Alberto Mingardi  

The sticky label of 'Social Darwinism'

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Advocates of the market economy are often dismissed as heartless and deaf to the needs of the poor. "Social Darwinism" seems to be a label perfectly tailored to convey such an alleged preference for efficiency over humanity. The concept, as we know it and as President Obama likes to use it, is almost entirely the legacy of a single book: Richard Hofstadter's beautifully written and deeply misleading "Social Darwinism in American Thought". 

Even a thoughtful writer such as John Kay, in an otherwise insightful article on the lessons of evolutionary thinking for economics and business, has fallen into the trap, somehow portraying Herbert Spencer as a "ludicrous figure" dear to those that like to play with eugenics. 

Mario Rizzo offered a brilliant retort to Kay's misreading of Spencer.  Spencer coined the sentence "survival of the fittest" but he made very clear that that was not the survival of the 'better' or even the 'stronger.' He used it as a value free concept: "the survival of those which are constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed." 

"Social Darwinism", however, dances on such a misunderstanding, which allows it to remain current in today's debate. Besides eugenics, it is worth remembering that the other phenomenon Social Darwinism may be more typically associated with is imperialism. Spencer was vehemently anti-imperialist. He thought progress in society would help to moderate human aggressiveness and rejected "the passion for mastery" that made imperialism and slavery acceptable to so many of his contemporaries. 

Matt Zwolinski has two excellent essays on Libertarianism.org (here and here), where he examines the charge of "Social Darwinism" laid on William Graham Sumner, another great critic of imperialism. Both for Spencer and Sumner the accusations of "Social Darwinism" call for debunking. Though their readers know how despicable and instrumental the charges are, labels tend to be sticky--but this doesn't make them any more appropriate. 


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Sam writes:

Of course, "survival of the fittest", which is just "survival of the ones best suited to survive," is a tautology and is therefore necessarily true (and substantially worthless), whether applied to biology, society or anything else.

Tom West writes:

There's the "scientific" concept of social darwinism and then there's the popular concept of social darwinism, which is is really just for a short-hand for an attitude of "if you can't financially make it in society, then you deserve to die".

The trouble with rebutting the first is that it doesn't really address the second, and the trouble with the second is that (at least by my experience) fair chunk of the self-styled Libertarians in university really did believe (and more than once passionately argue for) the popular concept.

It's much like the fact that I met a fair number of the left in university that were far more concerned with the "evil" of the successful than they were with the concerns of the poor.

Both attitudes tend to be hold-overs from adolescence and fade with age, but not before they've left a lasting imprint on their fellow students as to what constitutes the Libertarian or Socialist temperament.

(In fact, now that I think of it, I don't think a single one of the people who boasted either attitude would claim to hold any particular ideology now. I think it's a 20-year old thing...)

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

In one of his studies, Hayek has pointed out that it the ideas and thinking which are today labeled Social Darwinism actually were developed and preceded the work of Charles Darwin. One might reference the work of Charles Darwin's uncle Erasmus and reflected by the thinking and the makeup of the members of The Lunar Society.

One of the great idols of most of those who decry those lines of thought once said:

Life is not fair

For comfort as to the hitherto previous conceptions of the forces of evolution, those concerned with the extension of "Darwinism" might try extrapolations from the work of the late Lynn Margulis (who probably should have been a Nobel candidate).

Ryan Young writes:

George H. Smith's new book, The System of Liberty, contains a superb discussion of this very issue. He also clears up other common smears against classical liberalism, such as equating individualism with atomism.

shecky writes:

If only Social Darwinism were so rigidly defined.

Carl writes:
Of course, "survival of the fittest", which is just "survival of the ones best suited to survive," is a tautology and is therefore necessarily true (and substantially worthless), whether applied to biology, society or anything else.

Exactly. If a person receives no support (neither public nor private), and does no work whatsoever they will not survive. This truism is not a philosophical position! Yet it is attributed to libertarians - the implication being that in order to care about humanity you must support state welfare, which is construed as a guaranteed solution to all conceivable problems. The state is identified with material welfare.

Often statists will construct a hypothetical scenario in which some individual has no means of support and is ignored by everyone. This example is just a trap, designed to confirm their moral superiority. Obviously there is no answer other than the tautology mentioned by commenter Sam above. The individual who does not care for himself and is not cared for by anyone else will die. You cannot claim that you will care for him, or that the state will care for him, because the example has already been constructed so that no-one cares for him! Has anyone else encountered this mystifying hypothetical?

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Then how do you explain the fact that early social progressives rely just as heavily on social Darwinism as the conservatives??

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_Ward

Mark writes:

You are right that today's historical discussion of Social Darwinism is distorted. For instance, today we remember the Scopes Trial of 1925 as a liberal-conservative/fundamentalist conflict when, in reality, it was, among other things, between the religious based populism of the late 19th century and "modern" social progressive doctrine. William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted the case, was the leading pacifist populist of the time and he was concerned that social darwinism and evolutionary theory being pushed by progressives would leave the most weakest in society vulnerable to harm. The lawyer for the defense was Charles Darrow, a progressive and proponent of eugenics. For more see http://havechanged.blogspot.com/2012/08/misremembering-history-part-iii.html

NZ writes:

Isn't it eugenics any time someone chooses a mate based, even to a tiny degree, on that person's attractive endowed qualities?

Paul Corbett writes:

When a society espouses and enacts Social Darwinism, it thrives, grows, expands, conquers.

When a society seeks to oppose the inevitable, it fails.

That's equally true, whether the 'society' is applied to a commercial enterprise, family, tribe - community, town or State.

The tragedy for the world today is that the Social Darwinism of the Victorian Age has been replaced by the Social Democracy (pink socialism) of the latter half of the 20th century, with the resulting crippling of our (individual and collective) economies by debt mountains which no-one believes will ever be repaid.

With Social and Welfare Benefits (for all) which suck the incentives to work, save and prosper removed at one end, and crippling taxes and interest payments at the other end, we have forgotten the most elementary of rules:

'Don't oppose the forces of Nature - you'll always lose in the end'

So the right thing for the West to do is to apologise (a popular thing to do today for politicians), unreservedly, for the monumental foul-up and lies that have been foisted on us all since WW2, and say, clearly and unequivocally, that, except in the short-term:
'You're on your own and need to rely on your family and friends for help when you need it - the State is not in a position to help any but the most desperately poor, long-term.'

We'd then start to compete with the BRICS.

In __The Constitution of Liberty__, Hayek observed that theories of institutional evolution predated the publication of Darwin's __The Origin of Species__.

Which sounds more plausible: "Social Darwinism" (institutional and cultural evolution) or "Intelligent Design" (of the social order by an omniscient and altruistic State bureaucracy)?

Between those choices, I'll take Social Darwinism.

Ayn R. Key writes:

If they call free marketers "Social Darwinists" does that make them "Social Creationists"? Does that mean that the social classes are immutable, that people are born into a particular class and there they will stay? Sure, they might allow for some "micro-social darwinism" and allow "micro-evolution" within kinds, but does this mean that one kind cannot become another?

A philosophy fit for marxists and monarchists.

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