Imagine a world where people were rewarded according to their merits. Those that were the hardest workers were rewarded with the food and shelter of the highest quality for themselves and their families. Those individuals who learned the most and increased their understanding of what was best for themselves and how to get those things were rewarded according to the efficiency of their endeavors. And those that were lazy or unable to fend for themselves were without food and without shelter. And they and their progeny did not survive. Over time the hard workers and the more educated or intelligent people would survive and soon the population would be composed of only those, who by natural tendency, were productive members of society.
When we imagine such a world we automatically place it in the context of an economic and legal system that rewards hard work, education and thrift. And that economic system that we take for granted and that matches the scenario outlined above is free market capitalism.
But what if there is another system that matches that example above. Suppose we are talking about cave people living in very primitive conditions. Those that were the strongest could appropriate the food of those who were weaker. The stronger could evict the weaker from the best and warmest shelters and provide their own families with the best chance of survival. Those of above average intelligence would in this system be able to devise ways to increase their command of resources and increase their chance of survival. And by combining forces the strong and smart could become even more powerful. There would seem nothing that would save the weak and the stupid. In short order the world would be only for the strong and the smart.
And then what? The game would be over? No, the game, if I can call it a game would go on. For what I have described is an inborn proclivity for competition amoung the inhabitants of this imaginary world. We could no more expect these people who were shaped by circumstance to be the most competitive to suddenly decide that it is no longer necessarry to compete. Competition would go on among these survivors of the previous generations. And the escalation of the competition would lead to even greater and more severe conflict between the people of this world.
At some point the intelligent members of this society, if they were the ones to survive, would surely look at their situation of increasingly severe conflict and war and would ask themselves why it was neccessary to continue to make war on each other. For it would be increasingly obvious to these wise ones that all of the best resources need not go to only a few of the strongest or smartest, even if being strong or smart was a desirable trait. Particularly when it put everyone at risk of losing their lives. And at that point in the development of this imaginary society, the wisest, in league with the strong, would develp alternative rules that would temper the competition and bend the drive to selfish gain to an end that was more to the benefit of the whole society and as a result to the general benefit of all members of this society. And at this point the wise would create a body of authority to regulate the lives and actions of fellow members of their society. They would create government. For the benefit of all. Of course conflict would persist since this is the natural way of these people of this imaginary world. The wise could be corrupted and use government for their own ends and to the detriment of society. But these trends would be self-limiting as the good of society as a whole, having been recognized by an earlier generation would be seen as the solution that history had proven best. Societies would devise ways to give all participants a part in the rules that were made. In exchange there would be an understanding among these same people that the limits to their own personal power or gain would be in the longer run of benefit to themselves and their families.
This story sounds increasingly familiar to most people today. And whether framed in a purely social framework, or if painted as a strictly economic framework, the story develops in the same way. Society as a free for all donnybrook does not work in the long run. No progress is made when all individuals are able to prey on any others. And the story progresses the same in a strictly economic sense. If there are no rules to guide the capital flows the strongest and the wisest take all of the resources and the losers find themselves without food or shelter and perish. To the detriment of society as a whole. The rich get richer and the poor perish, and then the game gets even dirtier.
So as members of this society we must be on guard for the signs of deterioration in the living standards of all members of society and we must be imaginative as well as vigilant in protecting the chance for every person to have an equal chance at the resources that make life not only possible but worth living.