Beasts In The Jungle

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My office is a zoo,” a friend of mine complained a few weeks ago. It’s a sentence I have heard many times, and it makes me think of the good old days, or perhaps they were the bad old days, when instead of talking about offices that reminded them of zoos, people talked about business as a jungle.

Some especially impressive beasts stalked the American business jungle late in the nineteenth century. In his famous essay “Wealth,” originally published in 1889 in the North American Review and frequently reprinted under the title “The Gospel of Wealth,” the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie discussed the “law” of competition: “It is here; we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may sometimes be hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

Survival of the fittest is a concept that tends to enchant the fit, who often feel a special duty to explain its charm to the rest of us. No one has ever fulfilled this duty with more enthusiasm than Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie believed sincerely that “the man who dies … rich dies disgraced,” and he gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to prove it. In “The Gospel of Wealth” he argued that by thus administering his wealth for the community “far better than it could… have done for itself,” the rich man makes himself the instrument of the general good: “We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business … in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.”

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., too, saw divine order where others saw savagery. “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest,” he explained on one occasion. Then, warming to his subject, he grew poetical: “The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

Behind the ideas advanced by Carnegie and Rockefeller loom the shadow of the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer and the larger shadow of Charles Darwin. Spencer was the age’s most vigorous proponent of the idea that life in society follows the same laws of competitive struggle and natural selection that Darwin had seen at work on the Galápagos Islands.

Finding in Darwin proof that history is nothing but a “ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong,” Spencer suggested that we should not only acknowledge this carnage; we should applaud it. He opposed all government aid to the poor: “The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better.” Men and women are natural beings, who must submit to the law of nature: “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.” Compared with Spencer, even the most fervent supporters of recent cutbacks in government welfare programs are exposed as mush-hearted liberals.

Whatever we may think of social Darwinism, we need not abandon the comparison of economic life to a jungle. Especially if we are thinking of American business in the nineteenth century, there is something irresistible about the metaphor, and it’s fun to populate the jungle.

John Jacob Astor, for instance, does not strike me as any kind of predator but as a spider, spinning diligently until at last New York, London, and Canton were linked in a great web of trade, with fur and tea flying around the web.

Astor’s successor as the richest man in America, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was a man blessed with qualities that would have served him well in any jungle. In a long life he never backed away from a fight and never fought with anything less than ferocious energy and determination. The men who opposed him in his prime would have recognized the future lion at sixteen, when he made his living by running a two-masted sailing vessel from Staten Island to the tip of lower Manhattan: “In a competitive business,” writes his biographer Wheaton Lane, “his prices were low and nobody underbid him. He was perfectly willing to undertake any job, however dangerous, and when, in stormy weather, the other boatmen were reluctant to venture upon the bay, Cornele was always ready.”

Anyone familiar with American business in the age of the robber barons can go on with this game until the jungle has been supplied with lions and tigers, bulls and bears, foxes, sharks, snakes, vultures, and rats, not to mention some of the most astonishing reptiles ever to creep upon the earth.