David R. Henderson  

Obama is a Social Darwinist

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Passover Thoughts... Check Your Base...

President Obama recently called a House Republican budget plan "thinly veiled social Darwinism." This, incidentally, from a man whose own budget plan was voted down last week in the House by a vote of 0-414. (The vote was on a bill, that, according to The Hill, was "based on President Obama's 2013 budget plan.")

But Obama is a social Darwinist too. So is everybody. Let me explain.

Here's an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica on social Darwinism:

social Darwinism, the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak. Social Darwinists held that the life of humans in society was a struggle for existence ruled by "survival of the fittest," a phrase proposed by the British philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer.

So that takes us to the next question: what is "fit?" The answer to that will depend on the context; it will depend on what is rewarded.

Take the Soviet Union. Please. Was Joseph Stalin particularly fit? He certainly didn't produce much that other people valued, yet he thrived. He did so by lying, manipulating, intimidating, and murdering, all on a massive scale. In the Soviet Union, the fittest got the best food, houses, cars, etc., but fitness meant the ability and willingness to be untrustworthy and bloodthirsty. In that environment, Stalin was indeed one of the fittest.

Or take a street gang. The fittest street gangs are those whose members know how to fight the best and who are the least scrupulous about using physical violence. In this way, a neighborhood policed by street gangs is similar to the Soviet Union: the most ruthless succeed in each.

That shouldn't be surprising. In both environments, the most important rule is, Kill or be killed. There is no protection of the rights of someone who simply wants to go about his or her business peacefully. Peaceful, productive people are, in fact, sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by the violent.

The environment selects for success those who are best at working within its rules. You tell me the environment and the rules, and I'll tell you the kind of people who will emerge as the fittest.

So the interesting and substantive question is not whether one thinks the fit will survive and thrive better than the unfit. They will. The interesting question is what the rules are that determine what is "fit." Obama is a strong supporter of crony capitalism: rigging the rules to help his cronies. So in his system, the fit are people like Tim Geithner, the backers of Solyndra, the United Auto Workers union, and various other beneficiaries of the spoils system.

So the question is whether you want the rules under which these people thrive. Or do you want rules under which people who produce good products and services for others survive and thrive?



COMMENTS (24 to date)
Jared writes:

Your use of social darwinism washes it of all meaning and historical context and reimagines an ideology that has been closely associated with nazism and racism as a bland statement that fitness is domain specific. Either you don't understand natural selection, social darwinism and the meaning of fitness as it is used in each context or you willfully manipulated these concepts to simply call Obama a crony capitalist.

Social darwinism is not the view that people are subject to the same laws of natural selection as plants an animals. The Origin of Species applies the logic of natural selection to all living things. Instead, social darwinism is the view that genetic inferiority explains the differential outcomes experienced by different groups/races. It was a justification for persecution! If the persecution of a group of people led to their destruction, it was simply the consequence of a natural process that favored the fittest.

In the context of natural selection fitness means an individual's ability to propogate its genes; in the context of social darwinism, fitness means superior. At best, by conflating the two you are committing the naturalistic fallacy (which is what social darwinists did themselves) at worst you are condoning a whitewashed view of social darwinism.

You don't need to muddle your way through these issues just to call Obama a crony capitalist. If anything, it weakens your argument as the many mistakes and missues distract from your core claim. I expect this kind of rhetoric from politicians, people whose only goal is to score points with ideologes; for whom, truth is secondary to winning. When you stoop to their level you call your credibility as an academic into question to temporarily (I hope) play the role of a sophist.

Mercer writes:

I would like to know why you think the UAW and Solyndra are bigger beneficiaries of crony capitalism then Wall Street.

david writes:

Don't the left in fact believe that auto workers and solar panel companies do produce "good products and services for others [to] survive and thrive"?

It is the invitation to judge such outcomes that invites statism.

Jay writes:

There's a great deal of hyperbole and emotion here. It's almost satirical. Social Darwinism isn't a binary issue or philosophy, so please don't treat it as such.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mercer,
I would like to know why you think the UAW and Solyndra are bigger beneficiaries of crony capitalism then [sic] Wall Street.
I don’t. “Geithner" was shorthand for "Wall Street.”
@david,
Don't the left in fact believe that auto workers and solar panel companies do produce "good products and services for others [to] survive and thrive"?
Many of them probably do.
It is the invitation to judge such outcomes that invites statism.
It’s not the invitation to judge such outcomes that invites statism; it’s subsidies and special privileges.
@Jay,
There's a great deal of hyperbole and emotion here. It's almost satirical. Social Darwinism isn't a binary issue or philosophy, so please don't treat it as such.
No satire intended. I’m making a point. If you want to argue, then argue against the point I make. Dismissing my point by simply calling it "hyperbole and emotion” isn’t arguing.

J.D. writes:

Just a note from a double major (econ and poli.sci.) on reporting floor votes: the larger number always comes first.

Thus, the best way to report the statement is that "the House voted down Obama's budget 414-0."

Doug writes:

@Mercer,

If we returned to the high points of free market capitalism circa 1890 United States there would be no more little Solyndras or UAWs. There would still be plenty a JP Morgan, in fact he'd be walking the street.

Sure the government helps Wall Street firms in various ways, but the regulatory climate also tremendously hinders them in many other ways. As a whole I'd say it's a net wash or negative for Wall Street. A Goldman Sachs unconstrained by Basel III, the Volcker rule, leverage limitations, insider trading laws, derivative position limits, market manipulation laws, SEC hedge fund registration, 13F filings and accredited investor limitations would be very formidable indeed. Even if you did take away the occasional bailout and the Fed's easy money.

david writes:

One man's "subsidies and special privileges" is another man's "compensation and property rights".

And that's the problem. If you promote the idea that good policy is authoring rules so that people who you think are good people win under those rules, you're going to find that some very, very distasteful people are far better at such campaigning than you or any classical liberal can be. Everyone thinks that they and their allies are the productive ones and their enemies are the corrupt thieves.

Tony N writes:

"So the question is whether you want the rules under which these people thrive. Or do you want rules under which people who produce good products and services for others survive and thrive?"

All I know is that we need people to thrive and succeed, or else we won't have any bad guys.

Ted Levy writes:

Perhaps the better statement is that Obama, rather than being a social Darwinist, is the result of social Darwinism. In a society that rewards insincere and vague aspirational commentary coupled with noble rationales for use of the mailed fist of the State, Obama, with his skill set for rhetoric over understanding and manipulation over creation, is the big winner, the apex predator, the worst who rises to the top...

Julien Couvreur writes:

You point out that "fitness" in our current society is rigged towards cronies, but don't forget politicians and bureaucrats themselves. They are clearly striving as well.

Methinks writes:

Doug,

I agree with you, but I would say what all that hinders most is competition for the large, established firms. Less competition then makes everyone else worse off. The cost of services are higher, the services of lower quality, returns are lower, risk/reward is mangled and incentives become deeply perverted. Not only is this a negative for most (although a huge benefit for SOME) on Wall Street, it is, more importantly, a negative for everyone else.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Incidentally, the "what is fit?" question is the one you should ask whenever anyone tells you that science proved evolution. The fact that that determination is always subject to ex-post rationalization means that we haven't proved evolution. We have only determined it to be a useful framework within which one can think about the work.

Joseph K writes:

I don't think "Social Darwinism" is the best way to describe what you're talking about. I associate Social Darwinism with a belief that certain dominant groups are superior to others, and thus are justified in domination and oppression. In other words, there's a value judgment. Obama was invoking Social Darwinism, I assume, to imply that Ryan's budget would, somehow, weed out those considered inferior, as if there was an item in the budget that funded the systematic extermination of the poor or something.

I think all you're saying is that under certain environments certain groups thrive. This is different from the social darwinists because you, just like Darwin in his evolutionary theory, are offering no value judgment. The fact that certain factions thrive in a particular environment does not mean they're better. And Obama, just like Ryan, is not a social darwinist because he, just like Ryan, is seeking a plan that helps the downtrodden and harms some of the rich and successful (whether successful or not). The fact that he employs crony capitalism to help out some of his friends doesn't show he's a social darwinist, just that power corrupts.

mark writes:

Wikipedia has a nice entry on the epithet "Social Darwinism" It suggests that the term does not have a tie to any particular ideology or outcome. It can be tied to socialism or laissez faire. As they note, the term is only used by adversaries. No one ever says "I am a Social Darwinist", they just say "You are a Social Darwinist".

Robert Hurley writes:

"Obama is a strong supporter of crony capitalism: rigging the rules to help his cronies. So in his system, the fit are people like Tim Geithner, the backers of Solyndra, the United Auto Workers union, and various other beneficiaries of the spoils system. "

I love this type of phony argument. The above is an assertion absent a scintilla of proof. It may be ture that Obama helped some companies (like GM)through his policies but that does not prove anything becasue you ofer no proof that the help was because they were cronies. The level of anaalysis is sophomoric as is the total argument

Tony N writes:

I don’t think the term “Social Darwinism” is apt for popular concept. In my view, David’s depiction of Social Darwinism is more deserving of the moniker, while the philosophy, so to speak, is commonly understood as the weak be damned.

Although I disagree with Joseph K in that I don’t think Social Darwinism is associated with the positive assertion of a groups’ superiority—that, I believe, is simply run- of- the-mill group supremacy—I do agree with him when he suggests that the philosophy is unfair to traditional Darwinism, as it makes a value statement, or entails a preference (at least that’s what I think he is suggesting).

After all, in Darwinian speak, “fitness” is not meant to represent fundamental superiority or virtuosity. It just means suited to one’s environment.

Arthur_500 writes:

David you must be laughing out loud. The responses are most humorous.

Indeed those who win the war write the story. If I win I write about my success and my failures are all blamed on my opponents. However, when you win you turn the tables.

Ask an American on 9/12/2001 what happened in New York City the day before and you will receive an answer. Today we write history books that describe an event entirely different from what we experienced on 9/11. Tomorrow we will tell the tale of an oppressed people fighting off tyrany.

Karl Marx re-wrote history to describe a system in which everything revolved around the economy. Wars are often later described in terms of the riches. I'm not sure how they describe Vietnam as the last time I looked in a history book it received less than a paragraph.

Mr. Obama recently spoke of activist judges who won't rule for what is right. However law has nothing to do with what is deemed right rather what follows the laws. We have heard the same argument from those on the other side of the political spectrum.

Thank you for the great laugh this morning. the answers seem to come from people who have missed your point and instead want to support their own viewpoint. Let the fittest political position survive!

When we take over the world the first thing we must do is find out who they are; then we can be they...

Methinks writes:

Clearly, Robert Hurley is unaware that GM's union is a big donor to Obama's campaign and the GM bailout was a huge transfer to the union. He's also unaware that Solyndra's George Kaiser is a top Obama donor. Nor does Robert Hurley seem aware of how helpful politicians are in shielding friends and political supporters like Madoff from pesky agencies like the SEC. These are but a couple of examples of which Robert Hurley doesn't seem to have a scintilla of awareness of.

Délcio Penelas writes:

That is a great point of view and explanatory analysis on Darwinism in different social circumstances. But would you look at Obama as a social Darwinist in lets say, at least theoretically, his "Robin Hood tax"?

Ken B writes:

@Robert Hurley:
Here's a simple example. Unions give mostly to democrats. Obamacare has a provision to exempt workers whose contract is the result of collective bargaining, ie unions. Under the assumption that major donors to a politician count as cronies, this is an example.
Look into how much money Goldman Sachs got.

Ken B writes:

@PrometheeFeu:
Fitness of a segment of dna is the greater representation of that segment in the corpus of future copies.

You are also confusing proving evolution happened with proving the mechanism was natural selection. I can easily prove the evolution of new hybrids and strains of orchids or roses.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Social Darwinism

The idea(s) that the "evolution" of the social orders in Western Civilizatiion (especially No. Europe) from largely self-suffiency units, into collaborative production of increasing wealth (through divison of labor) resulting in markets as the means of exchange of collaborative production (trade) had the same effects upon the members of the social orders as the then presumed "natural selection" processes described by Darwin. Thus, the impacts of markets, necessary to the convey the benefits of the divisions of labor, with attendant risks resulting from the requirements of choices, were deemed to be a (if not the) "selecting" force.

One might compare that to the concept that a certain climatic change had occurred somewhere in a limited area that increased available food that would supply a much larger area, but that the travel and selection of transport to obtain the food had not evolved at the same rate as food production, and while many would be better fed, many would (or could) not choose the right or most effective access to the new production.

From those circumstances the conclusion might be that such was "Natures way" of determining the fates of the members of a social order as it evolves.

That would conclude that a social order with the capacity to innovate the division of labor and rise from the subsistence levels of self-sufficiency can not (or should not trouble itself) to deal with the impacts of the mechanisms (markets) developed in the collaborations of efforts.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Ken B:

I'm not confused Ken. That's basically my point. There is a roughly indisputable theory and fact that organisms change over time. But that only gets you half-way there. Intelligent design believers will grant you that point. They simply point out that God pilots what changes happen. But obviously, that is not something that scientists grant.

Indeed, the chief idea that has been taken from evolutionary biology in order to found the fields of evolutionary game theory and evolutionary psychology (and I am sure others) is that certain traits make you more likely to pass on your traits. As a result, those traits are more likely to propagate over generations. (I'm simplifying a bit of course) That's really where everything interesting is happening.

In my experience, the theory of traits promoting their own propagation is what scientists throw at intelligent designers. (I know plenty of very smart designers who deserve nothing being thrown at them. Let they forgive me.) And that is the theory that I am railing against because it lacks any falsifiability. In that context, fitness is an a priori evaluation of the trait's ability to further its own propagation. But the theory provides no basis for determining the fitness of a trait. Or rather, the number of factors that must be analyzed is infinite which means that there is always an a posteriori basis to revise your a priori determination of fitness. Longer teeth didn't propagate as expected? You forgot about the way they got in the way of breast feeding. Dark pelt turned out to be popular? You forgot about night-time hunting. That's my problem. Evolutionary biology seems to be the land of speculations pretending to be facts. And when the intelligent design people point that out, I don't like having to agree with them.

So there. You got me. My real problem here is that when in polite dinner conversation somebody makes fun of the intelligent design people, I don't like having to point out that the mechanism proposed by evolutionary biologists is no more demonstrated than the invisible person shaping the development of mammals theory. I wish the evolutionary biologists would do it themselves and simply say that intelligent design isn't an alternative to scientific investigation because it doesn't address a real scientific question as opposed to saying that they have been proven wrong.

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