state - happens to be one of the elements of fascism. Another defining element of fascism is that inequality is a virtue.
But free market economics are being built everywhere. This is so powerful, it has the face of a titan.
So we cannot do it any harm, analyzing it. We have plenty of time to pull up our chairs, and at our leisure examine its beating heart.
The major musculature of our modern free markets is corporations. They deserve attention.
Corporations are collections of people doing business. Other types of business entities exist, sole proprietorships and partnerships, but corporations are surely the largest. (Some corporations are more wealthy than some countries). They inspire joy in some people, fear in others.
Corporations have been harshly attacked in several books by investigative reporters. For example, Mokhiber and Weissman’s Corporate Predators andCourt’s Corporateering warn of the way corporations influence politics (by shifting massive capital around) as well as the way they take away our personal privacy and security. As a rule, they lack transparency. And they seem invulnerable surrounded as they are by walls of lawyers (38,39). Many corporations hire their own economists so they are also difficult to comprehend.
These books are a good and healthy part of the public’s reading. But these attacks have made no difference.
One book, however, written by a lawyer, may make a difference. It translates the stygian legalese and economics into common language. The book is no less frightening.