How Holistic Darwinism Trumps Neo-Conservatism

In his book, The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi produced a classic critique of the liberal (conservative) ideal of free market capitalism that still resonates today.

According to liberal economic doctrine, if various impediments are removed so that a market economy can operate free of constraints and imperfections, it would not only be self-regulating and self-equilibrating but would lead to the most “efficient” utilization of capital, resources and labor. Indeed, for the most fervent of free market advocates, this ideal is an end in itself.

Polanyi’s argument was that this model is utopian. It can never work in the real world, and the history of the great 19th century “transformation” to industrial market capitalism (not to mention the history of the 20th century) proves it. As Polanyi put it, markets are “embedded” in human societies, and the needs and wants of a society and its members cannot in the long run be subordinated to market efficiency. This is not simply a normative statement, or a moral claim, moreover. It is an empirical reality. Ultimately, people will rebel and governments will either need to intervene or they will be replaced. Indeed, even capitalists do not, as a rule, want complete freedom from government interference. They want laws, and regulations, and property rights and, very often, government support in the form of protections and subsidies.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz, in a commentary on Polanyi’s book, also points out that advanced industrial economies like ours are even more constrained by the fact that the vast majority of the population depends on the marketplace for their livelihoods (see my blog entry on the “paradox of dependency”). So “labor” is not simply an “input” that can lie idle or find other uses if no jobs are available. Unemployment has inescapably destructive consequences.

What Holistic Darwinism adds to this critique is a theoretical foundation. From an evolutionary/biological perspective, our basic vocation as individuals and families is survival and reproduction – and specifically the meeting of some 14 domains of “basic needs” (according to the Survival Indicators Project). These are biological imperatives. We are all implicitly engaged in a “survival enterprise.” Moreover, in a modern market economy, our individual needs have been aggregated into an extraordinarily complex, interdependent system – a “collective survival enterprise.” We are joint participants in a “biological contract.” Accordingly, economic markets represent a system — a strategy — for meeting our basic biological needs. And if the markets fail to do so, for whatever reason, corrective actions are entirely justified. Markets exist to serve our needs, not the other way around.

Neo-Darwinians and social Darwinists might object that, to the contrary, capitalism is natural because it embodies our innately selfish and competitive natures – as Adam Smith himself suggested. The problem with this model is that it overlooks our fundamental dependence on cooperation and the fact that we evolved over several million years in closely cooperating social groups. Equally important, modern societies remain deeply dependent on cooperation; we live in highly interdependent economic systems. Competition may also be natural and inevitable, reflecting the duality of human nature, but it must also be subordinated to our collective needs. And if capitalist markets fail to meet our needs, we have every right to cooperate in an effort to redress our grievances – whether it be through labor unions, or governments, or political movements or even revolution if necessary. To borrow a phrase, revolutions are politics by other means.

Thought for the day: As the American Declaration of Independence puts it, governments are “instituted among men” to secure our “inalienable rights,” and derive their “just powers” from “the consent of the governed.” Furthermore, whenever any form of government “becomes destructive of those ends,” the people have the right “to alter or abolish it.”

Category: Evolution