Note: This is a guest post from Dr. Bill W. Keep. Dr. Keep is a professor of marketing and the dean of the business school at The College of New Jersey.
From the Founding Fathers forward, democracy naturally linked to the market mechanism of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. During periods such as the Cold War, the merits of democracy and Smith’s capitalism reduced to a single argument against the perils of communism and the somewhat less frightful socialism. Winning in capitalism has been likened, erroneously, to “survival of the fittest,” a concept closely associated with Charles Darwin. Our current presidential battle pits the two concepts against each other—the competitive markets of capitalism against the winner-take-all dynamic of Darwinism. Here is why the theories transcend the individuals.
The modern capitalists operate in a world where businesses vie for success within regulated markets—some say over-regulated; some say under-regulated. The government ostensibly serves to promote economic growth and preserve competition, though concerns have been raised over too close business-government relations, so called, “corporate capitalism”. Smith’s efficient markets, which toppled the government-enabled guilds of his day, still require ongoing oversight to maintain a competitive environment.
Similarly, democracy broke from a past of landed aristocracy and centralized political power to give individuals (call them, buyers) the right to choose their representatives (call them, sellers). Sellers compete in an open market of ideas, albeit a funnel-shaped iterative process, to be selected by buyers. A failure in the integrity of markets or the voting booth rewards the undeserving.
Critics deemed Clinton’s actions and inactions, inconsistencies, parsing of words, and personal flaws as “crooked” within a rules-based context. They argue that she skirts rules and responsibilities, hides her true motivations, and tells Wall Street bankers one thing and the public another, all for vainglory and power. Any denial is questioned and all failures hers to own. To her fans she is has accomplished much, given up much, and put up with much. She understands society to be comprised of rules and social contracts and throughout her career has sought to assist those less able to assist themselves.
Darwinism is very different. The notion of survival-of-the-fittest describes an entirely different dynamic, one of biological diversity, competitive struggle, survival, demise, and evolution. There are no rules, no regulators, and certainly no similarities to democracy. The ultimate measure of success—survival, coming out on top—is all that matters. While some have equated Darwinian thinking with winning in Smith’s competitive market, the comparison fits only in a static view. In order for Smith-style capitalism to work, to truly benefit society, the same winner must face competitors again, and again, and again.
Donald Trump presents himself, as someone to be judged not by rules but by Darwin’s winner-take-all dynamic. Success, no matter how achieved, seems to be all that matters. Apparent success need not be hindered with details, which keeps the singularity of the measure clean and simple. Rule flaunting is a plus because rules are artificial constraints. If lawsuits, reneging on agreements, threats, and failures move the needle toward “Success” then they are justified as the end justifies the means. Those who think otherwise harbor naïve expectations. Public adulation, the ability to impose personal preferences on others, and the outward trappings and bluster of success reinforce the position of a winner.
Critics of Trump point to his business failures, self-contradictory statements, bothersome personal history, aggression to the point of intimidation, lack of knowledge about issues in the public realm, and refusal to recognize social contracts with those he might call “losers.” In Trump they see a demagogue, a self-promoter, a “leader” pursuing unfettered power. Trump fans care little about such issues. In fact, the pursuit of power and aggression are viewed not as a flaw but the inevitable, natural traits of a winner. Breaking rules can be interpreted as being a renegade, someone who pushes the envelope, and contradictory behavior sometimes necessary to win and move forward. The trappings of success are just desserts that reinforce the social hierarchy.
Two candidates judged by two different standards. One appears to believe in bendable rules to pursue her understanding of the “greater good.” The other appears to view rules as artificial constraints that only delay the appropriate and inevitable ultimate winners and losers. Two theories, one designed specifically to shape the output of social activity and the other to explain a biological phenomenon. Mistaking one for the other can be dangerous.
The Founding Fathers sought a political structure inconsistent with a winner-take-all mentality. They themselves clearly sought to live on politically to fight another day. Consistent with Smith’s thinking, the Constitution instructs Congress “To regulate Commerce…” Demagoguery in mainstream politics? Sure. However, history provides hard lessons on the terrifying effects of social Darwinism