It’s interesting how some themes come and go, pretty much unchanged over generations. Social Darwinism is one of those themes. Herbert Spencer is the author of Social Darwinism theories and he coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest,’ usually attributed to Charles Darwin, the originator of the theory of evolution.
Spencer’s ideas are having something of a comeback in the Republican Party budget, which one supposes is a reflection of the popularity of Spencer’s concepts in the GOP even if most Republicans didn’t know who Spencer was until President Obama reminded them in a speech last week. Philip Kitcher, a Columbia University philosophy professor, writes in today’s New York Times:
Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, “red in tooth and claw” — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons, just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand …
When the President and Democrats in general consider the GOP budget proposals, all tax cuts for the wealthy matched by spending cuts on programs for the public, they see the ideas of Spencer writ large across the land. It’s an open question as to whether or not these ideas will return to power.
The heart of social Darwinism is a pair of theses: first, people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop; second, intensifying competition enables the most talented to develop their potential to the full, and thereby to provide resources for a society that make life better for all. It is not entirely implausible to think that doctrines like these stand behind a vast swath of Republican proposals, including the recent budget, with its emphasis on providing greater economic benefits to the rich, transferring the burden to the middle-classes and poor, and especially in its proposals for reducing public services. Fuzzier versions of the theses have pervaded Republican rhetoric for the past decade (and even longer)….
The strenuous struggle social Darwinism envisages might select for something, but the most likely traits are a tendency to take whatever steps are necessary to achieve a foreseeable end, a sharp focus on narrowly individual goals and a corresponding disregard for others. We might reasonably expect that a world run on social Darwinist lines would generate a cadre of plutocrats, each resolutely concerned to establish a dynasty and to secure his favored branch of industry against future competition. In practical terms it would almost certainly yield a world in which the gap between rich and poor was even larger than it is now.
Rather than the beauty, wisdom, virtue and nobility Spencer envisioned arising from fierce competition, the likely products would be laws repealing inheritance taxes and deregulating profitable activities, and a vast population of people whose lives were even further diminished…
To quote a much-cited book, we do not “live by bread alone.” If the vast majority of citizens (or, globally, of people) are to enjoy any opportunities to develop the talents they have, they need the social structures social Darwinism perceives as pampering and counter-productive. Human well-being is profoundly affected by public goods, a concept that is entirely antithetical to social Darwinism or to contemporary Republican ideology, with their mythical citizens who can fulfill their potential without rich systems of social support. It is a callous fiction to suppose that what is needed is less investment in education, health care, public transportation and affordable public housing.
Beezer here. So this attitude is not new. In fact it’s been there for more than a century and, in a time of economic stress, its popped up again because of its austere moral underpinnings: We’ve been bad, so we must be punished. That this is precisely the opposite of what needs doing is irrelevant. That it is impractical is ignored. One can only hope the practical side of America wins out and we start employing millions of people re-building a sustainable economy. This is the only way we can recover and insure the social welfare.