Many critics complain that the free market, in casting aside inefficient entrepreneurs or in other decisions, proves itself an “impersonal monster.” The free-market economy, they charge, is “the rule of the jungle,” where “survival of the fittest” is the law. Libertarians who advocate a free market are therefore called “Social Darwinists” who wish to exterminate the weak for the benefit of the strong.
In the first place, these critics overlook the fact that the operation of the free market is vastly different from governmental action. When a government acts, individual critics are powerless to change the result. They can do so only if they can finally convince the rulers that their decision should be changed; this may take a long time or be totally impossible. On the free market, however, there is no final decision imposed by force; everyone is free to shape his own decisions and thereby significantly change the results of “the market.” In short, whoever feels that the market has been too cruel to certain entrepreneurs or to any other income receivers is perfectly free to set up an aid fund for suitable gifts and grants. Those who criticize existing private charity as being “insufficient” are perfectly free to fill the gap themselves. We must beware of hypostatizing the “market” as a real entity, a maker of inexorable decisions. The market is the resultant of the decisions of all individuals in the society; people can spend their money in any way they please and can make any decisions whatever concerning their persons and their property. They do not have to battle against or convince some entity known as the “market” before they can put their decisions into effect.
The free market, in fact, is precisely the diametric opposite of the “jungle” society. The jungle is characterized by the war of all against all. One man gains only at the expense of another, by seizure of the latter’s property. With all on a subsistence level, there is a true struggle for survival, with the stronger force crushing the weaker. In the free market, on the other hand, one man gains only through serving another, though he may also retire into self-sufficient production at a primitive level if he so desires. It is precisely through the peaceful co-operation of the market that all men gain through the development of the division of labor and capital investment. To apply the principle of the “survival of the fittest” to both the jungle and the market is to ignore the basic question: Fitness for what? The “fit” in the jungle are those most adept at the exercise of brute force. The “fit” on the market are those most adept in the service of society. The jungle is a brutish place where some seize from others and all live at the starvation level; the market is a peaceful and productive place where all serve themselves and others at the same time and live at infinitely higher levels of consumption. On the market, the charitable can provide aid, a luxury that cannot exist in the jungle.
The free market, therefore, transmutes the jungle’s destructive competition for meagre subsistence into a peaceful co-operative competition in the service of one’s self and others. In the jungle, some gain only at the expense of others. On the market, everyone gains. It is the market—the contractual society—that wrests order out of chaos, that subdues nature and eradicates the jungle, that permits the “weak” to live productively, or out of gifts from production, in a regal style compared to the life of the “strong” in the jungle. Furthermore, the market, by raising living standards, permits man the leisure to cultivate the very qualities of civilization that distinguish him from the brutes.
It is precisely statism that is bringing back the rule of the jungle—bringing back conflict, disharmony, caste struggle, conquest and the war of all against all, and general poverty. In place of the peaceful “struggle” of competition in mutual service, statism substitutes calculational chaos and the death-struggle of Social Darwinist competition for political privilege and for limited subsistence.
- Murray Rothbard, Power & Market