The success of the productive


Jason Collins


March 25, 2013

In another great section from the The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, R.A. Fisher argues that the free exchange of goods and private property rights are triumphs of human organisation:

[F]rom the earliest times of which we have knowledge, the hereditary proclivities, which undoubtedly form the basis of man’s fitness for social life, are found to be supplemented by an economic system, which, diverse as are the opinions which different writers have formed about it, appears to the writer to be one of the unconscious triumphs of early human organization. The basis of the economic system consists in the free interchange of goods or services between different individuals whenever such interchange appears to both parties to be advantageous. It is essential to the freedom of such agreements that the arbitrary coercion of one individual by another shall be prohibited, while, on the other hand, the coercive enforcement of obligations freely undertaken shall be supported by the public power. It is equally essential that the private possession of property, representing, as in this system it must do, the accumulation of services already performed to other members of the society, and the effective means of calling upon equivalent return services in the future, shall be rigorously protected.

In this system, success is rewarded and those who do not perform socially advantageous actions may perish.

In the theory of this system each individual is induced, by enlightened self-interest, to exert himself actively in whatever ways may be serviceable to others, and to discover by his ingenuity new ways or improved methods of making himself valuable to the commonwealth. Such individuals as succeed best in performing valuable services will receive the highest rewards, including, in an important degree, the power to direct the services of others in whatever ways seem to them most advantageous. Those, on the contrary, who fail most completely to perform socially advantageous actions have the least claim upon the wealth and amenities of the community. In theory they may perish of starvation, or may become indebted up to the amount of the entire potential services of the remainder of their lives, or of the lives of their children.

Fisher notes that while this economic system is not the sole basis by which we operate, it provides protection against the proliferation of the unproductive.

It need scarcely be said that this economic system has never formed the exclusive basis of social co-operation in man. It has at most been partially established in compromise with social instincts already in being, founded during the existence of less closely cooperative societies. Nevertheless, it bears a sufficient resemblance, both to the theory of rationalistic economists, and to the practice of various ancient civilizations, to indicate that we have presented, in an abstract and ideal form, a real and effective factor in human social organization. The biological importance of this factor lies in the safeguard which it appears to provide that intra-communal selection in human societies shall not favour the multiplication of unproductive or parasitic types, at the expense of those who exert themselves successfully for the common good. On the contrary, it seems to insure that those who produce the best goods or provide the most valuable services shall be continually augmented in each succeeding generation, while those who, by capacity or disposition are unable to produce goods equivalent to what they consume, shall be continually eliminated.

This selection extends to the way people consume and engage in trade.

Nor is this beneficial selection confined to individuals in their capacity of producers. In consumption and distribution an equally beneficial selection would seem to be in progress. The individual who, by reason of his imperfect instincts, is tempted to expend his resources in ways which are not to his biological advantage, the individual who from prejudice favours a bad market, or who is temperamentally incompetent in striking a bargain, is equally at an economic and, it would seem, at a selective, disadvantage. This selection of the consumer provides in an important respect the theoretical completion of the individualistic economic system, for it supplies a means by which the opportunities of gaining wealth by the provision of illusory benefits, shall become ever narrower, until all substantial sources of profit are confined to the provision of real public benefits. The population produced by such a system should become ingenious and energetic industrialists, shrewd and keen in the assessment of social value, and with standards of well-being perfectly attuned to their biological and reproductive interests.

The logical (thought not necessarily realised) outcome of this selection might be to evolve such that wealth accumulation is the ultimate moral pursuit.

To complete the picture, at the expense of anticipating a little a subsequent argument, our economic Utopians must be endowed with consciences which recognize the possession of wealth, at least as a means to reproduction, as the highest good, and its pursuit as the synthesis of all virtuous endeavour. To them the wealthy man would enjoy not only the rewards, but also the proofs of his own virtue, and that of his forbears; he would be in some sort a saint, to co-operate in whose virtuous proceedings would be a supreme felicity. Upon such men, no public honour could be bestowed more noble than a direct cash payment, and to purchase other honours for money would seem not so much corrupt as insane. Charity, in the sense of the uneconomic relief of poverty, would evidently be a vicious weakness, although there would be some virtue in shrewdly backing for mutual advantage the capable, but accidentally unfortunate.

However, we have not achieved this “utopia”.

[T]he instinctive feelings and prejudices of social man do not seem at all to have developed in the direction of a more strictly economic and less’ sentimental’ basis for social institutions.