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Are You a 'Social Darwinist'?


In his recent combative address to reporters, President Obama called Paul Ryan's budget "social Darwinism." On the surface, this has as much meaning as a liberal accusing a conservative of being a "fascist." "Social Darwinist" is one of the most maligned political descriptors in history, so why not try to attach it to your opponents, right?

Actually, Mr. President, to quote Inigo Montoya from "The Princess Bride":

What the President no doubt wants his listeners to think when they hear the phrase "social Darwinism" is the idea that the GOP wants to use the hand of government to exterminate poor people, black people, or anyone else they deem "unfit" to survive, possibly even restricting their ability to reproduce. This is, after all, what the phrase "social Darwinism" has come to be associated with.

Unfortunately for the President, that's not what social Darwinism actually means. In fact, the idea that the government should aggressively step in and direct the course of human evolution refers to the similar, but not synonymous concept of eugenics. The irony of this is, firstly, that the idea of the government choosing who lives and who dies is arguably endorsed by the President's own health care law, and secondly, that eugenics, as Glenn Beck himself has documented, is a concept typically associated with Fabian socialism and progressivism:

All very well, you might say, but what does this have to do with social Darwinism? Well, the difference between the two concepts is, theoretically, that whereas eugenicists want to use the government to prune the human race of "undesirable" elements, social Darwinists argue that the mechanisms of market capitalism will naturally weed out the worst elements of society, such as criminals, pathologically lazy people, or anyone else who might only be able to survive at the expense of others. According to this hypothetical line of argument, charity and mutual aid are just as bad as welfare statism because they keep the least desirable people in the human race alive, when really, they should be left to starve themselves into extinction.

Sounds monstrous, right? Well, it would be...if anyone had ever actually believed it. Indeed, in all the annals of intellectual history, the above position was never argued by anyone. Moreover, the term "social Darwinism" was never accepted by anyone who was accused of being a social Darwinist! And oh, by the way, most of them never even cited Darwin as a reason for believing what they believed, which never came close to the monstrous, callous straw men presented above.

Confused? Let me explain - "social Darwinism" is not a real philosophy. It's a smear, invented by proto-progressive historian Richard Hofstadter in his book "Social Darwinism in American Thought." Hofstadter, who began life as a communist, and spent most of it attacking the "anti-intellectualism" and "paranoia" of anyone who disagreed with him, wanted a quick, pithy label to use to dismiss anyone who might disagree with his progressive ideas. And much like today's Leftists use words like "racist," "sexist," "homophobe" or the much misused "fascist," Hofstadter came up with the completely unfair designator of "social Darwinism" to malign his targets rather than debate their ideas. In short, the label has always been one intended for character assassination. This "social Darwinism as smear" interpretation has since been accepted by everyone from mainline academics like Thomas Leonard at Princeton, to conservative think tank intellectuals like Jeff Riggenbach of the Mises Institute.

And who was Hofstadter trying to discredit with this early epithet? Why, none other than the leading advocates of economic freedom of the time - like the social theorist Herbert Spencer, or the biologist William Graham Sumner. Now granted, both of these men agreed - tangentially - with the idea that the economy is intimately tied with the biological struggle with existence, but that was as far as it went. Spencer lauded private charity as an expression of group survival, and Sumner attacked the State not for facilitating weakness, but for...well, read for yourself:

The history of the human race is one long story of attempts by certain persons and classes to obtain control of the power of the State, so as to win earthly gratifications at the expense of others.

Sound familiar? It should - those words could have come from Ronald Reagan, Glenn Beck or, yes, even Paul Ryan. In fact, one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement - Russell Kirk - approvingly quoted from the arguably "socially Darwinist" thinker William Hurell Mallock, whose book "Aristocracy and Evolution" makes the argument that those who become the leaders in a market economy (the "aristocracy") have moral authority because success in a market economy depends on virtue.

In short, the "social Darwinism" philosophy that Hofstadter conjured out of thin air was really nothing but an excuse to call conservatives and libertarians by a dirty name.

With that in mind, let's take President Obama's quote about "social Darwinism" and replace it with a more accurate term:

This Congressional Republican budget is something different altogether. It is a Trojan Horse. Disguised as deficit reduction plan, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly-veiled conservatism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it — a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last — education and training; research and development; our infrastructure — it is a prescription for decline.

So what do you think? Are you a "social Darwinist?"

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