Capitalism and Evolution

This post is inspired by George Gilder’s brilliant prologue to Wealth and Poverty, and as I am only a couple of chapters into the book I cannot comment on it as a whole. But the prologue is noteworthy not only for for its defense of capitalism, but for its verve. Is that still a word? It should be, because that’s the spirit of the prologue. He may be wrong, but if he is wrong he is wrong with panache. If his outfit is a fashion disaster, it is not for lack of color and embroidery. You may dislike his ruffles, but you cannot but admire his boldness in wearing them. If you don’t like the number his orchestra is playing, you must concede that it is not for lack of trumpets.

One of the relatively shocking approaches that Gilder takes is to defend capitalism not as a “best among worst” options nor as an approach to mitigate the general awfulness of humanity in the economic realm, but as intrinsically good and generous. Gilder is impatient with those who see the history of capitalism as a series of robber barons out to increase their own wealth at the expense of others, and he upbraids modern (and modern-ish) proponents with acquiescing to that historical perception.

If the argument goes “capitalism really was a terrible state of affairs involving slavery and oppression and the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer, but it somehow yielded us a 21st century system that really isn’t half bad” then we can say that there is nothing essentially better about capitalism than any other system of economics. At the battlefront of the terrible clash between capitalism and socialism, Gilder accuses the generals of motivating their men with a pathetic patriotism that amounts to “Men, it’s true that our country has been pretty terrible, but it’s not so bad right now so you should really try to put up a good fight.”

This is actually reminiscent of the evolutionary model of biological life. In evolution, given enough time something can come from nothing and then turn into everything. But that process (the past) must necessarily involve a massive amount of awfulness. Sure, what we wound up with is pretty darn functional: an ecosystem filled with symbiotic relationships, a humanity with a consciousness and rationality, etc… And because what we wound up with is pretty darn good, there’s no sense worrying about all the mountains of suffering and death that Evolution’s aborted offspring had to endure to get us to this point. If we buy into Evolution (as a macro-explanation for the existence and diversity of biological life) then we accept that Death is the mechanism from which Life comes. In the same way, if we go along with the story of capitalism as a story of self serving greed, then we accept that the mechanism for Prosperity is Greed. Gilder says that this is wrong and that greed is actually the death of capitalism.

What is so compelling about Gilder’s take is that you don’t have to be any kind of economic expert to understand in your bones that he is right, just as you don’t have to be a biologist (who alone can discern the mystical differences between male and female) to reject evolution. Evolution is manifestly backwards: life must precede death. The story of capitalism, as told by its opponents as well as its half-hearted defenders, is manifestly backwards: generosity must produce wealth. According to Gilder, that is what lies at the heart of capitalism.

One thought on “Capitalism and Evolution

  1. Great review, and I should try and read it sometime. I remember enjoying Fernand Braudel’s “Capitalism and Material Life” over twenty years ago. Though it was basically a straightforward history, I was impressed by the way (at least as I recall Braudel presenting it) capitalism fostered a kind of cosmopolitanism or mutual discovery among the nations through trade. Anyway, always a pleasure to read your thoughts.


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