The Rebirth of Social Darwinism

What kind of society, exactly, do modern Republicans want? I’ve been listening to Republican candidates in an effort to discern an overall philosophy, a broadly-shared vision, an ideal picture of America.

They say they want a smaller government but that can’t be it. Most seek a larger national defense and more muscular homeland security. Almost all want to widen the government’s powers of search and surveillance inside the United States – eradicating possible terrorists, expunging undocumented immigrants, “securing” the nation’s borders. They want stiffer criminal sentences, including broader application of the death penalty. Many also want government to intrude on the most intimate aspects of private life.

They call themselves conservatives but that’s not it, either. They don’t want to conserve what we now have. They’d rather take the country backwards – before the 1960s and 1970s, and the Environmental Protection Act, Medicare, and Medicaid; before the New Deal, and its provision for Social Security, unemployment insurance, the forty-hour workweek, and official recognition of trade unions; even before the Progressive Era, and the first national income tax, antitrust laws, and Federal Reserve.

They’re not conservatives. They’re regressives. And the America they seek is the one we had in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century.

It was an era when the nation was mesmerized by the doctrine of free enterprise, but few Americans actually enjoyed much freedom. Robber barons like the financier Jay Gould, the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, controlled much of American industry; the gap between rich and poor had turned into a chasm; urban slums festered; women couldn’t vote and black Americans were subject to Jim Crow; and the lackeys of rich literally deposited sacks of money on desks of pliant legislators.

Most tellingly, it was a time when the ideas of William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, dominated American social thought. Sumner brought Charles Darwin to America and twisted him into a theory to fit the times.

Few Americans living today have read any of Sumner’s writings but they had an electrifying effect on America during the last three decades of the 19th century.

To Sumner and his followers, life was a competitive struggle in which only the fittest could survive – and through this struggle societies became stronger over time. A correlate of this principle was that government should do little or nothing to help those in need because that would interfere with natural selection.

Listen to today’s Republican debates and you hear a continuous regurgitation of Sumner. “Civilization has a simple choice,” Sumner wrote in the 1880s. It’s either “liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest,” or “not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”

Sound familiar?

Newt Gingrich not only echoes Sumner’s thoughts but mimics Sumner’s reputed arrogance. Gingrich says we must reward “entrepreneurs” (by which he means anyone who has made a pile of money) and warns us not to “coddle” people in need. He opposes extending unemployment insurance because, he says,  ”I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing.”

Sumner, likewise, warned against handouts to people he termed “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.”

Mitt Romney doesn’t want the government to do much of anything about unemployment. And he’s dead set against raising taxes on millionaires, relying on the standard Republican rationale millionaires create jobs.

Here’s Sumner, more than a century ago: “Millionaires are the product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done… It is because they are thus selected that wealth aggregates under their hands – both their own and that intrusted to them … They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society.” Although they live in luxury, “the bargain is a good one for society.”

Other Republican hopefuls also fit Sumner’s mold. Ron Paul, who favors repeal of Obama’s healthcare plan, was asked at a Republican debate in September what medical response he’d recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma. Paul’s response: “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.” The Republican crowd cheered.

In other words, if the young man died for lack of health insurance, he was responsible. Survival of the fittest.

Social Darwinism offered a moral justification for the wild inequities and social cruelties of the late nineteenth century. It allowed John D. Rockefeller, for example, to claim the fortune he accumulated through his giant Standard Oil Trust was “merely a survival of the fittest.” It was, he insisted “the working out of a law of nature and of God.”

Social Darwinism also undermined all efforts at the time to build a nation of broadly-based prosperity and rescue our democracy from the tight grip of a very few at the top. It was used by the privileged and powerful to convince everyone else that government shouldn’t do much of anything.

Not until the twentieth century did America reject Social Darwinism. We created the large middle class that became the core of our economy and democracy. We built safety nets to catch Americans who fell downward through no fault of their own. We designed regulations to protect against the inevitable excesses of free-market greed. We taxed the rich and invested in public goods – public schools, public universities, public transportation, public parks, public health – that made us all better off.

In short, we rejected the notion that each of us is on his or her own in a competitive contest for survival.

But make no mistake: If one of the current crop of Republican hopefuls becomes president, and if regressive Republicans take over the House or Senate, or both, Social Darwinism is back.

This post originally appeared at Robert Reich’s Blog and is posted with permission.

4 Responses to "The Rebirth of Social Darwinism"

  1. shiv139   December 2, 2011 at 12:48 am

    Social Darwinism makes a very solid point. The fittest will survive. But to be the fittest, the rest have to be fit. And the fittest will provide to feed the mouth for that is the hand that feeds them.
    The problems may arise once the success of a species is rampant. And here we turn to Malthus. Does the rampant success of a single dominant species sow the seeds of its own destruction? I suspect Malthus would say yes. But here Darwinian forces come into play; to survive the dominant species can act to restore the balance between man and nature. In some ways, an external event like the asteroid that wiped out the Dinosaurs may be necessary to wipe out the dominant species and give another the chance to evolve into leaders. See more at http://blog.maxkapital.com/2011/05/real-value-of-….

  2. theevolvedman   December 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

    First of all, it is ironic that the Republican candidates who don't even believe in evolution use the principle of natural selection to justify their positions.

    Secondly, people like to use Darwinism because it's a neat and easy to understand idea. However, it doesn't really apply here. Imagine a society of cave men based on Social Darwinism. One of the cavemen gets hurt while hunting – breaks a leg or whatever. Now, Social Darwinism would say – oh well, guess he wasn't 'fit' enough to survive and leave the guy behind to die. Would that be the optimal thing to do for our species. NO!

    We, humans, have survived largely because we are highly cooperative intelligent species. We help each other out when they are in trouble in the hopes that others will help us in our times of need. If our ancestors left the injured behind or didn't share what they hunted with fellow tribesmen we would not have survived. And now that we have largely overcome the basic challenges of life (food, water, shelter etc.) we need to look beyond survival-of-the-fittest (or richest in this case).

  3. sisyphus49   December 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Natural selection is not applicable in this instance because most successful people obtain his or her success not exclusively on their own but with the help of other people and institutions. Many of these individuals and institutions are skewed to help only a certain segment of the population. Thus, the concept of survival of the fittest is misplaced by those who choose to justify economic disparities.

  4. RayPhenicie   December 3, 2011 at 8:50 am

    The history of Rockefeller's empire building is a sorry and violent one. Standard Oil was built into a nation wide empire on the backs of destroyed individual entrepreneurs whose lives were threatened, stores wrecked and careers destroyed because they did not step inline fast enough to held JD create his empire.