Bryan Caplan  

Social Darwinism vs. the Economic Way of Thinking

Good for the consumer financia... Fraud, Preferences, and Patern...
David Gordon has a fascinating piece on Social Darwinist defenses of capitalism:
[I]t is difficult to find writers who called themselves "social Darwinists." But some of Obama's critics have gone too far. Jonah Goldberg, e.g., treats social Darwinism as largely a myth for which Richard Hofstadter, the author of Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), bears primary responsibility.
Simply put, there was no intellectual movement -- at least not in America or Britain -- called Social Darwinism, and the evil views attributed to so-called Social Darwinists were not held by its alleged founders.... [Richard] Hofstadter, the historian who essentially invented the idea that American capitalism in the nineteenth century was inspired by Charles Darwin, never offered much by way of actual proof that his idea was accurate. (Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés, Sentinel, 2012, pp. 102, 110)
Goldberg's thesis is not correct. There really were a number of people who defended capitalism with quasi-Darwinist arguments.
When Gordon singled out Colgate University President George Cutten as a prime example of a pro-capitalism Social Darwinist, I was briefly tempted to object, "Wouldn't Irving Fisher be a much more prominent case?"  Fisher really was a raving Social Darwinist.  He vociferously opposed World War I not because it was a senseless bloodbath, but because it was a dysgenic senseless bloodbath:
If war would weed out only the criminal, the vicious, the feeble-minded, the insane, the habitual paupers, and others of the defective classes, it might lay claim, with some show of justice, to the beneficent virtues sometimes ascribed to it.

But the truth is that its effects are diametrically opposite.  It eliminates the young men, who should be the fathers of the next generation - men medically selected as the largest, strongest, most alert, and best endowed in every way...

Their less endowed fellows, medically rejected from military service, because of defects in stature, eyesight, hearing, mentality, &c, are left at home to reproduce the race.
But then I remembered: While Fisher was a pretty free-market economist, he didn't derive his Social Darwinism from free-market economics.  In fact, he explicitly admitted that the two perspectives yield opposite conclusions.  See Fisher's take on immigration:
The core of the problem of immigration is, however, one of race and eugenics. If we could leave out of account the question of race and eugenics I should, as an economist, be inclined to the view that unrestricted immigration, although injurious to some classes, is economically advantageous to a country as a whole, and still more to the world as a whole. But such a view would ignore the supremely important factors... Our problem is to make the most of this inheritance [of the 8,000 immigrants who arrived before 1741]. We can not do so if that racial stock is overwhelmed by the inferior stock which "assisted" immigration has recently brought. ("Impending Problems of Eugenics" [1921])
Where do economics and eugenics diverge?  Contrary to my colleague David Levy, it's not that economics is somehow egalitarian.  The difference, rather, is that economics, unlike eugenics, is not misanthropic

Economics doesn't point to people and say, "Look what they can't do."  Economics instead asks, "Well, what can they do?"  If the answer is "something productive," then the Law of the Comparative Advantage implies gains to trade.  Economics, known for its hard-headed methods, culminates in an optimistic and humane conclusion: Regardless of their Darwinian "fitness," the existence of people - even those well below average - makes the world a better place.

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

"Our problem is to make the most of this inheritance"

Fisher's views are the mainstream conventional wisdom in Israel in 2012.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Economics doesn't point to people and say, "Look what they can't do." Economics instead asks, "Well, what can they do?""

So, that's why professors of economics have campaigned so hard and so successfully for Open Admissions to their colleges!

Oh, wait ...

Chris Koresko writes:

Bryan Caplan: "Economics doesn't point to people and say, "Look what they can't do." Economics instead asks, "Well, what can they do?""

Steve Sailer: So, that's why professors of economics have campaigned so hard and so successfully for Open Admissions to their colleges!

I think you may have missed Bryan's point here. Note that he said Economics asks, not Economists ask. What I think he meant is that in a free market people will tend to find employment doing something close to their comparative advantage.

Evan writes:
So, that's why professors of economics have campaigned so hard and so successfully for Open Admissions to their colleges!

If we're going to use a college as a metaphor for a country, a more precise metaphor would be that the immigration restrictionists are people who don't want to hire anyone to work as a janitor or a dishwasher at a college unless they have a degree from that college, or a similarly accredited institution. In other words, only Yale graduates get to scrub Yale toilets. The professors of economics are the people who recognize such an idea for the lunacy it is and advocate that the college hire less exclusively.

Of course, you don't get many people at colleges advocating for such a hiring policy because it's obviously irrational to the extreme. It's only when you get to a larger level, like the national level, that people lose perspective and start to think such policies are rational or ethical.

Steve Sailer writes:

Economists who are serious about Open Borders should first make sure the colleges where they work have Open Admissions. It's impossible to take them seriously until they bring about Open Admissions at their own colleges.

jure writes:

i think that argument against leftist claims that capitalism is darwinian where only the best survive is pretty simple: just look to the population before and after the rise of capitalism! If social darwinism was true, than why it is nowadays harder to die than 50, 100, 200, 500 years ago? Even richard dawkins was saying that best genes today do not reproduce itself because practicly everyone survives. We never lived in a time with so many people, but if capitalism is a competition like G.B. Shaw and socialists said why there are so so many winners? There would be less people, not more if the doomsayers claims about capitalism were true. And survivors would be tough guys, not some brats who shop and play around and live stressfully. I think that basic econ lesson is that in trade we are all winners, and the heart of social darwinism is zero-sum fallacy. Therefore socialists are darwinian, cause they constantly understand voluntary trade as zero-sum. I think that common sense is telling me that social darwinism is right in saying that only the fittest survive. I mean, you must be cautious all the time, when you walk through the street,you cannot behave like a moron cause you get hurt or die quickly, when you are ''chosen'' among millions of seeds in sperm, when you must work hard to pass the exam, when you must work hard to compete for girl... in world there are certain requirements everywhere and you cannot fit into anywhere you wish. But i think that capitalism is proof that even in basically tragic world, life is not just brutish, short and nasty.

Gian writes:

Steve Sailer,
While I appreciate your point, it is not really fair to analogize Open Borders to Open Admission.
You are doing precisely what libertarians do: miss out the political context.
A Nation (a natural, involuntary group bonded by affection and patriotism) is not the same as a College (voluntary group bonded by self-interest).

fees writes:

Misanthropy as an argument of divergence between Economics and Eugenics seems weakly developed. As long as you define Eugenics as the “social science” which aims the improvement of the genetic composition of the society, Eugenics is not clearly or obviously misanthropic.
Moreover, reducing thoughts, concepts and implications of what is called “Social Darwinism” to Eugenics misses completely the point about any criticism of the relationship between “Social Darwinism” thoughts and some aspects of the economic way of thinking.

Greg G writes:

Yes, it is true that there was no movement known to its contemporaries as "Social Darwinism." So what?

There was no group of early American leaders known to their contemporaries as "the Founding Fathers." There was no group of soldiers understood by their contemporaries to be fighting in "World War I" or "The 100 Years War." The usefulness of these terms does not depend on the time of their origin.

Yes, Social Darwinism is bad economics. It is also bad Darwinism. It rests on the mistaken idea that Natural Selection cannot be trusted to do the job of selection well.

In fact, genetically diverse populations are far more robust than genetically homogeneous ones. When species go extinct it is because they lacked the necessary variation for survival, not because the process of selection stopped.

stephen writes:

Darwin is the ultimate weapon. If you are a right-winger (I know, just suppose) and you don't believe in Darwin, you are stupid. If you are a right-winger and you do believe in Darwin, you are evil. So money!

muirgeo writes:

Sure ... if say you add 10 people to the world and you need to fill a single labor position you can let 2 of them fight for a starvation wage further increasing productivity and profits. As for the other 8 if another job position comes available and they are still alive all the better. I mean its' win-win.... stop calling us misanthropes and Darwinist... we LIKE lots of serf....uhe er lots of people. Lots of people are good... for us.

Jeff writes:

Am I the only one who thinks that Fisher's right in that a dysgenic senseless bloodbath sounds worse than a randomized senseless bloodbath? If there was a plague that only wiped out smart and beatiful people, that to me would be a greater tragedy than one that only affected the stupid and the ugly, and I say that as someone who's not exactly the most fair of face. You can acknowledge that some classes of people are more indispensable than others without turning into Adolph Hitler. It looks to me like Bryan is being a bit unfair in his assessment of Fisher's comments.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Not really on point but ... 1921 would be too late for the "social Darwinism" that Hofstadter talks about. According to the book, "social Darwinism" was actually Lamarkian. It believed that changes made during life could be inherited. Thus, if you made yourself work hard, and made yourself smart by studying and taking classes, your kids would be harder-working and smarter than average. This idea had a great attraction to Americans. You didn't have to be rich to bequeath great value to your children, and to help them have a better life than you had.

However, said Hofstadter, the re-discovery of Mendel in 1900 and the increasing awareness that "acquired characteristics cannot be inherited" caused social Darwinism to quickly fade.

Hofstadter ends his book before the progressive eugenics of the twentieth century, which took as a given that (to use a word that only dates from 1909) you can't change your genes. Fisher is in the latter tradition.

guthrie writes:


Your comment loses its pith when one reflects upon how European serfs actually lived and compare that to the quality of life of immigrants in this country, even those considered 'illegal'. No comparison, modern immigrants live far better, and are far better off than 'serfs'.

David S writes:


That is a classic "left" reading. You say that the number of people has increased, but not the number of jobs.

Economics dictates that (absent minimum wage like controls) a job will be created for every single person, even the grossly incompetent, due to the law of comparative advantage.

Foxhuntingman writes:

Fisher was not a social Darwinist, but rather a believer in eugenics. Not the same things.

Michael Thomas writes:

Levy's point is about seeing everyone as human. This is what they call "analytical egalitarianism" not the same as egalitarianism with respect to results. I don't see how this is any different then the claim you want to make about economists working against the misanthropes. Why the distinction?

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Thanks, David S., for setting up my point...

The desirability of any cohort of immigrants is an empirical question which cannot be resolved by a simple appeal to a simple theory, whether you call it the law of comparative advantage or something else.

All economic actors produce externalities, and some (e.g., Gypsies or Irish Travelers) even produce negative value for everyone else. Furthermore, human labor is a complement to other factors of production and is not necessarily worth even subsistence wages under all circumstances. Since people are self-directed actors, not inanimate articles of trade, if they cannot command wages they consider adequate they will turn to crime (or quasi-crime like Bolshevism).

(A farmer needs rain as well as soil and seed to produce crops, but if too much rain falls, his crops will rot before harvest time. A farmer wants a dog or two to guard his flock, but if there are stray dogs in the area they will prey on his livestock to survive. A farmer needs workers to pick his crops, but if come harvest time there are more pickers in the region than required to gather the crop, their wages will be competed down to nil, at which point those would-be workers will turn to crime to survive.)

There is no "economic law" which says a job paying subsistence wages or above will "be created" for every single person, even "absent minimum wage controls." If there were such a law then the history of the world would be very, very different ("unemployment" existed long before "minimum wage laws." Can you say "Irish potato famine?"). Plus, of course, some people don't want "jobs" in the friendly, productive sense-- they would prefer to live as bandits.

Even if more labor helps an economy grow and a growing economy will utilize more labor, there are huge temporal components to the question. If you suddenly drop an extra few million unskilled workers into any particular place they will likely remain underemployed for a long time, because even eager entrepreneurs cannot take up so much labor instantly. The big problem, then, would be feeding the horde while waiting for the economy to grow, and the cost of doing that might rise to the level-- "eating the seed corn," it's generally called-- which actually prevents the hoped-for economic expansion by diverting investment capital to consumption. There are numerous historical examples of large populations literally starving because there were not, in fact, "jobs for everyone" (even though there was no "minimum wage law").

So, whether any particular bunch of immigrants will/do produce positive value for the recipient society (net of the externality costs they inflict) is an empirical question, amenable to empirical analysis, but not resolvable ex ante by waving the arms and declaiming "comparative advantage!"

Anyway, back to "Social Darwinism:" I fail to see why Fisher's opposing the Great War (because, as he recognized, it was a dysgenic bloodbath) was wrong or bad. I think he was right, and why would any self-proclaimed pacifist reject a fellow-traveller like Fisher?

Eric Hosemann writes:

If you're going to ask open border proponents to explain why their colleges don't have open admissions, you better first explain how a country, or an economy, is like a college. Good luck with that.

MingoV writes:
Economics instead asks, "Well, what can they do?"
What if the answer is "nothing of value?"

... the existence of people - even those well below average - makes the world a better place.
That is not correct from an economic standpoint. There are people who are so handicapped or disabled that they cannot make any worthwhile economic contributions. How do people with severe mental retardation, brain damage, neurological damage, psychosis, schizophrenia, etc. make the world a better place economically? Taking care of such people is like fixing the broken window: it requires resources and labor that could have been used for more productive tasks. [Please note that I am commenting only on the economic issue of people with severe disabilities. The moral and social aspects are important but are not relevant to this post.]

dwall writes:

Any discussion about the economics of immigration should include the gumball video from numbersUSA.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Yikes. Remind me again how immigrants are not a drain on the taxpayer...?

(Note how very, very eager US welfare bureaucrats are to give more money to poor immigrants. This is entirely predictable because bureaucrats' incentives push them to expand their programs and poor immigrants are an obvious pool of fresh poor people that bureaucrats can convert to welfare clients (poor natives are already welfare clients). The fact that welfare for immigrants is bad for taxpayers (and belies all the guff about poor immigrants being net contributors) doesn't enter into bureaucratic calculations-- except possibly in agency press offices, which work hard to deny everything.)

Lauren writes:

Hi, dwall.

The dated gumball video has been linked to plenty of times already from EconLog. If EconLog linked to it every time the discussion was about the economics of immigration, the discussion would never move forward.

Many articles and blogs have already discussed how the gumball video got all the economics wrong--such as not taking into account that people are not unthinking gumballs and basing its predictions on projections from 1970s data as if nothing has changed since then. People make plans about their futures based on hopes for themselves and their families. Humans--unlike gumballs--change their minds and respond to changes in expected circumstances. Moving is costly and depends on people's taking into account many factors impinging on their futures, such as relative conditions across various countries including wars, educational opportunities for children, economic circumstances, family size, work opportunities, family safety, health, ability to communicate with family left behind, etc. The number of immigrants varies over time and is not a lockstep explosion as suggested in the gumball video based on trends from the 1970s. Enough of the gumball video! Let's move forward to discuss to why people actually emigrate or immigrate.

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