By Matthew Barad.
Darwinism has been the foundation of the capitalism of free markets. Markets—especially the capitalist sort—are frequently imagined as ecosystems. Corporations, like wolves, clams, or algae, are locked in a constant struggle for survival. Find your “niche,” grow your business, outcompete your competition, and devour your prey—or perish. “Eat or be eaten.” Darwinism has been the foundation of free market capitalism.
Why has it persisted?
In spite of the savageness and inhumanity featured in this Darwinian portrait of capitalism, its most ardent defenders regularly paint that same inhumanity as capitalism’s greatest strength. Social Darwinists in the mold of Friedrich Hayek (a 20th century right-libertarian economist) or Ayn Rand (an author and philosopher most well-known for her anti-welfare bent) have long insisted that the “survival of the fittest” nature of the market meets human needs better than non-market alternatives. As corporations compete in an evolving struggle to sell their goods, Social Darwinists say, the wants and needs of the consumer are met in more and more efficient ways. As recently as 2015, economists with Boston University published an essay arguing this—a point which is remarkable given how obvious capitalism’s pitfalls become once you consider markets as Darwinian ecosystems.
Does it work in the real world?
To demonstrate why a Darwinian free market tends (or would tend) to fail, I wrote a very basic evolutionary model of capitalism in Python. Keep in mind that this is just a model; as in my last piece for Current Affairs, this is nothing more than an attempt to mimic and explore the consequences of one popular understanding of the free market. It should not be mistaken for either a predictive or descriptive representation of the real world.
Though some have insisted that the free market is the solution to climate change and ecological collapse, this model shows the opposite. The very same Darwinian selection that libertarians insist creates optimal corporate efficiency also demands that those corporations engage in ultra-short-term thinking. It doesn’t matter (in the model or in reality) if your corporation’s sustainability practices will result in greater profits in 30 years if more extractive and less conscientious capitalists will use their short-term gains to buy you out, monopolize your market, illegalize your business, or steal your consumers tomorrow.
You can find my model here. Please let me know if you find anything interesting!