Myth: Markets rest on the principle of the survival of the fittest

When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading voluntarily in markets, we find that many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer, who is Vice President for International Programs at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, General Director of the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and Director of Cato University, has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The fourteenth myth — Markets Rest on the Principle of the Survival of the Fittest — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.

Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism. An eleven minute podcast of Palmer speaking on this topic is at The Morality of Capitalism.

Myth: Markets Rest on the Principle of the Survival of the Fittest

Myth: Just like the law of the jungle, red in tooth and claw, the law of the market means survival of the fittest. Those who cannot produce to market standards fall by the wayside and are trampled underfoot.

Tom G. Palmer: Invocations of evolutionary principles such as “survival of the fittest” in the study of living systems and in the study of human social interaction lead to confusion unless they identify what it is in each case that survives. In the case of biology, it is the individual animal and its ability to reproduce itself. A rabbit that is eaten by a cat because it’s too slow to escape isn’t going to have any more offspring. The fastest rabbits will be the ones to reproduce. When applied to social evolution, however, the unit of survival is quite different; it’s not the individual human being, but the form of social interaction, such as a custom, an institution, or a firm, that is “selected” in the evolutionary struggle. When a business firm goes out of business, it “dies,” that is to say, that particular form of social cooperation “dies,” but that certainly doesn’t mean that the human beings who made up the firm — as investors, owners, managers, employees, and so on — die, as well. A less efficient form of cooperation is replaced by a more efficient form. Market competition is decidedly unlike the competition of the jungle. In the jungle animals compete to eat each other, or to displace each other. In the market, entrepreneurs and firms compete with each other for the right to cooperate with consumers and with other entrepreneurs and firms. Market competition is not competition for the opportunity to live; it is competition for the opportunity to cooperate.

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