Cachet of the Cutthroat
Social Darwinism isn’t only morally wrong; it doesn’t even perform the function it claims to perform: fostering real competition.
Nice guys finish last. Survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten. For Americans dwelling in the uneasily interesting times of the early twenty-first century, such catchphrases–and the sensibility they embody–strike familiar chords. Stemming from an unwieldy synthesis of fin-de-siecle Social Darwinism and (until recently) trendy Chicago School economics, this ethos claims that ferocious, mercilessly competitive conditions weed out the weak while preserving and enhancing the strongest members of an institution, a market, or a civilization as a whole. Such roughness and ruthlessness render us more competitive, thicker-skinned, and simply better than the rest of the pack. Such maxims are applied to communities and societies as much as to the people who comprise them: The more cutthroat an organization’s culture, the more hardened it is to adversity and tougher the people who emerge from its hallowed halls.
When this belief system bleeds over into the realm of political discourse, it transmogrifies into a paradoxical badge of honor, a disposition toward sink-or-swim hard-heartedness and a spurning of the “distractions” of the broader community. “The public be damned!” Cornelius Vanderbilt famously told a reporter who had asked the nineteenth-century tycoon about his railroad company’s social responsibility. In word and deed, Vanderbilt encapsulated the mindset of a previous American Gilded Age–an eerie precursor to our own–prior to its catastrophic collapse in the Depression. Vanderbilt’s sentiments can still be heard today, couched in p.r.-friendly euphemisms or offered as hearty retorts to the soft communitarianism of Scandinavia, Continental Europe, and Canada.
Of course, there have always been dissenting voices in our policy and cultural debates. Progressive leaders like Robert LaFollette and Eugene Debs, along with their philosophical and administrative successors in charge of the New Deal, exemplified this spirit in the early twentieth century. But such objections have rarely questioned the underlying premise of Social Darwinism itself; they seek to salve the symptoms of its workings in the real world, without curing (let alone preventing) the malaise in the American collective mind, which has paved the way for such a harsh philosophy to insinuate itself into society. Even in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, opposition to this “Cachet of the Cutthroat” is generally confined to ethical qualms about the suffering and personal cost imposed on hard-pressed individuals and families–deploring the scale of the misery, rather than addressing its roots. Across the ideological spectrum, the prevailing wisdom holds that such institutionalized harshness generates a more productive, adaptive, and wealthy society overall, with “liberalism” left to debate merely whether the resulting human collateral damage is an acceptable cost of doing business.
Although such moral objections are clearly relevant, the most devastating counterargument to the Cachet of the Cutthroat is that it is simply wrong. Both the social and natural sciences have conclusively demonstrated that ostensibly “softer and fuzzier” qualities in people and the communities they engender–compassion, goodwill, and above all empathy–are integral to sustainable success, particularly in complex organizations, but even in nature at its rawest and bloodiest. By fostering social cohesion and solidarity against adversity, such attributes paradoxically make us more, not less, competitive as individuals and as a society. Over time, the strongest and most productive individuals, communities, and nations all tend to be especially rich in these supposedly soft-hearted characteristics, while the most cutthroat societies collapse in a state of corruption and acrimony–their “winners” ultimately hoisted on their own petards. The latter, if anything, defines the vicious cycles of corrupt banana republics, their leaders utilizing bribery, coups, and even assassinations in the cutthroat march to power.
This is not to say that all competition is bad, but rather that not all flavors of “competitiveness” are equal. A competitive atmosphere can be constructive and productive, driving individual performers to improve and collaborate, to learn and boost creativity, and ultimately to engender innovation and institutional betterment. The extraordinary discoveries of quantum theory in the early twentieth century were a product of such cooperative competition, or “co-opetition.” A handful of brilliant minds–Planck, Schrödinger, Einstein, de Broglie, Pauli, Bohr, and Born–vied to outdo one another. Yet this was far from cutthroat competition: From their scattered bases in the universities of Austria, Germany, France, Britain, and Denmark, they periodically met and mutually stimulated one another to devise a theory that is today at the heart of countless high-tech industries–a gift to the world worth trillions of dollars in created wealth.
Too often in the United States, co-opetition is conflated with destructive, lowest-common-denominator competition, which has led to predatory lending, underregulated capital markets, and our costly and ineffective health care system. Our counterparts abroad, however, have more prudently (and prosperously) distinguished them. The European Union, Taiwan, South Korea, and other major economies have more attentively adapted to the delicate policy balance needed for modern technological nations in an era of relative resource scarcity, as recently described by Steven Hill in his cogent exposition Europe’s Promise. Even China, with its comparatively authoritarian system, has recently been hard at work introducing Continental European-style regulatory networks, ecological protections, and safety nets.
For the United States to prosper in the twenty-first century, we must learn from these examples, beginning with a better understanding of Social Darwinist ideology and the historical forces that have facilitated its pernicious infection of our society. Only then can we glimpse precisely why this doctrine fails so disastrously in sustaining the true source of a society’s power–the collective will and inspiration of its people to engender a better world. In doing so, we can also begin to lay the groundwork for a more mutually reinforcing, and ultimately more successful, society.
A Brief History of a Dangerous Misconception
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