Problems with the Dog-Eat-Dog Trope: Dogs Don't Eat Dogs

Dog-eat-dog imagery for market competition is entirely misleading.

Critics often try to make capitalism seem like a very negative thing. However, it is actually difficult to make individuals who own themselves and their property, dealing with one another voluntarily rather than coercively—the essence of capitalism—sound like a bad thing. So they turn to rhetorical tricks.

For instance, Karl Marx did not use the word capitalism to correctly characterize the system or its effects, but rather to misleadingly imply only capitalists gained from capitalism, at workers’ expense (so that workers—the proletariat—Capitalism’s critics have also tried to hype up their attacks on market mechanisms with phraseology and imagery, as when they call it dog-eat-dog.would “have nothing to lose but their chains”), when, in fact, workers are the greatest gainers from private property and freedom of contract.

Capitalism’s critics have also tried to hype up their attacks on market mechanisms with ear-catching phraseology and eye-catching imagery, as when they call it dog-eat-dog, “survival of the fittest” competition. The phrase can be found in many songs and has even infected comedy, as in an opening gag in a Cheers episode when Woody asked Norm how things were. He responded, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, Woody, and I’m wearing Milk-Bone underwear.” The key is that if such characterization can achieve acceptance, people can be led to dismiss the mountain of evidence in favor of capitalism’s voluntary social coordination as a vicious, ugly process so harmful to people that it outweighs any possible benefits.

Market Competition Isn't a Dog-Eat-Dog Situation

Unfortunately, dog-eat-dog imagery for market competition is entirely misleading. It not only misrepresents market competition, but it also moves attention away from the fact that government, the usual “solution” offered to the evils of allegedly dog-eat-dog competition, is a much better match for the phrase.

To begin with, dog-eat-dog is a very odd way to characterize anything. I have never seen a dog eat another dog. I don’t know anyone who has. In fact, among their pack, dogs are far more cooperative than competitive. And some have traced the phrase’s origin back to the Latin, canis caninam not est, or “dog does not eat dog,” which says the opposite (and makes more sense, as an animal may try to protect its feeding grounds against competing predators, but it does not eat those competitors).Even those who would tyrannize others must instead focus their efforts on offering what others value to induce their voluntary cooperation. It is nonsensical to rely on a metaphor for something that doesn’t actually occur as a central premise toward condemning market systems as ruthless and hard-hearted.

In fact, those characteristics would be better termed “when pigs fly” capitalism because it cannot happen when people have their private property effectively defended. Even those who would tyrannize others, given the chance, must instead focus their efforts on offering what others value to induce their voluntary cooperation. When people predate on other people, it is not only enabled by government failure to defend every person’s property rights—even worse, government is itself perhaps the greatest violator of those rights rather than their enforcer.

Consequently, I agree with Mark Twain that “I like a dog,” because dogs don’t exhibit unseemly politician-eat-politician behavior.